on May 10, 2000
This is much more than a travelogue of two neophyte hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and readers looking for a blow by blow account of the travails of Bill Bryson and his companion, Stephen Katz, will be disappointed. Hiking provides only a backdrop to a heartfelt discourse on the social condition of America, local history, the environment, and the complexities of friendship. The pretext for the book was Bryson's return to the United States after twenty years in Britain, and his interest in "rediscovering America" after such a lengthy absence.
The vast majority of the reviews of the book cite its hilarity (one reviewer called it "choke-on-your-coffee funny"), and indeed there are very many funny parts. However, the deeper I got into the book, I detected a strong shift in the author's sentiment from satire to deep introspection. His observations became more acute, more angry, and more individualized as his long hike constantly brings to his mind the fragile environment of the Trail, the insanity of bureacrats entrusted with the AT, and his own personal limitations.
This was my first encounter with Bill Bryson, and while I found him entertaining, a beautiful writer, and an astute observer, some readers will be put off my his sharp satiric wit. It is certain that he will offend somebody. A friend of mine, who also read the book, was very much upset by the fact that Bryson and Katz didn't hike all 2,200 miles of the Trail, and that somehow their "failure" should prevent the telling of the story. This is utter nonsense and just throws more manure onto the present dung heap that has accumulated from the participants involved in peak bagging, wilderness races, and experiential therapy groups.
Bryson and Katz at least tried to hike the entire AT, and they returned from their hike as changed men who learned many lessons about the wilderness and friendship. Towards the end of the book, the two men are talking about the hike. When Katz remarks that "we did it," Bryson reminds him that they didn't even see Mount Katahdin, much less climb it. Katz says, "Another mountain. How many do you need to see, Bryson?" I agree with Katz (and ultimately Bryson). They hiked the Appalachian Trail.
As both a Bill Bryson fan and a long distance hiker myself (although I have not done the Appalachian Trail yet) I really expected to love A Walk in the Woods. I was a little bit concerned, since when my partner handed it to me (he finished the book first) he said, "I don't think you're going to like it..." But still, I was really looking forward to reading it.
For the first half of the book, I also really did enjoy the book. I wasn't bothered by the fact that they were unprepared or out of shape. Nobody is really prepared for their first long distance hiking trip until they are a few weeks into the trail. I remember my own experience of staggering along under my overly ambitious pack. I also enjoyed that he talked honestly about the experience of hiking, and I liked the way that he interspersed history and facts about the trail with the travel writing.
The second half, however, got much less interesting. The day trips and the abortive Maine portion were actually kind of disheartening. The whole feel of the prose got sort of mean spirited. He didn't have to walk the whole trail to feel like he walked it, but I honestly would have preferred to see him expand the first half and leave the second half out completely.
There is still quite a bit of good stuff in here, particularly if you are interested in the southern part of the trail. There is also quite a bit of truth about the culture of the long distance hikers. I laughed quite a bit while I read. I guess that the complaints boiled down to not quite being as good as it could have been.
on February 7, 2000
A Walk in the Woods is a travel memoir on the Appalachian Trail, one of America's greatest hiking routes. The author, Bill Bryson lived in England for 20 years and came back to the United States with the urge to go on a long hike. Stephen Katz, an old college friend, and a former alcoholic accompanies him. Both men are out of shape, and beginners at hiking, so it is a wonder how they can endure such hardships along the trail. They had to carry a pack that contained their tents, food, water, clothes and other items. Katz and other interesting characters provide the book with much comic relief to keep the reader involved. At some points in the book I was laughing out loud. Along the journey they meet many people including Mary Ellen a slow-minded woman who follows them around, and Beulah, a fat woman with a very angry husband. The commentary about the long, rich history of the Appalachian Trail brings insight on the wilderness that we hardly know about. It also speaks for the preservation of the forestry and animals that we take for granted in the city. After reading this book I have more appreciation of the wilderness, and an interest in going hiking myself. One downside of the book was that some points in the book the author expanded the book with knowledge that made it a little less interesting, then the actual story. But I liked how Bryson went back and forth to discuss his journey and the history, creating a balance of interests. This book will offer something to any type of reader because it is funny, and contains a lot of historical information, and is interesting enough to keep the reader to keep going. But for someone who wishes to go on a hike, this is not a how to guide. It is also not an amazing adventure of two men and the great outdoors. What this book has to offer is an entertaining journey of two regular guys, who decide to go on a hike along one of the most difficult trails in the United States. I am highly recommending this book, and it will truly leave the reader entertained.
on August 18, 2007
Perhaps it was a fit of angst dealing with his own personal version of a mid-life crisis that led Bill Bryson to tackle the challenge of hiking the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail! It was certainly a solid understanding of his own personality and clear recognition of his own physical and mental limitations that prompted him to invite his friend, Stephen Katz, an overweight and out of shape recovering alcoholic with an inordinate fondness for snack foods and cream soda to accompany him on this daunting challenge. The demands of the AT ultimately proved too much for Bryson and Katz who sensibly (and with an almost relieved sense of philosophical acceptance) decided to abandon the notion of a complete through hike. But the resulting story, drawn from Bryson's daily journal of the summer's efforts, is an overwhelming success and pure joy in the reading.
"A Walk in the Woods" is an extraordinary, entertaining travelogue on both the AT - the Appalachian Trail - and the people and places of small town America that dot the trail's path along the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Maine. At the same time, it is much, much more. Bryson is scathing in his political commentary and almost enraged criticism of the ongoing state of mismanagement and the sadly misguided policies of both the Parks and Forest Services of the US government. "A Walk in the Woods" is also a deeply moving introspective examination on the nature of friendship, family, perseverance, joy and despondency. As he and Katz amble along rock strewn trails dappled with sunlight broken by the leafy forest canopy, Bryson frequently, effortlessly and almost without our even noticing the change, wanders metaphorically off the main trail and onto a side path of lightweight but nonetheless informative and educational sidebars of nature writing on an amazingly wide variety of topics. Glaciation, bears, bugs, ecology, continental drift, hypothermia, hypoxia and weather are only a few examples of the topics which he elucidates for the lay reader with his clear, concise prose.
Then there is the humour! It is perhaps an understatement to say that, in this regard, Bryson has a rare gift. He has treated his readers to laughs originating in every imaginable corner of the vast world of humour - wry sardonic wit; biting satire; slapstick; self effacement; sarcasm and insults; fear; and even extended comedy sketches worthy of stage or television. His description of the astonishingly stupid and entirely self-absorbed fellow hiker Mary Ellen who has the annoying habit of constantly clearing her sinuses with a grating honk is definitely laugh-out-loud material.
Pure entertainment and enjoyment from first page to last. I believe Bill Bryson would consider it a compliment if I suggested that "A Walk in the Woods" is the first book I've ever read with a smile on my face during every single moment of the reading. Highly recommended - even if you've never spent a single night under nylon in the woods.
on August 21, 2000
I'd have to agree with many of the readers here. The first half of the book is wonderfully funny - I must have laughed out loud twice on every page. But, (a bit of a spoiler here) I was quite dismayed to find he gave up on hiking the whole trail, and that he somehow thought DRIVING to a spot, day-hiking, and getting back in his car would somehow give him the knowledge or experience to write a book about hiking the AT. And I hate to call someone's behavior stupid or illogical, but what the hell was he hiking in NH with COTTON pants and a COTTON sweater for??! Could he really be that stupid after hiking 500 miles of trail? The story boils down to two woefully unprepared and inept men tossing garbage, gear, and cigarette butts as they make their way on part of the AT. I found Bryson's historical observations very interesting, but the book really fell apart after he and Katz first split up. Hilariously funny in at the beginning, it just seemed to end halfway, and left me empty by the end.
on August 30, 2004
If you are looking for a book that describes the experience of hiking the ENTIRE Applachian Trail (a.k.a. "the AT," per hiking lingo)in a year's time, then do NOT read this book.
Yep, you read that sentence correctly. This is NOT that kind of book.
Knowing this one important fact in advance (as the book jacket copy does not disclose this), then you won't be disappointed as I was when I hit the point, midway through the book, when Bryson and Katz, a friend from high school days who decides to accompany Bryson on the AT, make the decision to stop at Front Royal, Virginia, part ways for a few months, and then resume the hike later that same year in Maine's Hundred Miles Wilderness. (They don't even bother to hike the entire segment from the start of the AT to Front Royal, getting into a cab at one point to take them further along the trail.)
The first half of the book is incredibly funny and educational as Bryson prepares for the hike and begins to learn about the history of the AT. He also begins to face the truth of what it means to make this type of journey. Hiking the entire AT in a year is, after all, not your typical Sunday afternoon hike or 3-day backpacking holiday in the Sierra Mountain range. The piece on the dangers of bears is especially fine writing, and places the issue of bears in the larger context of the wilderness lands that surround us, even in large urban centers. Bryson skillfully weaves current events, history, and anecdotes about the AT.
However, the quality of the book suffers once Bryson and Katz finish the first part of their great adventure. Bryson's writing almost mirrors the disappointment he must have felt, knowing he wasn't going to finish the trail but still had to complete the writing of this book. The writing in the second half is sketchy and almost haphazard, seemingly written in bits and pieces that lack the loving flow, attention to detail, and story-telling that mark the first half of the book.
This is my first book by Bryson, and I may pick up another of his books, although I'll probably borrow it from the library rather than buy it. "A Walk in the Woods" is probably best saved for readers who already know Bryson's work from other books and are already-won fans of his writing style.
on February 27, 2002
Bill Bryson's travel writing has influenced my personal life in no small way. His 1989 book "The Lost Continent" (which I first discovered in 1996 and have since revisited many times), documenting his (mis)adventures driving cross-country in the United States, played a significant role in my own decision to hit the road and see this fascinating nation for myself. (Coincidentally, I am currently writing this review from Iowa, Bryson's birthplace and frequent target of his signature dry wit.) Having spent the greater part of his adult life abroad in England, Bryson returned to the United States with his family several years ago, settling in a small town in New Hampshire, to rediscover the land he'd left as a youth. He has since written two books about his time spent in America, one of them being "A Walk in the Woods", Bryson's account of his experiences hiking the renowned Appalachian Trail.
Considered by many to be the Holy Grail of hiking trails in the United States, the Appalachian Trail runs approximately 2,100 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine and passing through 12 additional states along the way. Every year, hundreds of people attempt to walk the entire length of the trail from beginning to end, with only a small portion of them successfully completing the endeavor. Known as "thru-hikers", the majority of these aspiring individuals underestimate the sheer scope and arduousness of the undertaking. Most drop out well before the halfway point. Those who persevere are treated to extreme temperatures hot and cold, gruesomely harsh terrains, unrelenting winds and rainfall, a wide variety of wild predators, and some of the most awesomely scenic sights of natural beauty on earth.
Bryson begins his own trek along the Appalachian Trail admittedly inexperienced and somewhat out-of-shape. Accompanied by an oafish college buddy named Katz with whom he shares a decidedly odd love-hate relationship (it often feels like Katz's sole purpose in being there is so that Bryson will always have someone to make fun of), the two set off with full backpacks on what promises to be a journey filled with humor, wit, insight and adventure. Along the way they encounter other hikers (some highly eccentric in disposition), endure the hardships of bad weather, visit neighboring small towns, and cover more ground on foot in a scant few weeks than most of us will in an entire year. Eventually they end their first phase of the hike in northern Virginia and part separate ways. Bryson continues to investigate key points along the trail in short spurts over the next several months, embarking on daytrips and brief overnighters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New England. In the last section of the book Bryson and Katz reunite to tackle the final hundred-mile stretch of the trail in Maine. Although Bryson never actually completes the entire length of the trail in true "thru-hike" fashion, he explores enough of it from enough different places to ensure that his description of the Appalachian Trial overall is valid and well-informed.
If you have read any of Bryson's previous books, you will be familiar with his penchant for digressing from the main line of action to muse on various tidbits of history, factoids and trivia. In one paragraph he'll be admiring the splendid view from a mountaintop; in the next he's providing an overview of the trail's origins. Some of this information, especially when it pertains to the ecological aspects of the Appalachian Trail, is genuinely fascinating. Bryson is also well-known for his wry and witty observations about virtually everything he encounters: from the exasperating science of shopping for hiking gear, to the shoddy upkeep of certain portions of the trail. Though not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other works, there are plenty of moments scattered throughout the book that will inspire a hearty chuckle. He also does an admirable job of conveying the beauty and grandeur, not to mention the less attractive elements, of the Appalachian Trail. Although you never obtain a true sense of actually "being there" from reading his descriptive passages, Bryson nevertheless provides an adequate depiction of what it must feel like to embark on this epic journey.
There is something agreeably comforting in reading a book by Bryson, who comes across as a friendly, educated, next-door-neighbor type of guy who would make a fine traveling companion. His informal, chatty writing style is ideally suited for a warm, lazy summer's afternoon sitting on the front porch with a glass of lemonade by your side. It's a pleasant, light reading experience that provides equal doses of laughter and insight. Although "A Walk in the Woods" is not particularly romantic, it is affectionate and sentimental in the right places, and may very well inspire me to someday throw on a pair of hiking boots and head off for a little 2,100-mile walk of my own.
on January 8, 2000
Very seldom do I read anything that makes me laugh out loud. To do so more than once or twice in a single book almost never happens. With "Walk," I became almost hysterical over certain chapters - in an airport, no less, while waiting for my flight. People must have thought I was nuts! Anyway, this is the story of two middle-aged and out of shape men (Bryson and his buddy, Katz) who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. The AT is the third longest nature trail in the US, stretching from Georgia to Maine, along some incredibly rough terrain. Not all of their journey is rustic, however, as they often take a break to spend a night in the closest little town off the trail to have a shower, sleep in a "real" bed, and wash the grime from their clothes. It is during one such trip to the laundromat that Katz has a rather interesting encounter with 300 lb. Beaulah, her extra-large-sized panties, and a washing machine. Aside from the comical adventures, Bryson also has a great deal to say about the AT itself, and in particular, how much the National Parks Service needs a giant kick in the pants to help preserve these Trails.
on March 19, 2007
Bill Bryson has a great sense of humor and an excellent, precise way of expressing it. My husband had just had heart surgery when I started reading this book. I was concerned that my LOL while reading A Walk in the Woods might disturb him as I sat next to his hospital bed. However, on the other hand, I thought it might expedite the healing process. He told me later he heard me laughing and it made him feel better. So, there you go, Bill, your book is good for heart patients!!
Bill and buddy, Stephen Katz, the only person to take Bill up on the offer to join him as he hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1997?, began their odyssey on March 9 (this just happened to be the day I began reading the book...2007). The laughs came early and continued throughout, though parts of the book are more history and information than comedy. I took notes in these sections.
Both Bryson and Katz were out of shape when they hit the AT, but Bill noticed his body slimming and becoming more svelte right away (one thing I looked for, but never found, was word on how the adventure affected Katz's weight and figure. I would've been interested in knowing that). The men hiked the AT in two segments and, incidentally, did not hike the entire trail, which they decided was okay. I agree. At any rate, they hiked a few weeks in pre- and early spring and again in the heat of August. While they were off the trail, Bryson took day trips to walk parts of the AT between where he and Katz left off and the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine they planned to hike in August. This book not only tells the tale of two men attempting to walk the 2,200 miles of the AT, but is full of history lessons, geological and geographical information, stories of lost/doomed hikers, and social intercourse (i.e., the more than rude, self-centered, and boorish hikers the boys meet on their next to last day on the trail the first time).
This book is a good companion so read it slowly, digest it thoroughly, and you will enjoy it immensely.
Carolyn Rowe Hill
on October 26, 2006
This was the first book I'd read by Bryson. I read it on the plane and laughed out loud a few times. The chapters written about hiking the trail with his friend are great, really funny. I really wish the book had been pared down to just that part of the adventure--about 3/4 of the book. His friend is seriously hilarious.
He gets a little didactic when writing about the history of the trail, and I got a little impatient with that and scanned through it.