A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I should start with my background: I am not a multi-day hiker, though I’ve gone on on many short day hikes. I also have a trail walking background, having walked numerous trail races ranging from 30 miles (or 50 km) to 100 miles, but my walks were organized in that there were aid stations every so often (say, 3 to 5 miles apart) and I was aiming to finish the course as quickly as I could. I wasn’t walking with a 40-50 pound pack, filtering water, reading topographic maps, setting up tents, etc.

I have dreams of taking a multi-day hike, but for now, I might work on building up to something like this.

But it all depends on how/if my knee heals up.

Now back to the book: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

The plot is simple: an overweight, out of shape smoker decides that he is going to hike the Appalachian Trail from one end to the other. He gets someone to go with him: someone who is a fatter, even more out of shape smoker. Yes, this character is based on a real person, though Bryson uses some creative liberties in telling the story.

What I liked about it: of course, the writing is engaging and the stories are funny. But this was not a “we did this and that today” journal entry story. There is much about the history of the Appalachian trail, the geology (both present and natural historical), the associated nature and wildlife, as well as rants against the Forrest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Park Service. There are social observations on the various types of people that one meets, including the “full of beans know-it-all” (Mary Ellen), the “full of themselves and oblivious to others” (the suede boots group) types and the lovable but bumbling and yet somehow successful types (Chicken John), among many others.

There was also some good, solid information (what to expect in what parts of the trail, what the shelters were like in places, stuff about the terrain and the necessary hiking gear).

There was also some interesting observations/rants about human nature, some of which I will comment on.

What I didn’t like about it: Some of the humorous stuff (Katz getting rid of stuff from his pack, throwing soda cans into the brush, leaving cigarette buts as “bread crumbs to be followed” was littering, plain and simple. I cringed when I read that. Also, well, you can guess part of the story from the last line of the book:

So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.

This is a classic rationalization for failure that is so accepted now-a-days: “we ran the marathon even though we didn’t do the whole course“, “I healed the patient even if he died”, “I built the bridge even though it collapsed”, etc.

By the way, they did cover many miles though, remember, these were two fat, out of shape guys.

What the book isn’t: it is not a “how to” manual (though some good tips are given; I found the blurb about hypothermia to be useful) nor is it a journal about athletic/physical competence. For the latter, I recommend the chapter about David Horton’s AT speed record (52 days!) in the book Runners and Walkers by Steven Boga. Note: Horton, while a world class ultrarunner, is also very religious and invokes help from his deity a lot. Nevertheless that chapter is a gripping read that many of us mere mortals can relate to.

Now back to Bryson’s book:

Bryson takes some shots at certain aspects “Americana”. On page 103 he talks about Gatlinburg, Tennessee (in the Smoky Mountains):

And then we went out to see the town. I was particularly eager to have a look at Gatlinburg because I had read about it in a wonderful book called The Lost Continent. In it the author describes the scene on Main Street thus:

Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on the bellies, consuming ice creams, cotton candy and corn dogs, sometimes simultaneously.

And so it was today. The same throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks wandered between food smells, clutching grotesque comestibles and bucket-sized soft drinks. It was still the same tacky, horrible place. Yet I would hardly have recognized it from just nine years before. Nearly every building I remembered had been torn down and replaced with something new; principally, mini-malls and shopping courts, which stretched back from the main street and offered a whole new galaxy of shopping and eating opportunities.

Remember, this is being written by a fat smoker.

This followed his observation from page 102:

For years, it [the local tourist industry] has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cares and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat eat dribbly food. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular park in America, but Gatlinburg, this is so unbelievable, is more popular than the park.

I can believe this. In 2001, I took in the “Georgia Alps” and drove to hike some of the trails; I ended up running 10 miles of trails in Unicoi State Park in Northern Georgia during Labor Day weekend. (easy trails and the trail that takes you into Helen). The towns and local areas were crowded; the trails were all but empty, though they were well maintained.

In Chapter 14, Bryson describes his experiences in Pennsylvania. In this stretch (which he did alone), he would drive to a trail head, do part of the trail in out and back fashion, get back in his car and drive to another access point. In short, he did a series of day hikes on many parts of the trail. But most interesting was his description of the the (former) town of Centralia. Basically, there was an underground coal fire that just could not be put out; that lead to this town becoming unlivable (page 181)

Sensors sunk into the earth showed that the temperature thirteen feet under the [gas station gas] tanks was almost 1000 F. Elsewhere people were discovering that their cellar walls and floors were hot to the touch. By now, smoke was seeping from the ground all over the town, and people were beginning to grow nauseated and faint from the increased levels of carbon dioxide in their homes.

In the later pages, he describes the almost surreal scene of observing this mostly razed area with roads (and stop signs!) still standing while smoke seeped from the ground. Later, on page 185, he talks about his being hassled and run away from a parking lot where he was attempting to observe environmental damage from a zinc mill:

At one end of town, I spotted what I had come to find, a steep broad eminence, perhaps 1500 feet high and several miles long, which was almost entirely naked of vegetation. There was a parking lot beside the road and a factor a hundred yards or so beyond. I pulled into the lot and got out to gawk; it was truly a sight.
As I stood there, some fat guy in a uniform stepped out of a security booth and waddled towards me looking cross and officious.

He goes on to tell how he was asked to leave and tried to; but he was then kept from leaving when he wouldn’t give his name to the security guard. You’ll have to read the book to find out how it turned out. 🙂

Bryson spends a bit of time discussing some philosophy of how to lay out hiking trails. He makes an interesting point: he feels that the very long trails ought to include a mixture of wilderness and of civilization, including farm land and towns (as the trails do in Europe) (pages 199-200):

…America’s attitude toward nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me. I couldn’t help comparing my experience now with an experience I’d had three of four years earlier in Luxembourg when I went hiking with my son for a magazine assignment. Luxembourg is a much more delightful place to hike than you might think. It has lots of woods but also castles and farms and steepled villages with winding river valleys; on the whole, as it were, the whole European package. The footpaths we followed spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny back roads over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets. We were always able at tome point each day to call in at a bakery or post office, to hear the tinkle of shop bells and evesdrop on conversations we couldn’t understand. Each night we slept in an inn and ate in a restaurant with other people. […]

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition; either your ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart as along the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson also takes shots at some of the technology and, well, just read to get the point (from pages 211-214; he was at the peak of Stratton Mountain):

eight or nine other people were scattered around the summit, including one youngish, rather pudgy man on his own in a very new and expensive looking windcheater. He had some kind of handheld electronic device with which he was taking mysterious readings of the sky or landscape.

It turned out to be a meter which read off things like temperature, humidity, UV exposure, etc. Byson goes on:

…he [the pudgy man] had no pack, and so no waterproofs, and was wearing shorts and sneakers. If the weather did swiftly deterioate, and in New England, it most assuredly can, he would probably die, but at least he had a machine that would tell him when and let him know his final dew point.

Bryson goes on to argue that this technology can lead unprepared people to think that they know what they are doing, and he goes on to list a few episodes in which people called for rescue because “they were tired” or “were out longer than they thought and that they might miss an important business meeting”, etc.

And as far as unpredictable weather goes, Chapter 18 describes Mount Washington. That is very entertaining; he describes being caught in a sudden weather change, without HIS waterproofs, that HE forgot to pack! I suppose that one can show up unprepared even if one isn’t a techno-geek, huh? 🙂

The final sections are devoted to Byrson and Katz attempting to finish the final 100 miles of the Appalachian trail in Maine; given that this is said to be the toughest stretch…well, read to find out how successful they are. 🙂 Nevertheless, reading this gives one an appreciation of what David Horton and other successful through hikers did, especially when you realized that they covered this 100 miles after a 2100 mile warm up!

In short: I am glad that I read the book; it is well written, engaging, and talks about many topics (nature, social, political, human nature, and yes, hiking). It is funny too. But there will probably be parts that offend different people (me: the littering and smoking).

July 14, 2010 - Posted by | books, hiking, nature, running, social/political, travel, ultra, walking

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