Saturday, 1 November 2008

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: A normal person goes out hiking in America.
I have been quoted to often say Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors and I still stand by those quotes. Bryson has acquired his reputation through a series of travel books that he wrote in which he provides his own personal travel accounts; of these travel books the only one I haven't read so far was A Walk in the Woods, and the time has obviously come to make amends.
A Walk in the Woods is Bryson's account of travelling the USA's Appalachian Trail, a more than 2000 miles long hiking trail running through woods from Georgia to Maine. There was no particular reason for Bryson to do this; amongst the reasons he quotes the one that makes most sense is him being able to feel like a real man for having shat in the woods.
Bryson doesn't hike on his own, at least for the majority of the book. With him is his long time companion Katz, whom regular Bryson readers would remember from Thunderbolt Kid but mostly from Neither Here Nor There, Bryson's account of his travels through Europe. Thing is, by the time the pair has done Europe they were more likely to kill one another than hike thousands of miles together, which makes the prospects of walking for so long together in the confinement of the woods rather interesting.
While reading the story of this long walks one encounters many repeating themes, most of which are classic Bryson themes. First, Bryson does not miss an opportunity to provide as much detail as possible about the potential dangers of hiking the Appalachian Trail, focusing mostly on bears and serial killers. Reading those would make you think thrice about ever getting out of your front door, but then again Bryson knew about it all before commencing his hike yet he still walked; so take the warnings with a smile on your face (not much of a problem given that Bryson's classic sense of humor is well spread throughout the book).
Second, there is the theme of encountering rather simple/stupid people. Our pair of walkers get themselves a third wheel for a part of their walk which they do their best to shed, but most notably our pair of walkers decide to quit hiking the southern states and go to "normal" areas instead after Bryson reads a local newspaper article about the teaching of Creationism in schools. I can definitely relate there; it's just one of many issues in which I tend to think the way Bryson does, lacking much patience towards taking pride in stupidity. This agreement Bryson and I have emphasizes another point in which I relate to Bryson, which is that I try to model my own writing (including my blogs) after the Bryson model. Not that I'm saying that I'm even remotely as good as Bryson when it comes to writing; my point is that of all the hundreds or thousands of people whose writings I have read, it was Bryson who made me say "geez, that's how I want to write my own stuff".
The third theme is to do with the confinement one experiences while walking the woods for longer duration. It made Bryson appreciate the simple pleasures in life, like having soft drinks and a warm bed taken for granted. I can definitely identify with these notions: not that I walked the woods for days and days like Bryson did, but I clearly remember going home for the weekend after two weeks in the desert while at boot camp, marvelling at the sight of cars driving by and the sound of music emanating from them as if they were the most marvelous things I have ever seen. The point is, at that time they were.
The confinement of the woods, however, have also made Bryson appreciate how much we could benefit by getting rid of many of those things we take for granted. Which got him to deal a lot with a favorite motif of his, the loss of character America has been going through since the late fifties and the way it manifests itself in its treatment of the woods. Bryson clearly demonstrates how the USA will either viciously subjugate or totally ignore nature, but hardly ever learn to live next to it / with it in harmony.
Most of all, though, A Walk in the Woods is about two unlikely friends going through a major bonding experience and what they make of it. And in this regard, A Walk in the Woods is not only a funny travel account book by Bill Bryson, it is also quite a touching read.
Overall: Vintage Bryson, 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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