There’s an awkward and telling moment, early in Bill Bryson‘s new book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, in which he casts about for the exact reasons he’s subjecting himself to a five-month slog through the underbrush. There’s the fitness rationale: Bryson is a mildly overweight, middle-aged writer who’s tired of looking, as he puts it, like ”a cupcake.” There’s the he-man rationale: when faced with impending danger, Bryson would like to feel more like a flinty Cormac McCarthy protagonist than someone who is ”jumpier than Don Knotts with pistol drawn.” Finally, there’s the ecological rationale: the Appalachian wilderness is endangered in any number of ways, and the author hopes to fax his readers an urgent dispatch from the front lines.
The moment is telling not because of what Bryson says but because of what he declines to say. Unlike many contemporary travel writers, Bryson good-humoredly refuses to use the opening sections of his book to unburden himself about his ”inner” journey, to serve up his psyche on a platter. Don’t look to ”A Walk in the Woods” for forced revelations about failed relationships or financial ruin or artistic insecurity. Bryson is hiking the trail because it’s there, and he’s great company right from the start — a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley and (given his fondness for gross-out humor) Dave Barry. When he has gone five days with little more to eat than some awful dried noodles, Bryson doesn’t deliver any profound thoughts on the primal nature of hunger. Instead he confesses that the moon has begun to resemble ”the creamy inside of an Oreo cookie.”
Bryson’s breezy, self-mocking tone may turn off readers who hanker for another ”Into Thin Air” or ”Seven Years in Tibet.” Others, however, may find themselves turning the pages with increasing amusement and anticipation as they discover that they’re in the hands of a satirist of the first rank, one who writes (and walks) with Chaucerian brio.
Bryson is an American who spent 20 years living in England, and among his first revelations is how deeply the idea of walking anywhere cuts against the grain of his native country. The typical American, he writes, walks a mere 350 yards a day — a staggering figure, even when you consider how few footpaths there are here and how antipedestrian our road system can be. As anyone who has tried to walk even a mile along an American thoroughfare knows, there’s no quicker way to invite scorn, pity and perhaps even self-destruction.
In Bryson’s view, America’s antiwalking tendencies have spilled over into the management of the Appalachian Trail. He is clearly in awe of this megapath, which stretches for more than 2,100 heavily forested miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. (The trail, which was completed in 1937, is said to be the largest volunteer-run undertaking on the planet.) But he is also a shrewd critic of its deficiencies — its dangerously bad maps, mice-infested lodgings and strict rules that keep hikers from wandering from designated paths.
Bryson is particularly hard on the United States Forest Service, which he suggests is far more preoccupied with bulldozing than preservation. ”There are 378,000 miles of roads in America’s national forests,” he writes — eight times the total mileage of our interstate highway system. ”To say that these guys like to build roads barely hints at their level of dedication. Show them a stand of trees anywhere and they will regard it thoughtfully for a long while, and say at last, ‘You know, we could put a road here.’ ”
”A Walk in the Woods” isn’t necessarily a book that makes you want to start packing for your own 2,100-mile jaunt. Bryson and his traveling companion — a blustery, almost Falstaffian junk-food addict named Stephen Katz — commence their journey on a cruel, snowy spring morning in Georgia, and they quickly arrive at one of their central observations about the Appalachian Trail: that it runs through deep forest. And then more deep forest. Because the trail only rarely offers the refreshment of open meadows or grand vistas, Bryson writes: ”Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle.”
Bryson’s book is anything but a pointless circle. Once he and Katz have hit their stride, there are countless fine moments on the unexpected joys of deprivation and the possible threats from bears, hypothermia and the often spooky (think ”Deliverance”) strangers they meet along the way.
Every year, some 2,000 people try to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. Only 200 or so make it to the finish. As it happens, Bryson and Katz don’t find themselves among that elite group. In fact, they don’t even come close. ”A Walk in the Woods” ends on a somewhat pathetic note, as Bryson tries to drive to sections of the trail that he’s missed, so he can day-hike through them. But few readers are likely to mind. You don’t sign on with Bryson’s big adventure because you expect him to show you how hairy-chested he can be. You sign on because he’s one of the most engaging cupcakes around.