Sunday, April 2, 2006

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson



By Christina VanGinkel

This book begins when the author, Bill Bryson, moves with his family to a small town in New Hampshire, and happens upon a sign proclaiming that the trail he has discovered is part of the famous Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is a network of trails more than 2,100 miles long, running from Georgia to Maine, and canvassing fourteen states in total, and taking in such natural wonders as the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Shenandoah Valley, just to name a few.

Once he finds this sign, he is taken in by a yearning he cannot explain to walk the length of the trail. This is actually an odyssey that many people take on, but relatively few finish. Each year though, many a well traveled hiker and just as many who do not have a clue what they are in for, head out to begin what they believe will be some sort of life affirming stroll through the woods. Even Mr. Bryson admits that much of what got him to begin the trek was a misguided sense of doing something that would get him fit, not to mention something that would be interesting. Before common sense could take hold, he announced to everyone who would listen, including his publisher that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

One of his first steps before setting out on the trail includes a trip to a local outfitter to purchase all of the equipment that he will need to carry on his back, for what should be a five-month adventure. He relates that the shopping part alone was enough to leave him both impressed and bewildered, and this part of the book is a prime example of how funny a writer Bill Bryson can be. The first time I read this book (I have to admit to reading it three times, and I imagine that I will read it again in the future!) I was laughing so hard at this part of the book that my husband actually asked me if the book was all that funny. It was and is!

He also sent out feelers at about this time that he would be welcome to the notion of someone hiking along with him, especially after reading up on the wildlife along the trail, in guide books and adventure tales about the trail, which included bears, and hearing tales of other hiker's encounters with them. When he had just about given up hope of anyone taking him up on the offer, an old friend by the name of Katz called and asked if he was still looking for someone to go along. They had hiked together in the past, when both were much younger, and had not seen each other in years. When Katz shows up just days before the hike is to begin, and is not even close to being in shape, this sort of sets up the highly entertaining hike that is about to ensue.

The story follows along as the two begin their hike from the south, in weather that they are told is record breaking cold. They meet all sorts of individuals along the trail, some nice, some entertaining, and some quite annoying. Mr. Bryson writes in a way that you are just as captivated with the other hikers he meets, as he seemed to be, and it is a definite page-turner.

The book also includes information on the trail that the author learned about as he researched the trail both before and during his hike. Information about the original designer of the trail, and the plans for it to include hostels along the way for weary travelers, and how instead every so many miles hikers are instead greeted by buildings, with three sides, that are often overrun with the likes of mice and even rats.

If you have ever dreamed of hiking the expanse of the Appalachian Trail, or just want a good read about someone who may or may not have finished the hike, then I highly recommend picking up a copy of A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Be prepared for some laughs along the way, and to find out if they actually finish the trail!

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