Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

Summary: Bryson's travel memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Musings: As I've written before, growing up, my greatest dream was to live in the woods.  I'm not quite sure where this came from, and I'm not particularly outdoorsy today, but I still find something in walking and hiking outside that soothes me.  In warm weather, my husband and I spent a lot of time walking around our neighborhood or traveling to nearby parks to hike.  For me, Bryson was a perfect author to relate his experience with the Appalachian Trail (AT).  Although he indubitably (and I say "indubitably" only because Bryson was overly-fond of the word) had more willpower than I, he's no hiker junkie.  He's a normal person taking on an abnormal pursuit.

Bryson does an excellent job establishing the awesome wonder that is the AT.  At around 2,100 miles long and stretching from Georgia to Maine, the trail is a feat of creation.  Although it seems crazy to even attempt such a hike, I can completely see the draw.  Hiking the AT means devoting at least several months of your life to nothing more than walking in the wilderness, largely away from modern distractions and responsibilities.  It's freeing in a way that's difficult to imagine.

However, Bryson effectively balances both the romanticism of the outdoors and the realities of being in the wilderness.  Yes, hiking provides breathtaking views and a greater sense of connection to nature, but it also involves carrying heavy packs, walking in all extremes of weather, camping in rough conditions, and going without access to normal food.

My favorite parts of the book were Bryson's descriptions of the people he met along the way, particularly his hiking companion Katz and an annoying woman named Mary Ellen.  The book was at times laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed Bryson's slightly panicked descriptions of all the dangers of the AT.

I had found Bryson's Notes from a Small Island boring, but I didn't have that problem with A Walk in the Woods.  The history of the AT is interesting, as is Bryson's way of matter-of-factly describing what happens to him.  Although he doesn't end up hiking the entire AT (in fact, he manages about 40% of it, in various stages), he's clearly respectful of all it has to offer.

One part of the book stood out to me: "In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition--either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.  Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit" (200).  In the busy suburb of a large city in which I live, I've found this to be the case.  I can walk around my neighborhood, but there's little beauty in tightly-packed cookie cutter houses.  Or, I can get in a car and drive to a park, separate from living.  The two are never connected, and because of that, I think it's even more difficult to feel some connection to nature.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it's definitely inspired me to try to get out more (darn it being only February).  I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a view on hiking the AT that won't make you feel like a loser for liking Coke and real beds.

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