Some Appalachian Trail hikers just love to hate “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson.
It happens to be the best-selling and most widely-read book about the Trail.
Which makes him a fat and happy writer.
Not only that, but a writer with a Hollywood movie deal.
And that’s why folks love to hate him, because many thru-hikers have aspirations of writing a novel about their own journey.
Friends and family encourage this illusion, with comments like “Oh that’s so wonderful, you should write a book about your adventures!”
And Bryson didn’t even hike the whole trail.
That’s right, he only did a “pitiful” 870 miles of it. A good chunk of that was on day hikes, presumably whilst pounding cupcakes and whistling Dixie.
Yet he wrote the most popular book about the Appalachian Trail.
And you didn’t.
So how did he do it?
He wrote a book, not a journal.
Bryson blazed the trail on how to write a successful book about long distance hiking (Pun certainly intended, thank you). It goes something like this:
- Hero decides to do something crazy (hike).
- Hero buys a lot of equipment at an outfitter.
- Hero embarks on the journey, struggles with heavy backpack.
- Hero begins to figure things out.
- Hero learns lessons.
- Hero ends journey and finds some level of fulfillment.
Great stories in literature and pop culture can be broken down similarly. A Walk in the Woods is a well-crafted book by a professional writer, not a journal!
The guy is downright funny and easy to relate to. Most people aren’t crazy elitist thru-hikers. Most people are scared of bears, and most people think that hiking 870 miles is pretty darn amazing.
He doesn’t bore us with details, or beat us over the head with the following drudgery:
- daily miles
- specifics on breakfast, lunch, and dinner
- daily changes in weather
- details about gear
- personal backstory
Instead he does something far more effective.
He teaches us things.
When was the last time your wrote an interesting fact in your trail journal that wasn’t directly paraphrased from a guidebook?
The guy did his research.
Let’s face it, reading about hiking is never very interesting. So he found things that are interesting.
The greater “story” aspect of the book really only takes place when Katz is around. Katz disappears partway through the book and doesn’t come back until the final chapters.
Even when Katz is there, the forward progression of our intrepid heroes is broken up by facts about the trail and its surroundings that actually interests readers.
He teaches us in a way that’s especially entertaining and funny. Even the most experienced hikers learn something from this book.
He didn’t thru-hike, but 870 miles is a long way… long enough to almost “get it” about thru-hiking. And in this case, almost getting it is enough to write a very good book.
It’s all there:
- Characters of the trail like Mary Ellen and Chicken John
- The rapture of arriving in town and getting that first shower.
- The culture shock of town
- Sleeping in shelters.
- Sleeping in a hostel
- The overall feeling of being on the trail.
Descriptions of scenery hit home without being flowery and indulgent.
The main places are there too:
- The Smokies
- The Shenandoah’s
- The Pennsylvania rocks
- Mount Washington and the Whites
Still not convinced? Here’s thirteen quotes to prove it.
#1 “You become an informal clump…”
Ask any number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers about their big take-aways from the experience, and every single one will mention “the people.” The people they met, the quick friendships and camaraderie.
It’s clear that Bryson wasn’t especially interested in bonding with other hikers, but he sees the phenomena and touches upon it. They even make a friend called “Connolly” in Shenandoah, where they happen to be grilled by tourists with the usual “20 questions,” yet another experience with which we all can relate.
#2 “The whole point of the experience…”
In my own journal I said this less eloquently with simple phrases like “MMM I love Coke,” and so on. Once again Bryson succinctly sums it up and even makes us laugh.
I remember a similar sensation when presented with bagels that were still actually whole and fluffy and not crushed.
#3 “There is a phenomenon called Trail Magic…”
A Walk in the Woods was first published in 1997, before the meaning of the term “trail magic” meant coolers of soda pop along the road and huge “hiker feed” BBQ-cookout events.
Thru-hiking with a dedicated purpose is an especially distilled way of life. After a short time, strange things begin to happen in a fateful manner. Chance encounters occur again and again, and things fall into place so often and so perfectly that even the staunch atheist begins to wonder – what the hell is really going on here?
That’s trail magic. Like Bryson says, I speak of it “with reverence.”
#4 “Woods are not like other spaces…”
The Appalachian Trail is a narrow corridor of forest surrounded by some of the most concentrated populations in the United States. On a clear day you can even see the Manhattan skyline from a piece of the trail in New York.
Most of the time you can’t even sense the surrounding cities. The trail is the classic “long, green tunnel,” indeed a “featureless nowhere.” It’s a hideout not unlike Sherwood forest, where you can temporarily break free of the trappings of modern society with a merry band of eccentric backpackers.
The woods give the illusion of wilderness where there is none.
#5 “Most of the time you don’t think…”
In my journals I’ve talked about going into “hiker mode” and simply assumed my readers knew what the heck I was talking about… or I’d mention “being in the zone” or “daydreaming.” These aren’t bad descriptions, but just barely adequate.
Once again Bryson shows his chops by describing the sensation perfectly.
#6 “Maine is deceptive…”
That’s neat. I didn’t know that. Did you?
I could put together a whole separate post on neat little facts that Bryson teaches us. In many ways his walk with Katz takes a backseat to the overall education about the Appalachian Trail – its forests and history.
Here’s another one:
“What the Forest Service does is build roads … There are 378,000 miles of roads in America’s national forests … it is eight times the total mileage of America’s interstate highway system. It is the largest road system in the world in the control of a single body.”
#7 “Talking equipment…”
If you’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail, then at least once you’re going to have to talk about gear (Okay, probably a whole lot more than once).
Bryson, professional writer and non-journal-keeper that he is, whips out yet another entertaining simile with seemingly no effort.
#8 “Somebody in a shelter…”
We’ve all heard this one before. Golden tales are spun by veterans throughout Georgia, Carolina, and Tennessee about how “Virginia is flat.”
Once again Bryson expresses this common experience better than any journal-keeper.
#9 “I just wanted to know what I was doing out here…”
Bryson has a low point on Piney Mountain, a nondescript location in southern Pennsylvania. It takes place shortly after he begins his day-hiking excursions, in an effort to experience as much of the trail as he can. It’s one of his first hikes without Katz.
The surrounding pages reek of the disillusion and suffocating pointlessness that most aspiring thru-hikers (And even the successful ones) have struggled with. He externalizes his frustration by lashing out at the supposed poor quality of the maps in Pennsylvania, for example.
Completion rates are higher these days. Today approximately 3 out of every 10 hikers who intend to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail actually follow through and complete it, as opposed to about 1 out of 10 in the 1990’s.
It’s evident that the great majority of hikers experience the overwhelming urge to quit, and Bryson covers it well. Elitist thru-hikers don’t like A Walk in the Woods because Bryson didn’t finish the trail, but guess what?
Most people don’t finish the trail.
#10 “I hate all this technology on the trail…”
Bill Bryson walked the Appalachian Trail in 1996.
Oh, how things have changed.
#11 “When you’re on the AT, the forest is your universe…”
After a time on the trail it becomes your whole world. You’re aware that the “real world” is out there somewhere, but you are separate, apart.
Some hikers like to object. The trail, instead, is the real world.
#12 “We got airy views…”
We tend to view the “real world” in a more positive light after some time on the trail, but here Bryson draws upon pure nostalgia.
A great part of the Appalachian Trail experience for me was getting back in touch with the summers of childhood. There were days on the trail in mid-summer when I’d hear dogs barking in the valley below, or the sound of lawnmowers. Occasionally the fireflies would come out in the evening, or “lightning bugs” as we called them.
A summer thru-hike replicates the days of playing outside without a care in the world. Here Bryson taps that vein so deftly it’s seemingly by accident, without falling victim to taking himself too seriously.
#13 “The thing about walking is that it’s not eventful…”
This quote isn’t from A Walk in the Woods, it’s from an interview Bryson gave to Town and Country Magazine in 2015 to spread publicity for the movie. Clearly the focus of his hike was to get a book out of it, and he succeeded against all odds.
Those who love to hate Bryson tend to focus on the last line of the book, where he says “I don’t care what anyone says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”
The argument goes that one needs to hike every inch of it to “hike the Appalachian Trail,” which is true in a sense.
But Bryson hiked enough of it to get a good book out of it, which is all he really set out to do. Not only that, but he captured the experience and shared it far more effectively than the drudgery that is 99% of our trail journals.
Did you like A Walk in the Woods?