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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson made a somewhat hasty decision to go for "A Walk in the Woods." He'd already committed to walking the Appalachian Trail (to friends and neighbors, to his publisher, etc) when he began to research the trail. By then he had to go through with it and (thankfully) write a book about it. Bryson is at his best in the beginning of the book when he is nervous and uncomfortable while traveling with his long lost friend, Katz. It's then that we get lines like this: "All the books tell you that if the grizzly comes for you, on no account should you run. This is the sort of advice you get from someone who is sitting at a keyboard when he gives it. Take it from me, if you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly comes for you, run. You may as well. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life."

I really like that side of Bryson, when he's funny and a bit sarcastic but not too snide. To me Bryson always feels like he is reveling in his discomfort - as though the draw to his books is more what he didn't enjoy about an experience than what he did. And that's totally great, as long as it's funny. It's when Bryson becomes too biting or complains too much that reading becomes a drain. Thankfully, that's relatively absent from most of this book. Instead we hear that, "there is nothing more agreeable, more pleasantly summery, than to stroll along railroad tracks in a new shirt." He seems to have genuinely enjoyed his time on the trail. To have really gotten something out of becoming a "mountain man."

I couldn't help but be a little proud and a little jealous. Hiking the trail is definitely not for me. I love nature. The beauty, the austerity, the solitude. But I'm terrified of it as well (as I am terrified of most things). At the height of his discomfort during one of his hikes Bryson begins to worry that he might die even as he knows that he is in a safe situation. He starts to worry about how much he's worrying. "Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to know that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me - and here was an arresting notion - unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion." And that my friends would be my thought process in the woods, which is exactly why I would not survive.

I can't neglect to mention how much we learn from "A Walk in the Woods." Of course, this book is the story of Bryson's walk, but he also packs it full of interesting history about the trail itself as well as the Forest Service (who knew bureaucracy in the woods would be such a bad thing?) and the general failings of the American people and government when it comes to nature. Also, he's got an unhealthy interest in the people who have died on the trail, and if you thought I wasn't going to attempt this 2,200 mile hike before, well, imagine me now. I really enjoyed "A Walk in the Woods." The book is full of pitch-perfect trademark Bryson, and in the end I feel that I have "gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of the woods."

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