August 5, 2007

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Nonfiction - Travel Essay
Finished on 7/29/07
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
Joy's Nonfiction Challenge #3
Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge #1

It is such a strange contrast. When you're on the AT, the forest is your universe, infinite and entire. It is all you experience day after day. Eventually it is about all you can imagine. You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules. Even the little towns like Franklin and Hiawassee and even Gatlinburg are just way stations scattered helpfully through the great cosmos of the woods.

In many ways, living aboard a boat for 13 days was not all that different than Bryson's description of the AT. Cruising the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands, I easily lost all track of time and place. Sure, we visited small communities for fuel, provisions, and sightseeing, but each and every town had a laidback feel that makes one imagine that even the locals are on a perpetual holiday. Returning to the land of "gas stations, Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Dunkin Donuts, Blockbuster Videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness" is quite a shock to the relaxed state of mind.

Bill Bryson has written close to a dozen books, ranging from travel essays to linguistics/etymology to science/history and most recently, his memoir of growing up in Iowa during the fifties. Several years ago, I listened to I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away and thought it was quite funny. We've had A Walk in the Woods in our collection for many years and thanks to Joy's Nonfiction Challenge and Lesley's Armchair Traveler Challenge, I finally had the motivation I needed to read it.

I have fond childhood memories of camping with my family. Dad and my brothers (I assume this, as I never really paid attention!) would pitch the tent and Mom would get the "kitchen" organized. Meals were magically prepared and clean dishes appeared whenever needed. The four of us kids roamed around the camp grounds making new friends, playing in the dirt or down by the lake. Camping was fun. It was carefree. Just the way it should be for kids.

Of course as an adult, my husband and I wanted to share the experience of the great outdoors with our girls. Rod had been a Boy Scout and knew all about building fires, pitching tents, following the North star and looking for moss on the side of a tree trunk -- wait a minute! This is the guy who gets lost in his own neighborhood!

Anyhow, we decided to take the girls camping in the Sequoia National Park. We camped near Hume Lake with our two tents, fishing gear, Coleman stove, flashlights, cooler, beach chairs (we had to sit on something!), baseball & mitts, and fannypacks. Yep, we were ready. However, Dad and Mom made it all look so easy back in the 60s. What I failed to learn was that camping is A LOT OF WORK! Bring out the ice chest, fix a meal, clean the dishes in a little tub of soapy water, put the food away so the bears don't smell it, and repeat two more times every day! And then there's the lack of an automatic coffee maker. Oh, and that minor detail about just how uncomfortable it is to sleep in a sleeping bag directly on the COLD, HARD, ROCKY ground.

Let's just say that I have a deep appreciation for Bill Bryson's attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Who can possibly blame him for taking an extended break from his endeavor? He managed to walk hundreds of miles through terrible weather conditions, poor trail markings, poorly detailed maps, with minimal provisions (thanks to his travel companion who felt compelled to toss away the unnecessary items that were deemed too heavy to carry).

While I did not find this to be "choke-on-your-coffee funny" as described by the Washington Post Book World, I did find a sprinkling of humorous passages. I also enjoyed the tidbits of historical information that Bryson incorporates so well in his narrative.

My favorite one-liner:

I was perched on the edge of the sleeping platform lost in a little reverie...absorbed with trying to get a small volume of water to boil--quite happy really--when one of the middle-aged guys drifted over and introduced himself as Bob. I knew with a sinking heart that we were going to talk equipment. I could just see it coming. I hate talking equipment.

"So what made you buy a Gregory pack?" he said.

"Well, I thought it would be easier than carrying everything in my arms."

Overall, not a bad read. I'm not sure it was necessarily a good thing to read about bears while hiking through the woods on a nearly deserted island in the Pacific Northwest, but at least I was prepared if I ran into one. Thank goodness I didn't see any. I can never remember if you're supposed to play dead if you encounter a brown bear and try to run and climb the nearest tree if it's a black bear or the other way around! And even if I did, I couldn't remember which bears are native to which part of the country. It's no wonder I only lasted one year in Bluebirds!


  1. Nice review. (Says she who still hasn't read Bryson!) He's on my bookmooch list, but apparently everyone wants to hold onto his books instead of passing them along to me.


    Loved your travel pics, by the way. I've been living vicariously through you. :)

  2. It wasn't my favorite Bryson, either, but I enjoyed it and did laugh out loud a few times. I really enjoyed your travelogue. I'm so aching for a vacation, but here we are . . . about to start school, again!

  3. I went back in my book journals and here is what I wrote two years ago:

    " B-
    There was nothing horrible about the book, but nothing that made it shine
    for me either. I find Bryson funny and annoying simultaneously.

    What makes him have such arrogance to go on this trek not having trained at
    all? And to take on the risk of his very overweight, out of shape friend
    from the past, Katz, whom he hadn't really known for many years.

    Some of this book just seemed ludicrous like Katz throwing out precious food
    and even water to lighten his pack.

    I read of this kind of stupidity in the local papers way too often to find
    it funny. I might have quit it if I had had another tape to listen to. On
    top of everything, the narrator mispronounced a lake in Maine, and a
    mountain in NH. If you are going to be paid to read a book, you should know
    how to say the words.

    All in all, a disagreeable reading experience."

    And I still feel the same. As for me, I'm not a camper, not a boater, not big on roughing it at all. I like my own bed. :<)

  4. Andi - Thanks! You know, my hubby's going to re-read this one, but once he's finished, if he doesn't want to hang on to it, I can send it along to you.

    Glad you've enjoyed the travel pics. I've had fun re-living the experience as I scroll through my blog entries. Sure wish we could move...

    Bookfool - I'll eventually read more of Bryson's travel books. What's your favorite?

    I can't believe the summer is almost over!! We're heading out again in about a month and I'm already counting the days. This time we'll be going to Depoe Bay, Oregon. Maybe I should rename my blog since it's not just books anymore! ;)

    Nan - I remember reading these thoughts of yours. I agree. He's funny and annoying (and somewhat cruel in a few instances). And I, too, like my own bed, but am willing to give it up every now and then for an adventure! ;)

  5. Anonymous4:14 PM

    Yep, I'm definitely in awe of anyone who actually manages to hike the AT.

    This was my favorite Bryson book, until it was recently supplanted by Sunburned Country.

  6. Lesley - I plan to read more by Bryson, but not for a while. First up will be his memoir. Then I think I'll give him a bit of a break. ;)


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