Book: A Walk in the Woods
Occasionally you hear about a book where some people say you have to read it, while others say that it isn't worth your time. "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail" by Bill Bryson was such a book for me. I had people I trusted saying it was very funny and a good read while others were very critical of the book. So before I set out for an AT section hike, I decided to get the book and read it. Heck, if I hated it, I could always start fires with it.
Seconds into the first chapter I was laughing out loud as my wife was driving back from the book store. The story of a man recently returning to the United States after living in England for years, then deciding on basically a whim to hike the entire Appalachian Trail with little more hiking experience than the occasional day hike was very amusing.
What Bill Bryson's book is basically about, in a nutshell, is the unsuccessful thru hike attempt of a couple of what could be argued are average Americans.
Let me explain myself. Bill Bryson and his friend Katz are two middle aged, slightly too very overweight men, with some - but not a lot of wilderness experience. I'm basing these presumptions on what Bryson says about himself and Katz in the book. I say this makes them the average American because in the case of age - the population is getting older on the average because of baby boomers; weight - the average American is overweight according to recent statistics; and lack of wilderness experience on the fact that even tough many Americans go camping, boating, etc. none of these truly prepares you for backpacking, especially long distance stuff.
Because of this, they also had a thru hike which was about as successful as the average thru hiker - they failed.
Again, I'll explain. Of the thousands of would be thru hikers, only about 10% claim to have completed the hike. I say claim, because some people in the business of trail maintenance, working with hikers, and many of the hikers themselves often say they know a guy that claims to have done the entire thing but hasn't. Because of this, 90% (or more) of the people that start at Springer Mountain, never make it to Katahdin. Heck, most drop out before making it thru the Smokies. Bryson and his buddy Katz dropped out at Gatlinburg - half way thru the Smokies.
So, all that said, here is something about what I found. Many people like the book, it is a best seller. Those that like it can appreciate the humor, can identify with the two main characters, and/or like the background research that Bill Bryson has done putting this book together. Of those I know that hate it, they don't appreciate Bryson's negative attitude about many of the things hikers like about the trail and it's culture, his and Katz sometime disregard of the trail, and their inability to finish what they started.
Now that I've summed all that up, back to the story. Bill Bryson returns to the US after years of living in England. He buys a house near the AT and discovers this trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. Then he decides to walk the whole thing. He has some interesting reasons for wanting to do this, but I believe they boil to these two things: he wanted to reacquaint himself with America on a traveling adventure, and he needed a book deal.
There is the hilarious story about his going to a gear store and how he goes into shock about prices and the technical complexity of hiking equipment. How he starts reading about the trail, its history, its ecosystem, its dangers, and most of all bears. He seems to have a phobia about bears but did a good job of poking fun at himself about this.
He then searches for a friend to share his adventure with, and all he gets for a taker is a grossly overweight and out of shape friend from his high school days with dubious reasons to want to accompany him. They travel to Atlanta, and on the ride to Springer Mountain is where you really start to see the beginnings of their eventual failure in the conversation with the shuttle driver who sums up the reason for most hikers' failure in "it wasn't what they expected".
From there, Katz and Bryson soon find out how hard, cold, hungry, and overall unpleasant backpacking can be. And that they definitely do not have the skills, physical ability, or correct mental outlook to be good hikers. But he mixes all this with poking fun at other hikers, themselves, background of the trail, and other information as they go along. There is always something new being covered about the trail as the two make their way north.
Eventually, Bryson and Katz give up when they get to Gatlinburg. But they decide to at least move up to another section of the trail and try to enjoy hiking (gee, what a novel concept). And later the stories changed to a series of section day hikes Bryson does without Katz in various states along the Appalachian Trail, eventually meeting up with Katz again to try the 100 mile wilderness at the end of the trail - and quitting.
Bryson's better moments are when he recalls stories that many hikers can identify with: annoying hikers, drunk day and section hikers, hitchhiking, talking gear (when you don't want to), getting lost, buying gear, staying in shelters, getting caught in storms, hard climbs, trail magic, etc. These are the parts I found most enjoying. At times I recalled my own hiking adventures while reading these stories.
Where Bryson does a poor job (in my opinion) is when he exaggerates some situations or stories. For specific instance he makes the bunk house at Rainbow Springs Campground out to be shabby uncomfortable place - which it isn't; and the owners to be two faced and surly - which they are not.
Conclusion: read the book. Especially if you are planning to do a thru hike. It may help you to decide if you really want to, and what it may really be like if you do try it. It really is a book about how not to do a thru hike:
1. Don't go unless you really want to do one. It probably isn't what you're expecting.
2. Don't go to a gear store and buy everything you need in one trip. Buy it and try it a little at a time until you know what you want. Salesmen are trying to make a profit and doesn't necessarily have any incentive to help you stay light and cheap.
3. Keep a positive attitude. Bryson was negative about many things. It shows in his writing and certainly influenced his hike.
4. Bryson did it backwards. Try section hiking first to see if you really like hiking. It isn't "A Walk in the Woods", backpacking can be hard work. Se if you really want to do two weeks in the woods before you plan six months.
5. If you take a partner, make sure you are compatible before you start.