Bill Bryson, whose previous travelogues The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There, and Notes from a Small Island have garnered the author quite a following, now returns to his native United States after more than two decades of living abroad. In order to rediscover America by, as he puts it, "going out into an America that most people scarcely know is there," he set out to walk, in the company of Stephen Katz, his college roommate and sometime nemesis, the length of the Appalachian Trail. His account of that adventure is at once hilarious, inspiring, and even educational.
Very funny...Bryson's humor is winning and succinct; he has a knack for boiling down his observations to their absurd essences.
National Geo Traveler
A laugh-out-loud account.
National Geographic Traveler
A laugh-out-loud account....If you were to cross John Muir's writings with Dave Barry's you'd end up with A Walk in the Woods.
[Bryson is] a satirist of the first rank, one who writes (and walks) with Chaucerian brio.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Returning to the U.S. after 20 years in England, Iowa native Bryson decided to reconnect with his mother country by hiking the length of the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. Awed by merely the camping section of his local sporting goods store, he nevertheless plunges into the wilderness and emerges with a consistently comical account of a neophyte woodsman learning hard lessons about self-reliance. Bryson (The Lost Continent) carries himself in an irresistibly bewildered manner, accepting each new calamity with wonder and hilarity. He reviews the characters of the AT (as the trail is called), from a pack of incompetent Boy Scouts to a perpetually lost geezer named Chicken John. Most amusing is his cranky, crude and inestimable companion, Katz, a reformed substance abuser who once had single-handedly "become, in effect, Iowa's drug culture." The uneasy but always entertaining relationship between Bryson and Katz keeps their walk interesting, even during the flat stretches. Bryson completes the trail as planned, and he records the misadventure with insight and elegance. He is a popular author in Britain and his impeccably graceful and witty style deserves a large American audience as well.
A delightful, insightful, irreverent, oft-funny account of the writer’s attempt to trek the 2,100-plus-mile Appalachian Trail. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is incredibly hard work, with grueling terrain, frequently intemperate weather, a heavy backpack and no comforting motels and amenities at the end of the day. It combines beauty with a heaviness that Bryson convincingly conveys. His observations on the people he encountered during this unique journey read as if Charles Dickens had become a scriptwriter for Saturday Night Live. (16 Apr 2001)
School Library Journal
Leisurely walks in the Cotswolds during a 20-year sojourn in England hardly prepared Bryson for the rigors of the Appalachian Trail. Nevertheless, he and his friend Katz, both 40-something couch potatoes, set out on a cold March morning to walk the 2000-mile trail from Georgia to Maine. Overweight and out of shape, Katz jettisoned many of his provisions on the first day out. The men were adopted by Mary Ellen, a know-it-all hiker eager to share her opinions about everything. They finally eluded her, encountered some congenial hikers, and after eight days of stumbling up and down mountains in the rain and mud, came to Gatlinburg, TN. Acknowledging they would never make it the whole way, they decided to skip the rest of the Smokies and head for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia-by car. Late that summer, for their last hike, the pair attempted to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, near the trail's end. They got separated and Bryson spent a day and night searching for his friend. When they finally were reunited, "...we decided to leave the endless trail and stop pretending we were mountain men because we weren't." This often hilarious account of the foibles of two inept adventurers is sprinkled with fascinating details of the history of the AT, its wildlife, and tales of famous and not-so-famous hikers. In his more serious moments, Bryson argues for the protection of this fragile strip of wilderness. Young Adults who enjoy the outdoors, and especially those familiar with the AT, will find this travelogue both entertaining and insightful.
-- Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
The Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, GA, to Mount Katahdin, ME consists of some five million steps, and Bryson (Notes from a Small Island, 1996) seems to coax a laugh, and often an unexpectedly startling insight, out of each one he traverses. It's not all yuks though it is hard not to grin idiotically through all 288 pages, for Bryson is a talented portraitist of place. He did his natural-history homework, which is to say he knows a jack-o-lantern mushroom from a hellbender salamander from a purple wartyback mussel, and can also write seriously about the devastation of chestnut blight. He laces his narrative with gobbets of trail history and local trivia, and he makes real the 'strange and palpable menace' of the dark deep woods in which he sojourns, the rough-hewn trailscape 'mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one has ever used or coveted,' celebrating as well the 'low-level ecstasy' of finding a book left thoughtfully at a trail shelter, or a broom with which to sweep out the shelter's dross. Yet humor is where the book finds its cuesfrom Bryson's frequent trail companion, the obese and slothful Katz, a spacious target for Bryson's sly wit, to moments of cruel and infantile laughs, as when he picks mercilessly on the witless woman who, admittedly, ruined a couple of their days.
But for the most part the humor is bright sarcasm, flashing with drollery and intelligence, even when it's a far yodel from political sensitivity. Then Bryson will take your breath away with a trenchant critique of the irredeemably vulgar vernacular strip that characterizes many American downtowns, or of other signs of decay he encounters offthe trail (though the trail itself he comes to love). 'Walking is what we did,' Bryson states: 800-plus out of the 2,100-plus miles, and that good sliver is sheer comic travel entertainment.
From the Publisher
“Bryson is a very funny writer who could wring humor from a clammy sleeping bag.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Short of doing it yourself, the best way of escaping into nature is to read a book like A Walk in the Woods.”–The New York Times
“A terribly misguided, and terribly funny tale of adventure.... The yarn is choke-on-your-coffee funny.” –The Washington Post
“Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.” –Chicago Sun-Times
“Delightful.” –The Plain Dealer
“It’s great adventure, on a human scale, with survivable discomforts, and, happily, everybody goes home afterwards.” –Times Picayune
Read an Excerpt
We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snoozeindeed was enjoying a long night's snoozewhen, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everythingthrough thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight peesso something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbeda click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliageand then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.
I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. I reached instinctively for my knife, then realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent. Nocturnal defense had ceased to be a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose. There was another noise, quite near.
"Stephen, you awake?" I whispered.
"Yup," he replied in a weary but normal voice.
"How the hell should I know."
"It sounded big."
"Everything sounds big in the woods."
This was true. Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded like a stegosaurus. There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the spring. It was having a drink, whatever it was.
I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.
Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn't see anything at all of its shape or sizeonly two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.
"Stephen," I whispered at his tent, "did you pack a knife?"
"Have you get anything sharp at all?"
He thought for a moment. "Nail clippers."
I made a despairing face. "Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see, there is definitely something out here."
"It's probably just a skunk."
"Then it's one big skunk. Its eyes are three feet off the ground."
"A deer then."
I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn't move, whatever it was. A deer would have bolted. This thing just blinked once and kept staring.
I reported this to Katz.
"Probably a buck. They're not so timid. Try shouting at it."
I cautiously shouted at it: "Hey! You there! Scat!" The creature blinked again, singularly unmoved. "You shout," I said.
"Oh, you brute, go away, do!" Katz shouted in merciless imitation. "Please withdraw at once, you horrid creature."
"Fuck you," I said and lugged my tent right over to his. I didn't know what this would achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm moving my tent."
"Oh, good plan. That'll really confuse it."
I peered and peered, but I couldn't see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from the near distance like eyes in a cartoon. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be outside and dead or inside and waiting to be dead. I was barefoot and in my underwear and shivering. What I really wantedreally, really wantedwas for the animal to withdraw. I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it. I think it may have hit it because the animal made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to my lips) and then emitted a noisenot quite a growl, but near enough. It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn't provoke it.
"What are you doing, Bryson? Just leave it alone and it will go away."
"How can you be so calm?"
"What do you want me to do? You're hysterical enough for both of us."
"I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I'm in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to dogive it a pedicure?"
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Katz said implacably.
"What do you mean you'll cross that bridge? We're on the bridge, you moron. There's a bear out here, for Christ sake. He's looking at us. He smells noodles and Snickers andoh, shit."
"There's two of them. I can see another pair of eyes." Just then, the flashlight battery started to go. The light flickered and then vanished. I scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went, and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries. If I were a bear, this would be the moment I would choose to lunge.
"Well, I'm going to sleep," Katz announced.
"What are you talking about? You can't go to sleep."
"Sure I can. I've done it lots of times." There was the sound of him rolling over and a series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.
"Stephen, you can't go to sleep," I ordered. But he could and he did, with amazing rapidity.
The creaturecreatures, nowresumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises. I couldn't find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner's lamp on my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries. Then I sat for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last line of defense. The bearsanimals, whatever they weredrank for perhaps twenty minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come. It was a joyous moment, but I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return. I listened and listened, but the forest returned to silence and stayed there.
Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweaterpausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisitand after a very long time got back into my sleeping bag for warmth. I lay there for a long time staring at total blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.
And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.
From the Audio Cassette edition.