Misled… that’s how I felt about Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” when I tried to read it in 1998, and that’s how I felt about the movie when I watched it on Tuesday night… First, let me talk about the book (see the next post for my review of the movie).
- Title: “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”
- Author: Billy Bryson
- Publication Date: May 4, 1998
- Print list price (2015 paperback editition): $8.62
- Weight: 12.6 oz, 304 pages
- Kindle edition: $7.99
I had never heard of Bill Bryson in fall of 1998 when I first stumbled upon his book, but I was an avid hiker, and I was intrigued by both the title of the book and the art on the cover… I liked to walk in the woods! It definitely looked like my kind of book… I picked it up, rolled it over, and read the summary on the back…
“The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find.” (Taken from the book description on Amazon.com)
Even better, it was a book about the Appalachian Trail (AT)! I had just finished an end-to-end hike of the 279-mile “Long Trail” in Vermont in August and was an aspiring thru-hiker… I purchased it on the spot, and couldn’t wait to get home to start reading it. I devoured the intro and all the details at the beginning, but Bryson’s humor, tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity, started to grate on me… The writing, the history, and the details about the trail kept me reading, but I was finding it hard to like Bryson’s character… the pages dragged on, Bryson’s negativity and air of superiority seemed to intensify… I was waiting, waiting for the story of how he would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being…
About 60% of the way through the book I was so disillusioned that I couldn’t take anymore (read spoiler alerts at the end of post for details), and I set the book down… I wouldn’t pick it up again until 2013, after I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike…
- Hiker: Someone who walks large distances, typically in a rural setting, for excercise or pleasure
- Section-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) sections of the Appalachian Trail, with the goal of hiking it’s entire length over the span of multiple years.
- Thru-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in less than a year.
For good, or for bad, Bill Bryson’s book is a constant topic of conversation on the Appalachian Trail. Most thru-hikers seem to have disliked the book, and the trail registers (log-books at AT shelters, where thru-hikers leave notes for each other, kind of like the notes that high school students pass to each other during class) are full of comments poking fun at Bryson. Most non-hikers, and many shorter-distance hikers I met along the way, however, loved the book.
“Have you read that book? that book by Bill Bryson?” People asked me over and over again in town and on the more popular sections of the AT… “Well, part of it,” I’d hedge. “Oh, you should finish it! It was just so good, and so funny!” Eventually I started thinking that maybe they were right… Maybe there was something that I missed? Maybe if I went into the book expecting a travelogue about Bill Bryson, instead of a book about a thru-hiker I’d enjoy it? When I first tried to read it I was 19, and Bryson’s character was supposed to be 41, maybe reading it now that I was in my 30’s would be an entirely different experience… Besides, I hate to leave things unfinished.
Did I like the book any better when I read it 15 years later? Not really… I no longer felt misled, and I was able to see a lot more merit in it, but I still didn’t like it… On the plus side, I managed to finish it this time around! Here are some of its merits and pitfalls:
Biography/Memoir Rating (4/10):
- “A Walk in the Woods” is framed around Bill Bryson’s journey exploring and researching the areas around the Appalachian Trail. It is not a book about Bryson’s personal growth and development. It is not a book about a hiker or backpacker.
- Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you like Bill Bryson’s previous books.
- Don’t: assume that you’ll find Bryson’s character likeable.
- Don’t: assume that there will be anything motivational or inspirational about the book.
- Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.
Adventure/Travel Book Rating (7/10):
- “A Walk in the Woods” is a travelogue full of fun facts connected to the Appalachian Trail, colored by Bill Bryson’s unique sense of humor, and tendency to see the worst in things. It is not a book about a hiker, and it’s not a book about a thru-hikers journey.
- Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you are a huge Bill Bryson fan, you’ll love it.
- Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you’re curious about the areas the AT passes through, like a bit of comedy, and don’t mind a sense of humor that is tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity.
- Don’t: assume that all your backpacking friends love the book.
- Don’t: assume that the book and the movie contain the same content.
- Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.
Backpacking/Wilderness/AT Guidebook Rating (1/10):
- Although “A Walk in the Woods” provides facts of interest about the trail, it does not contain any advice or guidance on appropriate backpacking behavior or etiquette. “A Walk in the Woods” is not a book about backpackers or backpacking.
- Do: learn Leave No Trace Practices before heading off on your outdoor adventure.
- Do: find good maps, and keep track of the weather before heading into the wilderness.
- Do: be tolerant of the different people you meet along the trail.
- Don’t: throw your gear into the woods because you are tired of carrying it.
- Don’t: get into a car with people that are drinking/drunk.
Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):
- Regardless of whether the individual thru-hiker you’re talking to loves, hates, or simply hasn’t read the book, rest assured that they have had many, many, many conversations about it.
- Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read (or watched) A Walk in the Woods. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead…
If you want details about why I hated the book the first time around, and still didn’t like it the second time around, here’s an in depth look at my first experience of reading the book in 1998:
(begin spoiler alert: Chapters 1-8) The first time I read the book, I just kept waiting, waiting for the story of how Bryson would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being… It didn’t happen. Just a little over a third of the way into the book the going got tough, and Bryson got going… Why hike, when you can drive? I threw the book down in disbelief, and went to bed… He’d hiked ~205 miles of the AT at that point (< 10% of the trail). The next day I picked the book up again, determined to have an open mind… So what if Bryson was calling my dream, “boring,” or a “tedious, mad, really quite pointless business…” He was just going to skip over the crowds and regulations… I could understand that… he didn’t share my dream, but he was still going to hike and explore the AT, and maybe the story of his transformation was still yet to come? Besides, they’d hiked ~205 miles (from Amicalola Falls, Georgia to Newfound Gap, North Carolina), was skipping 20 miles really all that bad? I read a couple more pages… Bryson was acting like an entitled elitist a**, and when he couldn’t get a cab to take him 20 miles, he decided f** it, if we’re gonna skip 20 miles, we might as well skip 450 miles… Gah!!! This book was not for me! It was not about what I thought it was going to be about… but I’d never left a book unfinished before…
- Yellow-Blazing: following the two yellow lines down the road (typically in a car), instead of hiking on the trail and following the single white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail
(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 9) A week later, I picked it up again. Chapter 9 started out ok, relating the history of some famous AT thru-hikers, mostly in a positive light except for Emma “Grandma” Gatwood whom he referred to as “a danger to herself.” Unfortunately, within a couple of pages his attitude shifted again and he snidely finished his description of thru-hikers, “I don’t mean that hiking the AT drives you potty, just that it takes a certain kind of person to do it.” Perhaps I could ignore his tone, and just read the words? What he actually said wasn’t all that bad… “I was still going to hike the Appalachian Trail; I just wasn’t going to hike all of it”…. “It didn’t seem altogether essential to do the other 4.5 million (steps) to get the idea of the thing.” I threw the book down again… Does doing less than 10% of a thing really give you the idea of it? Not only that, he was supposed to be rediscovering America… Can you really do that is you skip over the parts that you’re not used to, that make you uncomfortable, and that don’t match your ideal of the thing? Arghh! I’d read 40% of Bryson’s book… I’d given him more of a chance than he’d given the Appalachian Trail, surely I had more than enough justification to quit this thing!
(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 10-12) No, I decided, no I would give him a chance… there was still hope, I was less than halfway through the book… it could get better? He was still going to hike on the AT, and I loved the AT… maybe he would still grow to love it! As I plodded through Chapter 10, it seemed as if he might… “If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy-something we could all use more of in our lives,” he utters as the trail begins to grow on him. Yeah! I rejoiced as the negativity in Bryson’s prose finally started to lift, and the storytelling become more engaging (In Chapters 10-12 they hike another ~260 AT miles of the AT, from Roanoke, Virginia (Catawba, VA?) to Front Royal, Virginia).
(continue spoiler alert: Chapter 13) At the end of Chapter 12 when Katz decided to go home and Bryson took a break, I thought there was still hope for the book… I’d read 50% of the book, and they’d hiked 500 miles… that’s pretty damn respectable! Bryson claimed that he and Katz were now “hikers” and “mountain-men”… I thought the book was finally going to be about hiking… I was wrong… Bryson decides not to resume hiking in Virginia, not only has he abandoned his thru-hike, he’s not even going to backpack anymore… Relentlessly, I tried to keep reading as Bryson drove himself to Harpers Ferry, then skips up to Pennsylvania on his road-trip… I completely lost interest in the book at that point… Bryson wasn’t a likeable character, he’d left his comic foil, there was no adventure, and I just couldn’t read it anymore… I was beyond irritation and disgust now, I was just disinterested… I’d managed to read ~60% of the book, and Bryson had managed to hike ~25% of the trail…
(end spoiler alert: Chapters 14+) I didn’t read them until I re-read the book 15 years later.
Despite my misgivings about the book, I was cautiously optimistic about the film adaptation…. The preview was funny, the cast looked promising (especially Nick Nolte), and I had to admit, Bryson’s book contained a lot of comedic material. I wasn’t expecting a movie about the trail, I was expecting a movie about the book… A movie about a cynical and arrogant guy facing a mid-life crisis… a movie filled with well-scripted dialog and funny scenes with the Appalachian Trail as a backdrop.