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A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

4.2 584
by Bill Bryson, Rob McQuay (Read by)

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For reasons even he didn't understand, Bill Bryson decided in 1996 to walk the 2,100-mile Appalachian trail. Winding from Georgia to Maine, this uninterrupted 'hiker's highway' sweeps through the heart of some of America's most beautiful and treacherous terrain. Accompanied by his infamous crony, Stephen Katz, Bryson risks snake bite and hantavirus to trudge up


For reasons even he didn't understand, Bill Bryson decided in 1996 to walk the 2,100-mile Appalachian trail. Winding from Georgia to Maine, this uninterrupted 'hiker's highway' sweeps through the heart of some of America's most beautiful and treacherous terrain. Accompanied by his infamous crony, Stephen Katz, Bryson risks snake bite and hantavirus to trudge up unforgiving mountains, plod through swollen rivers, and yearn for cream sodas and hot showers. This amusingly ill-conceived adventure brings Bryson to the height of his comic powers, but his acute eye also observes an astonishing landscape of silent forests, sparkling lakes, and other national treasures that are often ignored or endangered. Fresh, illuminating, and uproariously funny, A Walk in the Woods showcases Bill Bryson at his very best.

Editorial Reviews

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.
Geographic Traveler
Dwight Garner
[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.
Forbes Magazine
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)
—Steve Forbes
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
Kirkus Reviews
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 cues—from 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
“A comic tour de force.”
—The Globe and Mail

A Walk in the Woods is just the thing to take on vacation. Bryson does all the work … while the reader only has to worry about falling out bed, hammock or deck chair laughing.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)

“Bryson is a terrific stylist. You can’t help but enjoy his writing for its cheer and buoyancy, and for the frequent demonstration of his peculiar, engaging turn of mind.”
—Bill Richardson in The Ottawa Citizen

“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

"Choke-on-your-coffee funny."
--The Washington Post Book World

"Bryson is . . . great company right from the start--a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley, and . . . Dave Barry."
--The New York Times Book Review

"A Walk in the Woods is an almost perfect travel book."
--The Boston Globe

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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 snooze—indeed was enjoying a long night's snooze—when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything—through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees—so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed—a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage—and 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.
"What wasthat?"
"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 size—only 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 wanted—really, really wanted—was 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 noise—not 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 do—give 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 and—oh, shit."
"Oh. 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 creature—creatures, now—resumed 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 bears—animals, whatever they were—drank 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 sweater—pausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit—and 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.

What People are Saying About This

Dwight Garner
Don't look to A Walk in the Woods for forced revelations about failed relationships or financial ruin or artistic insecurity. Bryson is hiking the trail because it's there, and he's great company right from the start -- a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley and (given his fondness for gross-out humor) Dave Barry.
Bill McKibben
Bill Bryson is an extremely funny man, the Appalachian Trail is an exceedingly magnificent place, and together they have created an exceedingly fine book.

Meet the Author

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa.  For twenty years he lived in England, where he worked for The Times and The Independent, and wrote for many major British and American publications.  His books include the travel memoirs Neither Here nor There, The Lost Continent, and Notes from a Small Island, as well as The Mother Tongue and Made in America.  He now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and four children.

Brief Biography

Hanover, New Hampshire
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Des Moines, Iowa
B.A., Drake University, 1977

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A Walk In The Woods (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 584 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an almost brilliant and deeply flawed work, which I nonetheless highly recommend for its humor and wealth of easily-digested historical and environmental information. One of the things that characterizes the absolute pinnacle of comedic achievement is the willingness to make any and every sort of spectacle of onesself for a laugh...along with the comedic sensibility to carry it off. Gilda Radner as the girl scout. Carol Burnett wearing the curtain rod. Richard Pryor as himself. Bill Bryson proves as early as page 19 that self-humiliating physical comedy can work even in print. One of the problems with this book, however, is that he gets most of his laughs by similarly humiliating everyone he encounters during his on-again, off-again hike of the Appalachian Trail. He has sadly forgotten another of the hallmarks of comedic genius: laughing with, rather than at, one's felllow human being. Bryson seems to revel in a mean-spiritedness that is all the more disturbing in light of his obvious intelligence and insight. He is talented enough to forgo the cheap shots and, besides, he should know better. I began to understand why his family was afraid of him embarassing them. Another and more baffling problem is Bryson's seeming blindness to the rich experience of the wilderness. He has a sort of generalized awe for the majesty of the forest as a whole, here and there, almost as if he occasionally remembered to take a snapshot. But he so belabors his observation that every stretch of forest is like every other, one tree just like the next, that you can't help wondering, as he very frequently does himself, what he is doing there. I personally find a small miracle every three inches along whatever trail I walk. His failure to do so, and the prohibitions he mentions against leaving the trail, made me repeatedly envision a wall of streaky glass along both sides of the path between him and the forest. Which in turn made me picture the trail eventually coming to resemble a sort of museum of the outdoors. Maybe it already is one. Bryson is certainly honest. He makes no bones about whining and wishing for Big Macs, and his clear inability to enjoy the here-and-now. Yet a wistful tone is audible when he speaks of the destruction of the forests, and he has lovingly gathered and presented such a wealth of environmental and historical facts as to nearly make this book a primer for the budding environmentalist. In the end, Bryson himself becomes as fascinating and frustrating as the trail itself. Why is such an insightful person so insensitive to the forest's small delights, and to his fellow human beings? How can he be so courageous and whiny at the same time? (Good time to mention his sidekick, Katz, who somehow actually manages to pull it off with more aplomb. Maybe because Bryson tore him apart so thoroughly at the beginning that you feel sorry for him forever after.) Despite Bill Bryson's being older than I by a number of years, he seems so like young kids now. So lost without modern 'conveniences,' mainly because that is all they know. And yet, little by little, in this book, you can see the light get in around Bryson's blinders. He begins to find civilization ugly and wish for the forest whenever he leaves it. Which is, all in all, an encouraging message.
totton More than 1 year ago
I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had me laughing so hard. In fact, I would be laughing so much that people would ask me what I was laughing about. While it took Bryson's excellent writing to put the story on paper, it took Katz to make it worth reading. This is the story of two college buddies who reunite in their 40s to walk the Appalachian Trail. Neither one are in shape for their endeavor but that doesn't deter them. Along the way they meet some interesting people (Mary Ellen for one) and find themselves in some funny situations. This is a must read for anyone. In fact, it should be required academic reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a GREAT book and everyone must read it it. It is not only hilarious, but incredibly informative, which are not two things that usually go together. I've been reading this book in my quiet house only to laugh right out loud and then go in search of someone so I can read the passage out loud! I am a hiker as well, and can greatly appreciate Bryson's experiences. I know it is not a new release, but I don;t care. Go get it and then pass it along. I am on my way to get In a Sunburned Country because I am almost done with this one.
J_A_W More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson found a perfect way to portray voyaging across the AT with ease. Bryson lays out his journey in an entertaining matter that will suck the reader in and make you feel like you are right beside him. Bryson's adventures make you laugh and give you the urge to walk the AT yourself - if not the whole thing at least a portion of it. Excellent reading for anyone, especially those with a passion for outdoors.
PostalDeb More than 1 year ago
This is the second Bill Bryson book I have read recently, and I am definitely a new fan. Bill's travel writing takes me there in vivid and hilarious detail. A friend let me borrow "In a Sunburned Country", and after reading it I felt as if I had traveled to Australia myself. So after perusing the choices of his other books, I decided I next wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail (from the comfort of cozy couch - chips and drink right next to me). He did not disappoint. I felt hot, tired and thirsty when he did, felt angered by his description of past and present environmental stupidities, and laughed out loud at the characters he met along his journey. I can hardly wait to read my next choice, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. I'm sure he'll take me to all the quirky American places I never knew I wanted to visit! Thank you, Bill!
mayflowerKY More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. Good balance of telling the story of his walk and adding history and science to make it interesting. His friend Katz also added much to make the story interesting. I found myself rooting for Katz and liking him. I live near the Trail and learned more from this book than I could have learned locally.
CarolinaRM More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson laces funny events with the history of the Appalachian Trail. You hear a lot about hiking the trail but Mr. Bryson puts the difficulty of the venture into real perspective. He also gives the reader insight into the changing face of the Appalachian trail over the centuries. This book was as much a history lesson as it was a light hearted read.
MoonPieMA More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the most entertaining, funny,witty and insiteful story ever written.My favorite book by Bill Bryson!! You will laugh out loud and you may even be inspired to get into the great outdoors.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book. I learned so much and laughed so hard l would love to meet Byson & Katz on any trail,
steveforbertfan More than 1 year ago
I would never go hiking, so I don't even know what made me want to read this book. But I'm so glad I did. It was so interesting, so effortless to read, so funny, so touching so... I can't say enough about it. Bill bryson is everyman and yet he is so unique. I love the way he draws you into his persona and whatever he is passionately writing about.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very entertaining book. I thoughly enjoyed it.
DrJenski More than 1 year ago
The first half of this book was good enough to keep me interested. I was bored by the second half. I expected to read about an exciting adventure, but his journey was actually pretty boring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After a friend let me borrow this, I went on a Bryson binge. Get hooked!
johnpaulgeorge More than 1 year ago
I have by-passed this book several times. I remember reading a similar book about a hiker in Alaska who dies, which was very depressing. This book is FUNNY! Two essential couch potatoes decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. Many times I've laughed out loud. My husband wants to know what I'm laughing about! Very good read; good to give as a gift. In fact, I was going to email my sister and niece about this book today! I highly recommend it.
blondie60 More than 1 year ago
I was expecting a dry write-up about hiking and was surprised to be laughing after the first few pages of this wonderful little gem-of-a-book! Whether you are a hiker or not you will thoroughly enjoy this story of two hikers on the Appalachian trail which runs over 2000 miles.
Anonymous 4 days ago
Good! Really enjoyed it.
Anonymous 10 days ago
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KimHeniadis More than 1 year ago
This was one that I read for the book club at the library. Some of the older patrons had mentioned Bill Bryson and that they had enjoyed his books, so I chose this one. I will say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Most of the other people at the chat are older than me, and mentioned numerous times that they found a lot of the parts funny. I did find a couple of things amusing, but I think it may be a generational thing, since a co-worker who is close to my age, didn’t really find the book that funny either. While Bill Bryson and his walking companion, Katz, did find growth by the end of the book, I didn’t really find their story that engaging. It seemed like they walked, complained, found a room for the night, and continued the same routine again the next day. What I did enjoy was the history that Bryson incorporated into the book. It was fascinating to find out how the trail came to be, and the history of various stops along the trail. For that alone I would say to give this book a read. The library patrons said all of his books are similar in style, and since I did enjoy this one, I may check out some of his other books including; Down Under and A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sex is very great when you went to be a mother and a father and when you went to start your own family then you can have all the sex you weny
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sex is good
merve tekcan More than 1 year ago
First and last Bryson book I'll ever read. Hard to believe he's a celebrated author. Read the one star reviews they are accurate. Trying something challenging and hazardous as backpacking the AT when you are ill equipped is just stupid. He laughs and trivializes picking equipment, like a motorcycle racer laughing about helmets. They eat noodles and snickers bars for substance while physically exerting and relying on their stamina for survival, akin to a marathon runner eating donuts and twinkles. Stupid, just stupid arrogant rich guys poking fun at a serious undertaking. And the writing is mostly juvenile. Finally despite the cover, there's NO bears in their experience! It would be better that there was a bear, and it ate them, then there would be no book. FOR MORE COMMENTS AND REVİEWS..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry I paid for this book a few funny stories in the begging but that was about it. Did not enjoy this book at all for me was not worth the money.