If Jon Krakauer and Dave Barry were to have a lovechild (together) their offspring would sound a lot like Bill Bryson.
Bryson is the author of the 1998 history, travel and nature log, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. It’s an adventure, a buddy story and comedy covering the long history of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from its planning and establishment through its maintenance in the late 90s.
The AT is approximately 2,200 miles of wild hiking path, mountain climbing, stream fording and the like between Georgia and Maine. It runs through fourteen states over mountains and across rivers and forests only accessible to foot traffic and usually takes five to seven months to complete. About two million people hike some portion of the trail each year. In 2014, about 2,700 people attempted to thru-hike the trail from Georgia to Maine. Only about 10% of these individuals reported completing the trail.
Bryson returned to the US from twenty years in Britain in the mid-90s. A journalist by trade, he’s made a second career out of traveling and writing about it. He published three previous books with the same premise and one can only assume that the AT began to issue the siren’s call as soon as Bryson settled in his new home in Hanover, New Hampshire.
The reader follows as Bryson takes the requisite steps before embarking on any adventure of this type – shopping for equipment, researching the trip and of course, telling everyone he knew that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail so that he couldn’t chicken out at the last minute.
“The woods were full of peril — rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing hapless hikers through remote, sunny meadows and into glacial lakes.”
In his preparations, Bryson realizes that this isn’t an adventure he should, or even wants to take alone… enter Stephen Katz, a college friend, who Bryson traveled with unsuccessfully twenty years earlier. Katz is crude, out of shape and a recovering alcoholic. He functions as Oscar to Bryson’s Felix. Routinely becoming frustrated with extra weight in his pack, Katz tosses their supplies… often important stuff, like food and water.
“Everywhere throughout New England you find old, tumbledown field walls, often in the middle of the deepest, most settled- looking woods- a reminder of just how swiftly nature reclaims the land in America.”
Bryson describes hiking across Belgium with his son a few years earlier and recounts the harmony with which the European trails seem to coexist with working farms, small villages, inns and other conveniences.
By contrast, the AT, particularly in places like New Hampshire, is remote by design. One of Byson’s delights as well as his frustrations with the AT is this same inaccessibility. Like so many American institutions, natural congruity has been eradicated. How the AT was both established and is now maintained seem to approach nature and conservationism with a virgin/whore mentality.
It’s either eight days without water or Dollywood.
If you’re from New Hampshire, which I am, the Appalachian Trail is a piece of your state consciousness, like Yellowstone to Wyoming and the Grand Canyon for Arizona. The trail runs through 161 miles of the Granite State across several very beautiful, but unforgiving mountain peaks. Snow, high winds, thick fog and jagged, steep precipices are all part of the New Hampshire portion of the AT. People die every year trying to scale Mount Washington (6,288 feet) which has the dubious distinction of the worst weather ever recorded, anywhere on Earth.
“New Hampshire is guys in hunting caps and pickup trucks with number plates bearing the feisty slogan ‘Live Free or Die.”
That’s like saying California is starlets in bikinis draped across Italian sports cars at the beach.
But it’s not a full picture. With such a perspective on his adopted home-boys, you can almost appreciate why Bryson would return to England following the novel’s publication.
As much as this novel is about hiking, it’s not a hiking novel any more than Rocky was a boxing movie. Bryson uses the Appalachian Trail and his and Katz’s expedition to provide a running social and cultural commentary as well as background on the fragile ecology of the trail and the insanity of the Forest Service bureaucrats entrusted with its stewardship. His observations are informed, poignant and usually laugh-out-loud-so-hard-the-cat-jumps-funny, a journey well-worth taking.