I don’t hike. Off the top of my head, best guess would be the longest distance walked at one time is four miles, and that on a pristine beach, flat, soft and easy on bare feet. For one reason or another hiking has never seemed like an activity well suited to my style of physical activity. Walking down the block or strolling city streets has never given me a moment’s pause and I can also last a good while on a treadmill, but heavy boots and heavy backpack on a wooded mountain path never caught my fancy.
Until I read Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods.
The Appalachian Trail running 2,100 miles from northern Georgia to northern Maine is a series of connected hiking trails traversing fourteen states and half a dozen mountain ranges that was completed in 1937. The elevation gain in hiking the entire trail is equal to climbing Mt Everest sixteen times and every year something like 2,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the trail. It is also popular with day-hikers and between 2 and 3 million walk a portion of the trail every year.
Along with a friend, writer Bill Bryson hiked 500 miles of the trail and wrote a book about his experiences. He wrote about living on instant ramen noodles and Snickers bars for days at a time, about walking an incline in the pouring rain for hours on end with 45 pounds perched on his back and about some of the people they met along the way. His pages are brimming with historical anecdotes about both the trail and the people who helped develop it to what it is today. He writes of a Pennsylvania coal mining town along the route that is home to an underground coal fire that has been burning for decades. One chapter tells of the numbers of birds that at one time filled the trail with song but are now no more. Another describes the geological formation that created this particular stretch of eastern America. Each successive chapter, whether it be about blight, wildlife, characters along the trail, fatigue, odd little towns or staring contests with a moose is a surprise, each is an essential part of the experience told with humor and insight.
On every other page of the book I kept telling myself that this was a hike I wanted to take. Of course, that thought also came with the knowledge that the boots, backpack and ramen noodles would defeat me a half mile down the trail. The thing about the really good travel writers is that they make you feel as if you’re walking right beside them. Bryson never once falls down in that respect.
Like so many good books, this was another gem a long time coming to my attention. For years I’ve been familiar with Bill Bryson and have even read one or two others of his books, but A Walk in the Woods found a special place among my list of books not to be missed. Grab up a bowl of trail mix, a canteen of water and go for an armchair hike with Bryson and his friend Katz.
We can also look forward to a movie version of the book coming out in September starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.