Bill Bryson is just an ordinary guy who happens to have a job as a writer. He stumbles through life with all its ups and downs just like the rest of us. The only difference is that Bryson writes about his experiences and loyal fans on several continents devour his words.
A Walk in the Woods begins with Bryson out on a day hike near his house. He accidentally runs into a point on the Appalachian Trail (AT) which runs from Georgia to Maine.
Bryson is intrigued and visualizes hiking the complete route himself. A little voice in my head said: "Sounds neat! Let's do it!"
And so the imaginary trek became a reality. Bryson is the first to admit that he's not a great hiker. He fills the first chapters of his book with amusing stories of learning about the AT and buying the proper equipment.
Bryson's hiking partner is an old friend with whom he's had minimal contact the past few years. Dave Katz is best described as a drinking buddy-type guy who would enjoy a cold beer or few after a day's hike. Not quite the best partner for this endurance test, but nobody else is lining up to go with Bryson.
The pair begins their journey in Georgia. It's clear from the beginning that they're ill-equipped and inexperienced for all that is ahead of them. Bryson details his trip with humor and keen observation in A Walk in the Woods.
First and foremost, this is a travel book. It's designed for leisurely reading, rather than a reference book for the AT. Advanced hikers will gain little knowledge from this work. Actually, the book is ideal for armchair hikers who, like Bryson, think walking the AT would be "fun."
The chapters are set based on the progress the pair makes toward Maine. There's discussion of animal hazards, physical and weather hazards and even mental hazards that put hikers at risk. In true Bryson form, this drama is seasoned with the humor of a man who can't take anything seriously.
My favorite feature of the book deals with the other hikers Bryson and Katz encounter of their journey. There's those who have the latest gear and every electronic gadget known to man. There are those whose stupidity defies nature and Darwin's theory in general. Somewhere in the middle are the rest of the folks, just trying to fulfill their dreams. Bryson captures all of them for his work.
I'd classify A Walk in the Woods as a travel narrative for readers who have an interest in the AT experience without the biting urge to actually explore it themselves. If nothing else, the book will give potential hikers a glimpse of life on the trail and the months (!) it takes to hike end to end.
Within the narratives, Bryson takes time to discuss the areas in which he is hiking. He gives a brief history of the development of the AT as well as his own opinion on government forest and parks services.
At points, the flowing story seems to halt, as Bryson takes a time out to give readers nature lessons. These lectures are present in just about every chapter. Usually, the subject matter is quite depressing, though true. Bryson talks about what used to be here before stupid humans mowed it down, or what used to live there before the government let the species go extinct. Granted, his observations may be 100% true, but they bring down the tone of this generally upbeat book.
It should also be noted that this is a recording of a single season in the life of Bill Bryson, and it does deviate from the trail. At a point, Katz and Bryson take a break from their journey. The author continues to record his observations and feelings regarding the AT. He takes day hikes by car and has an interesting day near an underground fire that's been burning for decades.
Weeks later the men begin the tail end of the AT: 100 miles in the wilderness to a remote peak in Maine. I opt not to reveal how their journey ends. Let's just say they learn a lot about themselves and this intimidating dirt path.
I enjoyed A Walk in the Woods despite the depressing nature lectures. This book could never be used for reference. It's more of a record of one personal experience on the AT. The story is funny and interesting. I learned that I'll never have the urge to hike the Appalachian Trail. Bill Bryson already did it for me.