A Walk In The Woods [Bill Bryson]

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Tea in a flask tastes weird, don’t you think?

A little over two months ago, one of my very close family friends tragically lost his life at just twenty four years old, in an avalanche in Scotland. I don’t want to go too far off track, or turn this post into a eulogy, but basically Chris was a really amazing guy who loved the outdoors, and physically challenging himself, more than anything else. Hearing from his friends and cycling team-mates about all that he did up mountains, in forests, and out on the sea was truly inspirational – and, given that I am all about brews and books, I channeled this inspiration into a search for a really great autobiographical work about a physical endeavour in a wild and adventurous setting. (And hopefully I’ll be able to have a big adventure of my own someday soon!)

I ended up with a little shortlist of adventure books (which I will list in the recommendations below) but for one reason or another they weren’t quite right. At the time I was pretty tired and emotionally drained, and so I didn’t want anything perilous or harrowing – but on the other hand I also wanted much more than an airy-fairy wander round the gastronomic hotspots of Europe. I eventually settled on A Walk In The Woods. I had read a few other Bryson titles over the years and always found his books pretty agreeable, and that he had set out to walk the length of the American Appalachian Trail (around 2200 miles according to our trusty friend Wikipedia!) made me think that this was going to be just the story of personal commitment and endurance that I was looking for. To boot, Bryson has this ‘everyman’ style of writing, and so I felt I was going to be able to put myself in his shoes (walking boots?) a lot more easily than, say, if I was reading the memoirs of a Nepalese Sherpa.

It really didn’t disappoint. For those who find that Bryson can come across as smug, or even a bit-of-a-jerk in his writing (I’m looking at you, mum), I think that your opinions would be softened or even changed by A Walk In The Woods. The enormity of the challenge he faces really humbles him. To boot, his character is perfectly balanced by his walking buddy Stephen Katz – a sort-of friend who sort-of invites himself along for the trip and gravely underestimates the physical demands of trekking up and down a seemingly never-ending bunch of mountains. For those of you that have seen him in ‘An Idiot Abroad’, Karl Pilkington is a pretty similar character to Katz. For those of you that haven’t seen that show, I would recommend you rectify that as quickly as possible.

As well as learning what physical challenges a person has to overcome when they attempt an undertaking as great as hiking the AT, Bryson also includes anecdotal history about the trail, and the places through which it passes. And this breaks up the tedium of walking… followed by more walking… and a then bit more walking. He’s a little biased in his accounts of the work of the Parks Service, and about the “devastation” suffered by some areas of the trail for one reason or another, and doesn’t really back up what he says with much hard evidence. And he is a bit of an arse to one woman he meets on the trail, and you do kind of remember why you might have taken a dislike to him in his earlier books. But on the whole, ‘A Walk In The Woods’ just reads really well, and you do feel as though you want to get straight up out of your chair and explore. And that, I feel, is really the mark of a good adventure story – fact or fiction.

Would recommend to:

Anyone who yearns to explore the world, and to have an adventure, but wants to start with a book about someone else’s adventure instead. I only partly say that with my tongue in my cheek; it is helpful and reassuring, if you’re not very confident/feel you might be too unfit to have a go at something so physically demanding, to read about an average Joe who did just take the plunge. You’re told what he could have been more prepared for, and you learn that you don’t need to be super fit or super experienced to just have a go.

Also anyone who wants to give Bill Bryson a second chance. He really is easy to get along with in this book. Promise.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

I promised you I would include the other books that made my shortlist when I was looking for something in this genre, so here it is:

‘The Snow Leopard’ by Peter Matthiesen

‘Into The Wild’ by John Krakauer

‘Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail’ by Cheryl Strayed

If you’d like something non-fiction but in the same vein you could give ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland (one of my favourite books) a shot, or try ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

What do you think?

Which camp do you fall into when it comes to Mr. Bryson? Have you attempted to walk the AT, or pushed yourself to your physical limits in another way? I’d love to hear your stories and suggestions in the comments.

Artwork credit: This is a photo I took (and then tinkered with, I know, sorry) on a walk down the River Ribble in Lancashire, which is where I live. I thought it was pretty apt for this post.

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