Book Review: A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson

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.

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Book Review: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating.  But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.

I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.

The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?

This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.