Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods
© 1998 Bill Bryson
274 pages

Bill Bryson was so startled to find an entrance to the Appalachian Trail in his backyard that he figured, why not hike it? End to end, it's only a little over two thousand miles of hills, moutains, dense woodlands,  and bear dens.  Nothing a man in his forties can't handle!  As soon as spring arrives, Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz drive to Georgia and start a grueling hike through some of America's wildest country. Neither of them have any idea what they're in for.

This story of two sarcastic middle-aged men bumbling through the woods and mountains is unavoidably entertaining. Bryson prepares himself by reading a book full of grisly bear attacks, and on their first day out Katz decides to start flinging supplies into the woods to lighten his load -- including essentials which doom them to eating soup for weeks on end while they choke on mouthfuls of black flies, attempt to ditch an obnoxious co-hiker who latches on to them, and dodge peril a time or two, all the while ranting and raving enthusiastically.  The two don't attempt the trail all at once, and indeed don't even walk it in full: after realizing they'll never finish in one season, they opt to concentrate on particularly lauded legs of the trail. Though their adventures in the wilderness are entertaining enough, Bryson complements this with running historic and scientific commentary.  I heard of the book when searching for information on Centralia, Pennsylvania, which Bryson visits: a long-running underground coal fire turned the area into a wasteland of collapsed roads and noxious fumes belching from the ground. His descriptions there, as throughout the rest of the book, are evocative.

A Walk in the Woods has whet my appetite for Bryson as a travel guide and humorist; I understand he's recorded his adventures living and hiking in Europe and Australia,  which though I don't have library access to, I hope to read at some point. I've already recommended this to a couple of my hiking friends, and  but even if you've no interest in the outdoors at all, this book is worth your while just for the laughs.

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