Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Walk in the Woods (Book Review)
Or, "An Open Invitation to Get Lost in the Woods with Me"

By page 15 of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, I couldn't wait to finish the text, if only so I could rush online, write and post a review, and then demand that someone here join me for a trek along the 2,000+ mile expanse of the Appalachian Trail.

By page 100, I was already plotting out my trip. Thinking of which supplies I'd need to purchase and what — if anything — I already owned. I was ready, honestly, to quit my job and move all of my stuff into storage (I needed to move anyway, right?), if only to sequester five months of time for the sole purpose of walking the trail in its entirety (though, as Bryson notes, you need to start early March to complete the hike before harsh weather intercedes).

But somewhere around the book's midsection, my excitement — which was, by this point, inextricably tied to the author's humorous insights — tapered considerably. I think it was somewhere in the Smoky Mountains that Bryson and his comical hiking comrade, Stephen Katz, were forced, by law, to bunk with strangers in filthy "shelters" along the trail.

And while I'd love to meet new people on such an adventure, when the stars come out, I'd prefer to be alone in my tent. So this was, for me, a considerable turn-off (I'd quote a passage from the book — which I marked with post-its — but the text is now on loan to my father). And it wasn't long after the Smokies that Bryson's hilarious anecdotes met a similar end.

I was still interested in the text, but I was also certainly less into it. And while humor was still present, it was scattered here and there, whereas before it had been omnipresent. I could sense, in a way, that Bryson was much more into planning the hike — that he preferred the idea or even the ideals of the hike more than the hike itself. In short: he lost his mountain man wanderlust about 200 miles in. And it shows.

And this — even though the witticisms did occasionally re-appear — was altogether disheartening. I felt like my excitement was being crushed along with the author's, which is in itself an indication of fine writing. Or else why would I have cared?

That is the beauty of Bryson's style: he's made a much enviable living out of traveling the world and writing humorous narratives to describe his adventures (if any of you know of a publisher willing to pay me to do the same — I'll take it). He even intersperses a bit of knowledge hither and thither: from the history of the Trail on up to its present condition, you could treat A Walk in the Woods not only as an informal travelogue... but also as a travel guide.

Or, to paraphrase the book in 15 words or less: it's funny; it's educational; it's a pleasure to read... but it also loses its fuel.

That being said, I still want to hike the Appalachian Trail: whether I do a significant portion later this summer... or the entire thing (unlikely — I don't have the cash flow) next year.

Anyone with camping, hiking and/or survival experience is welcome to join me.


Anonymous said...

I walked short stretch of the trail once several years ago. ditto.


thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

PS - Just so you don't think too poorly of me, I did give Washington first dibs... but he's busy.

Stacy said...

I like Bryson okay, but he's frumpy and a bit Mister Rodgers. He did have one great piece that has always stayed with me; when he wrote about sticking blue tipped matches in an apple and throwing it out the window. I always wanted to, but never had an apple and matches and a car at the same time.
Maybe one day, this dream will come true.

disgruntled world citizen said...

I listened to the book a few years back. Interestin stuff, but I think I'll settle for the Red Roof Inn. Though, I'd dig walking SOME of it, but certainly not the WHOLE thing. Good luck with that.

I'm reading The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay. What a great book!

Anonymous said...

My idea of roughing it is a Holiday Inn. The last time I spent a night in a tent it was because Uncle Sam was paying me to do it. Still, this sounds like fun. Give me a heads up.

Winter said...

Before I met my husband I would have never dreamed of sleeping out in the open, but after years of learning how, I can honestly say it's one of the greatest thrills.

Can't do the whole light weight thing though, (you know holes in your spoons even)...

Woodrow said...

Sounds fun. But yeah, only for about a week.

Anonymous said...

RYN: Entrails. All that entails. Six of one, half a dozen of the other:

I want to get off the merry-go-round but the music is too enticing and I am afraid of what might happen once my feet touch the ground.

Matt said...

I read a couple of his books and enjoyed his style. Very entertaining. I love literary journalism.

My undergrad degree focussed on that sort of thing....