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A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail Mass Market Paperback – December 26, 2006
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Your initial reaction to Bill Bryson's reading of A Walk in the Woods may well be "Egads! What a bore!" But by sentence three or four, his clearly articulated, slightly adenoidal, British/American-accented speech pattern begins to grow on you and becomes quite engaging. You immediately get a hint of the humor that lies ahead, such as one of the innumerable reasons he longed to walk as many of the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail as he could. "It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth" is delivered with glorious deadpan flair. By the time our storyteller recounts his trip to the Dartmouth Co-op, suffering serious sticker shock over equipment prices, you'll be hooked.
When Bryson speaks for the many Americans he encounters along the way--in various shops, restaurants, airports, and along the trail--he launches into his American accent, which is whiny and full of hard r's. And his southern intonations are a hoot. He's even got a special voice used exclusively when speaking for his somewhat surprising trail partner, Katz. In the 25 years since their school days together, Katz has put on quite a bit of weight. In fact, "he brought to mind Orson Welles after a very bad night. He was limping a little and breathing harder than one ought to after a walk of 20 yards." Katz often speaks in monosyllables, and Bryson brings his limited vocabulary humorously to life. One of Katz's more memorable utterings is "flung," as in flung most of his provisions over the cliff because they were too heavy to carry any farther.
The author has thoroughly researched the history and the making of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson describes the destruction of many parts of the forest and warns of the continuing perils (both natural and man-made) the Trail faces. He speaks of the natural beauty and splendor as he and Katz pass through, and he recalls clearly the serious dangers the two face during their time together on the trail. So, A Walk in the Woods is not simply an out-of-shape, middle-aged man's desire to prove that he can still accomplish a major physical task; it's also a plea for the conservation of America's last wilderness. Bryson's telling is a knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud funny trek through the woods, with a touch of science and history thrown in for good measure. (Running time: 360 minutes, four cassettes) --Colleen Preston --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Returning to the U.S. after 20 years in England, Iowa native Bryson decided to reconnect with his mother country by hiking the length of the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. Awed by merely the camping section of his local sporting goods store, he nevertheless plunges into the wilderness and emerges with a consistently comical account of a neophyte woodsman learning hard lessons about self-reliance. Bryson (The Lost Continent) carries himself in an irresistibly bewildered manner, accepting each new calamity with wonder and hilarity. He reviews the characters of the AT (as the trail is called), from a pack of incompetent Boy Scouts to a perpetually lost geezer named Chicken John. Most amusing is his cranky, crude and inestimable companion, Katz, a reformed substance abuser who once had single-handedly "become, in effect, Iowa's drug culture." The uneasy but always entertaining relationship between Bryson and Katz keeps their walk interesting, even during the flat stretches. Bryson completes the trail as planned, and he records the misadventure with insight and elegance. He is a popular author in Britain and his impeccably graceful and witty style deserves a large American audience as well.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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Top customer reviews
Mr. Bryson's disgusting regionalism really takes the shine off an otherwise entertaining story.
Oh, "A Walk in the Woods" could have been good. It could have been SO GOOD. For the most part, it actually was. The first couple of chapters had me almost shivering with delight at Bryson's curmudgeonly humor and self-deprecating wit, and once, I even laughed out loud. Bryson is the kind of unpretentious, straightforwardly spot-on prose stylist that makes good writing look terrifically easy. Throughout the book, he balances action and description, narrative momentum and entertaining diversions, with a masterful hand. Whatever subject Bryson takes up, be it continental drift or bear attacks or early American amateur botanists or a Pennsylvania coal fire that's burned for over thirty years (over fifty, as of the writing of this review) or the history of the trail itself, becomes instantly and effortlessly fascinating.
What almost ruined "A Walk in the Woods" for me, however, was almost every scene in which Bill Bryson interacts with other human beings. The traveling companion with whom Bryson shares most of his walk, Stephen Katz (a somewhat fictionalized version of his friend Matthew Angerer), is portrayed unflatteringly but ultimately with affection, and the book is dedicated to him. (Angerer has admitted in interviews that he's not thrilled about how Bryson portrays him, but it's a pretty accurate portrayal aside from a few fabricated or exaggerated incidents.) Almost everyone else Bryson meets on the trail, however, becomes an object of mockery. The gentle good humor of the first few chapters quickly turns nasty. It was funny when Bryson listed "loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex" along with "rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; . . . rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm" in a catalogue of the trail's potential perils, but it stopped being funny when I realized he actually meant it: Bryson honestly expects the Appalachian woods to be full of violent, inbred stereotypes incarnate.
Look, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon myself. I *love* laughing at human stupidity. Nobody laughs louder than I do when Bill Engvall does his "Here's Your Sign" routine. However, Bryson's need to sneer at the intellectual poverty of nearly everyone he meets says more about him than it does about any of them. Towards the end of the book, he asks a fellow hiker he meets at a guesthouse a question he has to admit is "a trifle" inane, the sort of thing he's spent 250 pages mocking other people for saying, and then he has the gall to describe the manner of her answer as "serenely mindless." (When she and her traveling companion pray over their meal and credit God with helping them keep a positive attitude despite the rigors of the trail, Bryson "made a mental note to lock my door when I went to bed.") The first time Bryson decides to skip a portion of the trail, it's because the citizens of Tennessee are too stupid for his liking. (Even if Tennesseans were as cretinous as Bryson makes them out to be, it's unclear why that should matter when he's spending most of his time in the state *alone in the woods*.) If there's anything Bryson dislikes even more than stupid people, it's fat people. He himself admits at the beginning of the book to being somewhat less than svelte after "years of waddlesome sloth," and at the end that his exertions on the trail left him "slender and fit" for "a brief, proud period," which is implied to be long over. Other fat people, however, including his friend Katz, are just plain ridiculous and disgusting. Bryson professes admiration for a 350-pound man who thru-hiked the trail (which Bryson himself never even seriously attempted), but clearly doesn't admire him enough to refrain from calling him a "human beachball," or dismissing the 53 pounds the man lost as "a trifle, all things considered." Fat women, or any other female who doesn't meet Bryson's standard of attractiveness, who dare to express sexual interest in a man are simply beneath contempt. In perhaps the single meanest anecdote in a book liberally peppered with meanness, Bryson introduces us to "a charmless, gum-popping waitress who declined to be heartened by our wholesome smiles . . . let's call her Betty Slutz." Actually, there's no need to call her anything, since she's never mentioned again after this page - and the misogyny of the insult is purely gratuitous, since her behavior as Bryson describes it is surly, not sexually provocative.
Bryson's apparent delight in fault-finding carries over to the trail itself, although with less petty meanness. Anyone who heads out into the wilderness with a backpack has earned the right to grumble-brag a bit about aches and privations, but Bryson doesn't actually seem to enjoy the hike or really understand why he's doing it, except that he got the notion into his head and can't back out now (why do I get the feeling the fancy camping gear he buys was paid for with a publisher's advance?). He wishes the trail were a bit less wild, less wooded, more in contact with at least the fringes of civilization, even though he's profoundly unimpressed with nearly all of the towns it does pass through. (Most hikers, after several days or weeks in the woods, are nearly ecstatic for a chance to take a shower, eat a hot meal or two, sleep for a night in a proper bed, and listen awhile to the hum of human conversation before heading back out on the trail, but not Bryson: he wants cul-chah and refinement, or something.) He raises some valid criticisms of the National Park Service, but doesn't give them any credit for the things they actually have accomplished. Perhaps most damning, Bryson rails against acid rain and accidentally-imported tree diseases, but he treats Katz's littering, which he actually had the power to do something about, as a big joke.
Perhaps I'm doing a bit of a Bryson myself here, pointing out all the flaws of something I basically enjoyed. If I can't recommend "A Walk in the Woods" wholeheartedly, well, neither do I mean to say you *shouldn't* read it. Most of this book is a pleasure to read, both entertaining and informative, and often very funny. If you're considering a thru-hike (or even a substantial section-hike) of the Appalachian Trail, you'll want to read some accounts by those who have actually hiked the whole way, or made a serious attempt to do so. (Bryson hikes only about two-fifths of the trail; that's no mean accomplishment, especially since more than half that distance he was backpacking hardcore in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, but he skipped or day-hiked nearly everything above the Mason-Dixon line - ironic, considering his utter disdain for the South.) For the armchair traveler, however, it's excellent fun and a journey well worth taking. I wish only that Bill Bryson had been better company along the way.