Published by Black Swan
Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot.
Bill Bryson was (and probably still is) the UK’s best selling non-fiction author ever, largely a result of his million-plus selling travelogue, Notes from a Small Island which was published in the UK in 1996.
A Walk in the Woods was Bryson’s 1998 follow up. Having lived in the UK for 20 years, Bryson moved back to the US in 1995. Living close the to the Appalachian Trail, Bryson became curious about the hiking route which runs for over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and “rashly” informed his family, friends and publisher that he intended to hike it. Enlisting an old friend, ‘Katz’, to join him, the pair set out and the book is the result of their adventures.
Bryson has subsequently said of hiking that “nothing happens. You just put one foot in front of the other. You might have a great day, but it’s not an interesting thing to write about, let alone read”. It would be easy to share this sentiment (“A book about hiking the Appalachian Trail?… Excuse me while I watch some paint dry, or curl up with a good phone directory”).
A Walk in the Woods is not just about the Trail and nature. Neither is it an opportunity for Bryson to “serve up his psyche on a platter” nor a philosophical enquiry into the outdoors. Bryson makes this clear early on when he tells us why he wanted to hike the Trail:
I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods”.
Contrast this with the noble sentiments in Thoreau’s Walden:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (the full quote is here)
It is hard not to see Bryson’s approach as a direct riposte (especially as he refers elsewhere to Thoreau as “inestimably priggish and tiresome”).
A Walk in the Woods is certainly no Walden and neither is it a ‘hairy chested’ adventure book. But that does not matter. As Dwight Garner noted in his New York Times review: “You don’t sign on with Bryson’s big adventure because you expect him to show you how hairy-chested he can be. You sign on because he’s one of the most engaging cupcakes around.”
That is just what A Walk in the Woods is. An engaging, funny account of one man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail and everything that goes with it: the physical privations, irritations with Katz, the annoyances, the fears and angsts, the history of the trail, its ecology, insights and reflections on the nature of their adventure and how it relates to everyday life, all recounted with a dry sense of humour and sufficient pace and one liners. A Walk in the Woods is so complete an experience it is almost an alternative to doing it yourself and “you don’t even have to take a step”.
A Walk in the Woods has now been turned into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte: