Thursday, November 6, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods:  Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Bryson's tale of his attempt at the Appalachian Trail is an amazing and awesome one.  He had been living in and hiking in Britain for the past 20 years, and after moving back to New Hampshire, was on a mission to reacquaint himself with America.  He had seen the entrance near his home of the Appalachian Trail, and decided to look into it.  After doing extensive research into the AT, the areas it lies on, and its creation and history, Bill Bryson sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and sees America as few rarely do. 
The AT extends from Georgia to Maine and covers over 2,200 miles of wilderness.  Extending through the various mountain systems of the Appalachian mountain chain, the trail starts at the hike to Springer Mountain, and ends at Mount Katahdin.  Bryson and his buddy Stephen Katz start out at the beginning in Georgia in frigid weather.  They hike their way through the Georgia part of the trail and into North Carolina.  They hiked alongside the Tennessee and North Carolina border and then into Smoky Mountains.  After making it to Smoky Mountains National Park, they had been hiking forever it seemed and were really getting into the flow of the hike, finding their paces and being able to hike miles a day, day after day.  They had just begun to feel like they could do it and were getting accustomed to the trail.  Then, at one stop along the trail in a gift shop they see a 4 foot model of the trail, which depicts their progress as a mere 2 inches on the entire length.  It was at that point that Bryson realized they weren't going to hike the entire trail, so they decided to skip the rest of North Carolina, having already seen 3 states hiking, and get out of the Smokies.  They got a ride to a spot further up the trail and they hiked the rest of their time in Virginia, along its Blue Ridge.  
They had only taken 6 weeks for their adventure, which, I found odd considering all of Bryson's research into the trail, and it's a feet usually completely thru-hiked in about 5 months.  2 months is the quickest anyone has hiked the entire trail.  So perhaps he knew he would only be section hiking it from the beginning?  I didn't get that part.  So Katz, who came into New Hampshire from Iowa to meet Bryson and make the hike with him, went back home after they parted ways.  Bryson took a couple of months to take care of some things, but found himself wanting to get back to the trail, so he returned to the AT and section hiked parts of the trail by himself, leaving his car, hiking, and then returning, driving farther up on the trail past where he had hiked, parking, hiking, going back to the car, etc.  He made it through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, driving along the trail and visiting towns surrounding it.  He included a lot of information about the industrial parts of Pennsylvania, and a town that had been abandoned because of underground coal fires.  He would day hike parts of it, and then walk back to the car and drive ahead some more.  He hiked most of New Hampshire and Vermont this way, and he was so close to home, he just would hike so much a day, then go back to his car and be home at night.   
Katz rejoined him later to take on Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness.  They set out for their second span together.  This part of the trail is much different than the rest.  It is seriously 100 miles after the town of Monson, with no towns or any civilization until you reach Mount Katahdin at the end.  They decided to start a few days before Monson, and hike it to get refreshed and then head off into the Wilderness.  They made it into the 100 Mile Wilderness and found it quite different than the rest of the trail.  They had to wade through more rivers with their packs held above their heads, and there was more difficult terrain to cross.  It was supposed to be 10 days across the Wilderness, but on around the third day, Katz and Bryson end up getting split up, and Bryson searches for Katz most of the day, hiking miles ahead and retracing miles of the trail, to no avail.  He ends up camping at a pond that night, the only night he camped without Katz, not knowing for sure where his friend was or if he was okay.  Katz was out of water at the time he got lost.  Bryson rises in the morning and starts looking again, and he finally finds him further on ahead on the trail.  He had gone past their rendezvous point, and left the trail in thirst searching for a lake he saw from a high point.  He ultimately got lost for hours, but found his way somehow back to the trail.  After meeting up with Bryson again, Katz is unsettled and shaky, having thought he was done for without water in the wilderness.   They ultimately decided to give it up, saying they needed to stop pretending to be Mountain men. 
Well, there is my shitty synopsis, which pretty much makes the book sounds very uninteresting, but you would have to read it to get the effect.  It's actually a very good book.  That's just the story of their adventure.  It's filled with great details of the terrain they see on the way and the people they meet, fellow hikers on the AT, townspeople, etc.  He gives a pretty graphic and objective view of the trail.  Bryson fell in love with the Appalachian Trail and pleads for its conservation, but on hiking it, he grew to hate it, while still loving it.  The book is filled with a lot of historical facts about the trail itself, from its creator and creation, to the people who maintain it, to the diseases you can catch, the bacteria growing on it, and wildlife surrounding it.  He goes into the history of towns across Pennsylvania and other states, painting a wonderful picture of the trail.  It's a pretty insane accomplishment, just that there IS such a trail, but to hike the entire thing is definitely a colossal achievement, especially thru-hiking.  Bryson also hits on the number of people that try the AT every season, and the 10% that actually make it thru-hiking (or even section hiking) all of the way to Katahdin.  There are stories of people that have very near lost their minds in the woods hiking.  Bryson says it changes people, and some people it almost unnerves completely.  Solitary confinement in trees gets to them, but they continue to push on.  To trudge, as Bryson says.  Bryson himself was a little bummed after they dropped off it and quit, but Katz explained it to him in a way I agree with: they DID hike the Appalachian Trail.  They started in Georgia and hiked in snow, in blizzards, in hot weather, in the rain and in frigid cold.  And they did end in Maine.  They hiked through different states and mountain systems.  They hiked mile after mile.  They hiked mountain after mountain.  They didn't make it to Mount Katahdin, but they hiked the Appalachian Trail.  And it was good.
                *This book is what inspired my buddy Pat to try to hike the AT.  Some would say that he didn't really do it because he didn't finish, but, I think, as this book explains, although he may not have been in the 10% that finished thru-hiking this insane endeavor, at least he went and tried it.  He set foot on it.  He camped on it.  He lived it for even a short while.  He wanted to see what it was about.  Sometimes realization is the best wisdom.  Even to see part of it would be exciting to me!  So, I personally think Pat has also hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Kudos, Pat.

- MS

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