#17789 - 02/16/0509:40 AMBill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods"
A few years ago, I was standing in line at the college bookstore. It was a long line, so I started looking through my text books. I was an English major, but for some reason if finally hit me that I was not enrolled in a literature class. It was one of my last semesters, and I had some other requirements to meet. I had a History class, an ethics class, a linguistics class and a Geology class with lab. Pretty light semester, really.
For an English major, not having a literature class is a problem because we have a physiological need to be constantly reading! While standing in line thinking about all that free time I was going to have, a book with a funny looking bear on the cover caught my eye. I thumbed through it a little, and since I had some extra financial aide money, I bought it as a total impulse purchase.
Turns out, it was Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. I started to read it, and it absolutely blew me away! Bryson is a superb writer. It was easy to read, and he can tell an engaging, personal story with both humor and depth. It was also the first time I had ever heard of the Appalachian Trail, and, for that matter, the first time I had ever heard of ultra long distance hiking.
How many of you have read the book? Like the book? Hate the book? I welcome any and all comments on this piece of literature.
I enjoyed it for what it is worth. Take it with a serious grain of salt. All Bryson's books are overdramatized, and that's a big part of the humor.
Be prepared for some flames on this book. It was out for about a year when I started my AT through-hike, and some hikers viciously ripped it apart. They cursed that the littering episode on the approach trail "is NOT funny, and should be condemned." I argued that it does still occasionally happen with inexperienced hikers. Others complained that he was rude about the staff at Rainbow Springs Campground. Yet I had other hikers who stayed there insist the portrayal was very much in accord with their experiences. (I can't say either way - I didn't stop there.)
Mostly understand that Bryson probably did about 700 miles of the trail. He lists I believe 840 miles of hiking, which I'm sure is true when you remember he backtracked many section in New Hampshire.
So read it, have fun with it, and don't get too bogged down with some of the "touchy" points some will bring up. There are other books which give a very accurate account but which aren't nearly as entertaining.
P. S. In Through-hiker circles in 1999, Bryson was trail-named "Megawimp" in absentia. I suspect he'd like knowing he'd been given a trail name.
PPS - If you want accuracy AND a funny flowing read, look up Walking on the Happy Side of Misery by J. R. Tate.
I read an article that came out in Outside magazine, which was apparently a chapter of the book. At the time I thought it was amusing, but not overly so. I did, however, laugh out loud at the letter to the editor praising the article the following month, asking for more from that author - from one Bill Bryson, and of course written in his unmistakeable style.
Then one day my BF got the book on tape of "A Walk in the Woods", and I started listening to it while driving. I have never looked forward to my commutes so much in my life. It's lucky that I didn't cause an accident, driving while laughing uncontrollably with tears rolling down my face! Somehow hearing Bryson's voice reading the book made all the difference to me. Since that time I have read every book of his I can get my hands on - he's enormously entertaining.
I agree with Bearpaw that much of Bryson's humor is based on (over)dramatization - but whose isn't? I particularly recommend "In a Sunburned Country", "I'm a Stranger Here Myself", "The Lost Continent", and "The Mother Tongue" (as an English major, you might really appreciate that one).
Hilarious. Bryson's a gifted writer who has no qualms about poking considerable fun at himself, although my best laughs came from his ne'er-do-well hiking partner.
I also appreciate his ability to work in considerable human and natural history in a way that makes the AT itself seem like a walk through history. His visit to the abandoned coal town atop the mine fire haunts me today, several years after I read the book.
Loc: Upstate New York
I read and thoroughly enjoyed Bryson's book. Don't know to what extent he may have exagerated or overdramatized, but I thought he did a nice job of combining real information about the trail with humor and fun.
A couple of anecdotes about the power of Bryson's writing:
I read some of the funny passages to my 2 daughters, who have minimal interest in backpacking. They enjoyed them so much, each of them actually borrowed my copy of the book and read it themselves.
One day at work, while I was reading the book, I was headed for lunch, going down in the elevator with the book in my hand. An acquaintance in the elevator spontaneously burst out laughing. When we got to the 1st floor he explained that he'd read Bryson's book about touring Europe (also with Katz) some years before, and the memory of it was so funny, that seeing the cover of my book just made him burst out laughing at the very thought of it.
Thanks for bringing back a nice memory of a very pleasurable read for me.
Loc: Portland, OR
The key to Bill Bryson as a writer is that he has developed a fluent and distinctive "voice". This is a very neat trick, since written words are very inert compared to human voices, so it takes an excellent writer to carry this off. It is his greatest strength and it brings his books alive, as embodiments of a good, entertaining companion.
As a storyteller, Bryson works entirely in the shortest form - the anecdote. He would make a wretched novelist and a fairly mediocre short story writer. However, anecdotes are just the right length for the setup and delivery of a punchline.
As an author he is smart enough to realize that you have to break up the funny stuff with more serious passages. He knows how to 'pace' a reader. (His serious intervals often contain factual material that he cribs out of the books of other, more serious authors - whom he always credits by name.)
I happen to like his books a great deal. If I seem overly analytic about how he blows his soap bubbles of entertainment, it is because I am a writer myself and my admiration naturally includes taking his books apart to see how they tick.
I LOVE this book! I have read and re-read it several times.
First off: I don't care whether he hiked the whole 2,146.7 (ATC number) or just 700 miles. I have read scores and scores of journals from people who have hiked the whole thing on Trail Journals and not one of them were as interesting/funny a read as this tome. This book is a riot! Cpt 5) Katz vs. Mary Ellen
Someone said, that there would have been a lot less non-hiking info if he had completed more trail. Well, I'm glad he didn't as the ancillary info is really quite impressive:
Chpt 8) "Half of all the offices and malls standing in America today hae been built since 1980. Eighty per cent of all housing stock in teh country dates from 1945. Of all the motel rooms in America, 230,000 have been built in the last 15 years."
Chpt 10) "...the mortality rate was 100 percent. In just over thirty-five years the American chestnut became a memory. The Appalachians alone lost four billion trees, a quarter of its cover in a geneartion."
Chpt 11) "Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week"
If you want to read an AT book that is more "serious" from someone who completed the journey, I recommend: On The Beaten Path by Robert Alden Rubin. He went to work for the ATC afterwards. Read them both and compare/contrast. Or one that is very unique: Muesser's book (see below).
Here are some others (from AWOL's AT03 journal, Prep#9):
Long Distance Hiking by Roland Muesser He was a thru-hiker in 1989. He developed an elaborate questionnaire, gave it to many other thru-hikers, and compiled stats on everything you'd want to know about the typical A.T. thru-hike. Don't let the analytical approach scare you off, this is a very readable book and an awesome resource.
Walkin' on the Happy Side of Misery by JR "Model T" Tate Model T's account is balanced, telling the good and bad of the trail. He celebrates what is good, and finds humor in what is difficult. Great attitude. He excels at describing the "feel" of what life is like on the trail.
Walking With Spring by Earl Shaffer A must read for anyone with more than a passing interest in the A.T. Easy to read with a good dose of lessons in the history of the trail and the lands through which it passes. We are lucky that that the first thru-hiker was also an excellent journaler.
A Season on the Appalachian Trail by Lynn Setzer Trail stories by a journalist following thru-hikers of 1996 (also Bill Bryson's year). This is useful in getting a range of perspectives. This portrait may be a little rose-colored. Includes follow-up letters from hikers that are very interesting and sometimes poignant.
On the Beaten Path by Robert Rubin This thru-hiker took many issues on the trail with him, and had marginal support from his spouse. What results is a realistic account of the trail. The trail is no panacea. Not everyone is considerate and town stops can be filthier than the trail. At times he dips into cynicism (I ate a half-gallon of ice cream -- so what?).
There are Mountains to Climb by Jean Deeds This is a fine acount of a hike taken by a senior woman with an overwhelmingly positive slant on life.
Walking North by Mic Lowther A couple and their young daughter attempt a thru-hike. Some of the advice is a little outmoded (eg: Jeans are optimal hike-wear). Good reading for anyone who will need to deal with the compromises of hiking in a group.
A.T.: A Visitors Companion by Leonard Adkins A textbook-like description of the trail, trees, plants, and animals. Has a good blurb on trail history. You'll find yourself skipping sections that are too mundane (description of a racoon), and too specialized (plate tectonics).
Walking Home by Kelly Winters Kelly's very personal account of a thru-hike attempt. The upside is her undying belief in trail karma. On the downside, the author is heavily laden with personal issues, which leads to some negativity and shifting objectives on the trail. This is a good study in how blue and yellow blazing can derail your hike
If anyone has read any of the above please comment as I have not read them yet. Feel free to start a new thread to discuss a new title.
#17800 - 05/05/0609:45 AMRe: Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods"
I know this is an old post, but I just found it!
Thank you for mentioning my journal entry about AT books. I'm glad you found it useful. I had to delete that entry from my journal because I have written a book of my own, and did not want to have it perceived as bad-mouthing the competition. Also, my views on those books evolved since doing my thru-hike.
My book is "Awol on the Appalachian Trail" available from www.AWOLontheTrail.com and other internet booksellers. There are many books out there, but obviously I felt as though I could offer something different. The primary attributes that set my book apart are quality and completeness. I spent more time on writing than I did hiking! I did NOT just slap a cover on a journal. I strived to find the most meaningful and entertaining experiences from the trail and to relay them concisely. The book has 42 pictures that are placed immediately following the relevant text, and it has maps and footnotes offering supplemental information. The book is funny, inspiring, informative, contemporary, and it covers a complete thru-hike.
I recently finished reading this book as I was waiting for "Into the Wild" to come in at my university library. I randomly found the book and was quite pleased with the read. While I constantly thought about how over dramatized Bryson's story was, I found the book to be an awesome read and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the outdoors.
I was especially interested in Katz (Bryson's hiking buddy). I would love to hear the story from his side of the tracks. I felt that he was a character I could associate with on a lot of things.
I think the best aspect of this book was Bryson's ability to step back from the trail/expedition and give the reader a practical history behind each section of the trail he hit. While some readers may find that he gets a little off topic, I thought all the tid-bits of information were amazing. This book has inspired me to put hiking the AT on my list of things to do someday.
Someone mentioned Bryson also wrote a book about backpacking in Europe with Katz (or something of the like). Do you happen to know the title? I would love to put that on my long list of books to read. ~Nick
I'd rather see Michael Moore in the lead if he could lose a little weight and the Flynt, Michigan accent and try to feign a British one.
Hundred bucks says if Redford stars in it that he actually finishes the trail, and that the movie doesn't end like the book with him driving out to the trail and doing some snippets of it at the end. Dramatic license.
I didn't buy it for a guide book. It was for entertainment and that it was!
Great read. Most of my family who heard I was hiking the AT had only known about the trail through this very popular book.
I must say I am also a fan of the "Bill Bryson is a Candy [Edited for inappropriate languge, please review forum policies for more information]" T - shirts. Equally as entertaining.
I've only read it twice. Once before the trail and once after. Maybe its time for a reread.
My father read the book, just before I started my hike. I hurt my back early on and took like 1.5 days to get to the next road crossing. I hitched into town and got dropped off near 2 motels. One was Mulls (spelling) and the other was the holiday inn express up a hill - which at the time injured seemed like a huge mountain.
When I phoned my old man and told him where I was he started saying " thats the one in the books, thats the motel! How could you be there?!" It had the same description. Cigarrette burns on the toilet seat, sunken mattress. Overall sleezy dump.
The next day, after some rest I took the walk uphill to the Holiday Inn and enjoyed a soak in the hottub before moving along the trail.
Thanks for bringing back those memories - I so love this website!
I have to agree. I didn't read the book. I went to the library, rented the Book on CD, downloaded it to my Mp3 player and listened to it. So even though Bryson wrote the story, someone else read it. And a very entertaining reader he was. I probably got a different perspective on the characters listening to the book vs. reading it and having my mind interpet the characters for myself. I didn't even know what Bryson looked like and have no clue of Katz weather his character was real or fiction. I would like to see a movie of " A Walk in The woods". T he producers usually change the story line to try to enhance the impact of the visiuals and create bottom line sales rather than keeping true to the story line. But that's O.K. as long as you come away with the non critical feeling of being entertained for an hour and a half.
I read the book in my high school ecology/composition class and absolutely loved it. In fact, I re-read it in two days before my most recent backpacking trip, couldn't put it down. Bryson is a great writer, and you almost feel like your there trudging along with him.
"cant cheat the mountain pilgrim, mountain got it's own ways"
Loc: Portland, OR
no clue of Katz weather his character was real or fiction
Katz is, shall we say, real enough by most normal standards, but as any storyteller can tell you, although reality may be somewhat entertaining when unvarnished, certain enhancements are always necessary to wring the most value out of a story.
It would be small of us to call such beautifully enhanced reality 'fiction'.
I am looking forward to the movie. FYI I just received my copy of Bpacker mag and it has a nice article on hiking the at. It shows the gear store about 30 miles from Springer Mt that will probably appear in the film. Also, the first letter is mine. About riding the bus which looks like a viable option to get to the at trail head. The thing that bothers me about riding the bus is the chracter's that hopefully won't be ingrained permanently and become part of your life. Ya know, theres only so much I want to put into my hard drive. And some things you can't delete.