Mark Twain

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do ...
Explore. Dream. Discover." Mark Twain

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

When you hear the words - Appalachian Trail - most people on the east coast of America know what you are talking about. Bill Bryson, another of my favorite authors, wrote about this trail in his book A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. If I had to pick only one book as my favorite, it would be this one. This is the story of Bill Bryson, novice walker, and his very out-of-shape friend Stephen Katz as they prepare for and hike the Appalachian Trail (AT).

For those not familiar with this hike, the AT is 2,100 mile long trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine in the USA. As Bill Bryson notes, it is the "granddaddy" of long hikes. The trail meanders through numerous states, following forests and mountains. The trail is the home of bears, bobcats, snakes, wolves, wild bore, coyotes ... the kinds of things you would expect to see in a wildness area. The temperature ranges from below freezing to the sweltering heat of summer depending on when and where you begin your hike. Periodically the trail has open wooden shelters that hikers can use, but typically the shelter provided is the one you carry on your back - a tent. In fact, in true hiking style, you must carry everything you need on your back and plan carefully where you will depart from the trail to replenish your supplies and get a shower! All this and more was discovered, learned and shared by the author in this book.

This book is more than just a hiking book. Interwoven in the story of the hike is the concerns for our fragile ecosystems and a plea for conservation of America's last great wilderness area. Respecting nature is the thread that runs through this book in a very moving way. In addition he shares some of the stories about the risks of hiking this remote trail, from reported bear attacks to brutal murders. It is a fascinating look at what it takes to walk the trail from start to finish.

One of the appealing aspects of this book is Bill Bryson's very humorous style of writing. He is very comfortable poking fun at his and Steven's naive beliefs and ignorance. In fact, chapter one was laugh-out-loud funny. Not being a hiker previously, Bill Bryson goes on a shopping trip to a local outfitters, the Dartmouth Co-op, to purchase equipment. That chapter launches to rest of the book into a very enjoyable read.

To close I would like to leave you with a quote from the book in where he talks about the woods. This quote is from Chapter 4. It is very early on in his experience with walking the trail so his observations are probably pretty typical of an average person who lives in our built up country. Some one like you or me.

"Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic.
Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides.
Woods choke of views and leave you muddled and without bearings.
They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable,
like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.
Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space.
Stand in a woods, and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere.
And they are alive."

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods.

Note: The book is categorized as Travel and was originally published in 1998. Since that time the author has written several other books. I haven't read all his works, but those I had read have all been worth the time. He is a gifted story teller.


  1. I love the quote, but woods can be friendly places too. I grew up in the country and roamed the woods throughout my childhood, with a friend, sometimes with my dad and sister to pick blackberries. Lot of paths (we didn't call anything a trail) in the woods in that part of the country in those days, I follow them yet in my memories. Thanks for the reminder.....on a day I needed it.

  2. Susan, I think you would enjoy this book when you get a chance to read. I am glad it reminded you a fun memories.

    The quote actually describes "wilderness woods" which are far from built up areas ... and which can be a dangerous places if you step off the AT. In fact, that is what Steven did later in the book and he did get very disoriented and temporarily lost, and even when he found his way back to the trail, he didn't realize that he had found it at first. Apparently the trail is well marked in some areas and not well maintained in others - depending on the state you are in.

  3. I've been on the trail a few times. Nothing long though. Just a nice long hike during the day.
    When I was a kid I did spend one night on the trail in a tent in NJ. One part I walked through was all black and burned from a fire and little bits of green were just started to sprout. It was kind of spooky but neat to see.

  4. I love that book - he is a wonderful writer! Gave me a better appreciation for the accomplishment of individuals who what the entire trail.

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