A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
When I was growing up a bookish kid, back in the 1970s, owning books was not a priority for my parents. ‘A roof over our head and food on the table,’ was my mother’s motto at the depths of the decade’s fiscal woes.
That didn’t mean she was hostile to books. We went to the library all the time. And she had an old, oak bookcase filled with books from her youth. Given the right deal, she’d even buy a book. That’s how I first learned of the Appalachian Trail–-in a National Geographic book about a thru-hike. I must have been 9 or 10.
Since then I’ve scrambled along various bits and pieces of the AT never once considering a thru-hike or even knocking off a whole state. You could say I’m avoiding a challenge. But as the inventor of executive camping I have a brand to maintain and actually hiking a couple of thousand miles with food and shelter on my back is inimical to the brand essence. We sweat in comfort.
A brand, though, is a good place to start with Bryson because he is a writer-brand. Bryson is travel writer. Even as I typed that last sentence I cringed a bit. A writer is a writer is a writer. Sometimes it’s art. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s published with all the pomp and circumstance of a publishing house. Sometimes its published by hitting the right key on WordPress. One ought to be able to follow a writer they enjoy wherever the journey goes.
Bryson himself knows this. Somewhere (I really need to be more disciplined about all these somewheres) he noted the difficulty he had convincing his publisher to let him handle a non-travel subject. This is the business of publishing, not writing. It’s also a branding problem. When you establish a writer in a niche, a line extension into another niche becomes more daunting.
Unless there’s a common theme. Luckily in this case there is: humour. Bill Bryson writes funny, a trick that’s far more difficult to pull off than it sounds. And not just in a wry, smile-knowingly–to-yourself, sophisticated, New-Yorker–in-the-days-of-Ross way either. I mean laugh-out-loud funny–enough to get you evicted from the quiet car on the train.
Bryson’s trek begins as an idea: find a willing companion and walk the AT from Georgia to Maine. He finds the companion–a tenderfoot pseudo-stoner from Iowa who is in recovery. The two set off from the Georgia end in a snowstorm in March (yes, it snows in the mountains in the South) with a vague plan to follow Spring all the way to Maine.
They make it to Tennessee before they rent a car and leap-frog to Virginia and call it a day for what has now become part one of the journey. This change in plans sort of comes out of nowhere. Or maybe I missed the original intent. All I know is that there are pages and pages about the indeterminate length and timing and various encounters with maps that reinforce the enormity of the task and then there’s a new plan.
Bryson conquers the middle section–West Virginia to Pennsylvania—alone, as a series of short walks from his car. He makes a case for doing this but his companion is missed. Bryson does try to find humour everywhere but it’s strongest when the butt of the joke is his coeval or himself. I find that’s usually the case with jokes because I was taught that jokes come at someone’s expense so they’re essentially mean.
For whatever reasons the sections of the trail with which I’m most familiar–New Jersey through southwestern Massachusetts–are sk ipped. That’s okay, I’ve plenty of memories of funny things happening alll over the place. Bryson returns closer to home having stumbled upon the notion of executive hiking. He gets up, makes lunch, hikes a section of trail and is home in time for dinner. Why anyone puts themselves to more trouble than this is a mystery to me.
The book, and the journey, end before the trail does. Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness does them in and they’re okay with that.
In any case, a romp and a good summer’s read if the toddlers keep you off the trails.
Fans of 1980s guitar pop may remember The Plimsouls. Their lead songwriter, Peter Case, went onto a solo career. This ditty, from his first album when he had much less hair, played in the background the entire time I was reading this book.