69 A Walk in the Woods

walkinthewoodsby Bill Bryson, 1997

Although I love the city, sometimes I bemoan the fact that there is little nature to be found here. Sure, I’m grateful to have the lakefront path but it doesn’t hold a candle to hiking in Colorado or seeing the mountains in New Mexico every day. Little did I know that when I left New Mexico as a teenager, I would one day miss the beauty that I so clearly took for granted. But here I am, and if I can’t get my nature fix from, well, nature, then at least I can find it in a book.

A Walk in the Woods is Bill Bryson’s account of his efforts to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. Having settled back in the U.S. after a number of years abroad, Bryson gets the itchy travel feet and feels the call to adventure and daring. Convinced that, as a middle-aged man, he should not be hiking alone, he calls on numerous friends to join him, but is only answered by Stephen Katz, a drunk, out of shape, crude acquaintance. Nevertheless, the two set out together on their quest from Georgia to Maine and the result can only be described as hilarious.

As with any “humble” trek into the woods, anything that can go wrong on Bryson and Katz’s hike does. Katz finds his pack too great to bear and unloads it of many of the food items they were planning on eating at their campsites. While staying in a town to do laundry and renew their provisions, Katz takes up with saucy resident Beulah, only to be run out of the town by her jealous husband. The pair are met by obnoxious campers at the trail’s sleeping shelters and are even followed for a few days by the loquacious Mary Ellen, who ruins the idea of a peaceful commune with nature by constantly criticizing their choices and regaling them with stories they didn’t ask to hear. I could only laugh in solidarity when they raced ahead to lose her and regain a modicum of tranquility.

Woven throughout the hiking narrative are bits of historical facts about the trail and how it came to be. We learn about the conception of the trail in the 20s, about Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, about the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and the fact that a lot of people chicken out right at the beginning point in Georgia. Bryson is nothing, if not thoroughly learned on the area.

Whether he and Katz will formally complete the Appalachian Trail is up in the air, but the spirit of their effort is infectious and will make you long to have the woods at your disposal, in your own backyard. I know I can’t wait to get back into nature the next chance I get.

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