A Walk in the Woods

walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

I have previously mentioned that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  After living most of my life without realizing that it was empty, I read A Short History of Nearly Everything five or six years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.  And while much of his writing these days seems to be “highly amusing encyclopedia[s]” such as Summer, 1927, Bryson’s original start was in travel writing, and even these old books hold up remarkably well over time.

A Walk in the Woods is Bryson’s second book and covers his attempt, with a similarly middle-aged and out-of-shape friend, to hike the Appalachian trail.  Bryson’s irreverence, humor, and, well cantankerousness is on full display in this book.  It’s a fun piece of escapism on one hand, as I think there’s a good chunk of us who would like to chuck everything for weeks or months on end and hike through the wilderness.  On the other hand, it was also a refreshing reminder that, well, there’s a reason we as a species decided not to spend all of our time hiking through the wilderness and invent comfortable mattresses, indoor plumbing with hot water, and air conditioning, instead.  Not that I’m against being outside–to the contrary, I actually quite enjoy walks in the woods.  Just that sometimes I appreciate someone who is honest that prolonged walks in the woods can sometimes suck and sometimes they kick your ass.

Personally, though, my favorite thing about Bryson as an essayist is what an excellent job he does of weaving bits of information in and out of the main story.  He’s really quite talented at this piece, a bit that not everyone handles with such dexterousness, and his diversions and historical bits and pieces are some of my favorite parts of the book.  I was particularly interested in his contrast of walking the Appalachian Trail with going on a walking holiday in Europe, where it’s quite common to walk in and out of pleasant little towns, “nature” being not entirely separated from day to day life.  Believe me, the topic of separating or integrating nature is one that comes up on a semi-daily basis when studying environmental policy, so I was interested in seeing it laid bare with a much less philosophical and policy-oriented discussion, just a civilian pointing it out so to speak.

All of the trail trivia in general was interesting to read, though.  Bryson and his friend give up on the trail in Virginia, and he begins doing short day or overnight hikes through the rest rather than doing it in one fell swoop, and that’s where there’s a lot more of stories about the towns by the trail, how it was decided where it would go, all of the other day hikers as well.  The story of Centralia, PA, and it’s long-burning coal fire was one I’d heard before, but I didn’t realize it was so close to the trail.  And living in the DC metro area, of course I had to enjoy his perception of places like Front Royal, the main entry point to the Shenandoah for most of us living by DC.

This isn’t a life changing book, by any means, but still one that is a quick and enjoyable read.  I suggest always carrying a Bill Bryson book close by in case of unforeseen delays in a waiting area or on a train or airplane, and as it’s considerably slimmer than Summer, 1927 or A Short History of Nearly Everything, this is probably a good choice to keep nearby in your backpack or purse.  You’ll thank me the next time your doctor keeps you waiting.

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