Star Ratings for Nonfiction
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Narrative: ***** (5 stars)
Interesting Subject: **** (4 stars)
Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars)
Overall: ***** (5stars)
I got A Walk In The Woods out of the library on a recommendation of a friend who has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail. I have hiked exactly none of the Appalachian Trail. Like Bryson, before he set off on this big adventure, the majority of my wilderness walking experience took place in the UK and Ireland, where you wander damply past glorious cliffs and get battered by the wind. After the cliffs and the wind and the muck and the moss, though, there was always a warm pub and a spartan youth hostel to be found at the end of a day’s hike.
When Bill Bryson decided to venture into America’s barely tamed mountains for “a walk in the woods,” he was headed into at least 2,000 miles of mostly pub-less wilderness. He would have to camp out, carrying an enormous pack with his stove and tent and food supply up mountains and through the snow. He would have to brave disorienting extremes in temperature, wild animals, and awkward encounters with his fellow hikers. How does one prepare for the woodsy unknown? Bill Bryson starts out with cautious optimism and a wonderfully dry sense of humor about his own limitations. His research into the Trail’s historical idiosyncrasies manages to make even the dispute of mileage or the preservation of mollusks fascinating. Upsetting too, sometimes, because nature is seriously suffering from mankind’s meddlesome ways.
Some of the funniest moments in A Walk In The Woods come straight out of Bryson’s imagination. After reading too many books about bear attacks, he describes in detail exactly how badly he would react in such an encounter, fantasizing horrors before he even sets out on his hike. I laughed – screeched, really – at the way he phrased his fears, but then I started to worry myself.
“And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North American woods? And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years? That’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know. There’s nothing to say that they won’t start a modest rampage tomorrow.”
Even as the style of writing kept me in high spirits, I am now twice as aware of how perilous the wilderness would be for a pansy-ass bookworm like me. But the point is that Bryson read the books full of troubling statistics. He felt how heavy the pack was and he looked over the disturbingly unhelpful maps of the trail, and then he set out anyway. I guess that’s how interesting, funny, informative travel books get written.
The descriptions of mountain views in one state and endless tunnels of dense foliage in others really drove home just how extensive the AT really is. I mean, a walking trail that connects Georgia to Maine?!? The United States is a collection of so many different climates and terrains, and reading this book reminded me to stand in constant wonder at this land mass I live on. And the people in along the trail… oh the people… Bill and his travel buddy Stephan Katz are characters on their own, with Bryson looking for a story in every adventure and Katz providing plenty of inspiration with his ill-prepared; calamitous; yet somehow endearing attitude towards the woods. But the pair’s encounters with other hikers, as well as with folks back in civilization, left me agog on several occasions. Mary Ellen is one such gem: a belligerent and judgmental natterer who invites herself to walk with Bryson and Katz for a cringe-worthy leg of their journey.
“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident that she was a rarity.”
If anyone was going to get devoured by hungry carnivores in this book, I couldn’t help hoping it might be her. Maybe I’m even less charitable towards my fellow humans than Stephen and Bill felt when they finally abandoned Mary Ellen, but I don’t care. She’s my very least favorite kind of person, though reading sarcastic remarks about such an individual was pretty fun. Then there were the boyscout troops and insufferably spoiled, drunk adults who shattered the rugged serenity at various camping platforms. Meeting these people through Bryson made me almost excited for the day when mankind might die out and leave nature to its own devices once more. But then some people were kind and restored my hope: dangerously irresponsible teenagers who offer the two haggard hikers a ride, for example, and rangers who light up from within when talking about the scenery they try to preserve.
Bryson does occasionally criticize the U.S. Forest service for flagrant mis-spending of funds, laughable cartography, and even blatant hypocrisy about logging and development. These faults need to be pointed out, but he retains a sense of humor and genuine love for the trail even while cataloging the institutions relentless obsession with building roads where trees used to be. Bill and Katz certainly encounter the plenty of misfortune as they play at being mountain men. (Want to read a book about a fellow who really bids civilization adieu to survive on his own in nature? Read Elizabeth Gilberts The Last American Man, which I reviewed here.) They come to realize why so many hikers give up after completing only the smallest fraction of the Applachian Trail: the road is long and Nature makes no promises to be hospitable. But as they push through blizzards and argue over provisions, the boyish enthusiasm for an outdoor adventure always takes over the narrative soon enough.
Bryson has put into hilarious words the wonderment we should all feel when contemplating the American landscape. I highly recommend A Walk In The Woods to anyone who likes conversational, enlightening writing about utterly unique places on earth. Not much of a nonfiction reader, myself, I happily followed Bryson’s every step and misstep along the path. The hilarious anecdotes, stunning descriptions, and sobering statistics left me feeling like I’d seen a part of the Appalachian Trail. I closed the book and was surprised to find no mud on my boots, and that the only ache on my body was from trying to hold in my laughter while I read on the library lawn.