Travel Lit Tuesday: “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson

woods“Not long after I moved with my family to New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town. A sign announced that this was no ordinary footpath but the celebrated Appalachian Trail. Running more than 2,100 miles along America’s eastern seaboard, through the serene and beckoning Appalachian Mountains, the AT is the granddaddy of long hikes.”

Having already read Bill’s adventures through Australia and the U.K., A Walk in the Woods came as a nice follow-up for me. Not only does it take place shortly after Bill returns to America after twenty years in England (as chronicled in Notes From A Small Island), but it offers a different pace of story than the others. A book about hiking can do that.

Bill’s decision to hike the AT seems like a spontaneous one — who has eight months to spare and legs (and a determination to continue) strong enough to hike 2,100 miles, after all? “A little voice in my head said: Sounds neat! Let’s do it!” And so it began. His reasoning behind wanting to hike the trail sounds a tad bit preposterous, but after having read so much of his work, I think it falls into his very character:

“When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.'”

After declaring his intention to hike the route from Georgia to Maine, Bill “…came gradually to realize that this was way beyond — way beyond — anything I had attempted before.” On a side note, this is how I’m feeling about hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in under three months — Bill, we have something very much in common when it comes to our hiking choices.

Much like the beginning of In a Sunburned Country, Bill offers us a listing of the troubles he`ll be facing while attempting this endeavour:

“The woods were full of peril — rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing hapless hikers through remote, sunny meadows and into glacial lakes.”

On top of all that, he was going to do it alone with little to none experience in the woods. After realizing what a daunting task it was to do solo, Bill sent out subtle invitations to family and friends via his family Christmas cards, but to his dismay no one was interested. It wasn`t until sometime later that, quite unexpectedly, he received a phone call from Stephen Katz — a high school friend who had accompanied Bill throughout Europe one summer in the 1970s. Katz was still living in their hometown of Des Moines and needed a change of scenery after some hard living. Hiking the AT with Bill offered him a respite.

Throughout the novel one gets the impression that Bill has a fascination with bears. Not only did he pick up a book about bear attacks on the AT, but he extensively talks about them prior to and during his hike. One night he was reading the bear attack book from the comfort of his bed at home, and he came across an amateur photograph that had been taken of four black bears staring up at a food bag, hanging from the overhead branches.

“It was not the size or demeanor of the bears that troubled me — they looked almost comically unaggressive, like four guys who had gotten a Frisbee caught up a tree — but their numbers. Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out of my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at a children’s party (I daresay it would even give a merry toot) and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

I think it was at this time that I finally realized why I love Bill’s writing so much — he is so charmingly vulgar. He uses such colourful language and descriptions that I often find myself blushing and having to pause from my reading just to quell any sort of loud chuckle or gasp (I do the majority of my daily reading on my commute to/from work. Laughing to oneself on public transportation is something that would acquire long, sideways glances from fellow riders). Despite the vulgarity, however, he writes with such grace and humour that you can’t help but get drawn in. Besides, I love me a good potty mouth.

With the addition of Stephen Katz and his deadpan one-liners, I was done for. Mind you, these two men couldn’t be more unalike. I think the only commonalities between them, aside from their hometown, are their dirty minds and twisted humour. This, however, proves sufficient enough to get them through.

Bryson and Katz set off from Georgia and face difficulties right from the get-go. One instance even saw Katz throwing half of the items in his backpack over a mountain ridge out of frustration — even the coffee filters they had brought along because of the nice, “fluttering effect” they had as they scattered down the mountainside (they used toilet paper to strain their coffee grinds from that point onwards).

About a week into their hike the men encounter a young, female solo-hiker named Mary Ellen. A “Chatty Cathy”, know-it-all type of woman, she would have surely ended up bound to a fallen tree had she decided to cling to me in the way that she did them (they were stuck with her for days). They got so exhausted by her constant gabbing that they lost all patience:

“‘So what’s your star sign?’ said Mary Ellen.

‘Cunnilingus,’ Katz answered and looked profoundly unhappy.

She looked at him. ‘I don’t know that one.’ She made an I’ll-be-darned frown and said, ‘I thought I knew them all. Mine’s Libra.’ She turned to me. ‘What’s yours?’

‘I don’t know.’ I tried to think of something. ‘Necrophilia.’

‘I don’t know that one either. Say, are you guys having me on?’

‘Yeah.'”

Thankfully, for both of them and the reader, they eventually end up ditching the woman a day or so later.

Throughout the book Bill provides a good mixture of story-telling and fact sharing. He shares with us historical anecdotes about the trail, scientific background on the flora and fauna of the different regions it intersects, and general sentiments on what he experiences while travelling on foot.

“Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or a prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.”

Bryson and Katz hike through the spring, making their way to Virginia before a pre-planned summer break. Shortly before their hike intermission, the men experience a nighttime visit from an unknown animal, but what Bill immediately refers to as “Bear!”.

This involved a mad dash for a penknife, “…a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes.”, Bill throwing a rock at the pair of glowing eyes, which was then joined by a second set (and an “Oh. Shit.” from Bill), some mocking from Katz and a “Fuck you” from Bryson, some tent moving, a dying flashlight, a desperate grip on a walking stick, Katz falling soundly asleep despite all else, and Bill huddled in his own tent, bracing for an eventual lunge attack until the animal retreats with no harm done. After all that, Bill even admits that it could have been a skunk because “once [one] had come plodding through our camp and it sounded like a stegosaurus.”

During the summer Bill would intermittently hike portions of the trail that him and Katz were missing out on, but once the two men were back together they continued on their way.

Despite their best efforts, they were unable to fulfill their goal of walking the entire Appalachian Trail. Towards the end Katz got lost, Bryson thought he was left for dead, and they simply gave up. They didn’t do so without remorse, however.

The two made their way to the small town of Milo, Maine, where they were going to make their arrangements to return home. Preceding their departure the following day, Bryson and Katz took a stroll to decompress from the hiking done and to soak in their decision to stop.

“‘So do you feel bad about leaving the trail?’ Katz asked after some time.

I thought for a moment, unsure. I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off. ‘I don’t know,” I said. ‘Yes and no, I guess.”

Being a stubborn yet sentimental man, Katz ended this discussion by stating:

“As far as I’m concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked it in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bryson.”

Bill then closes the book with an honest, yet proud admission:

“We didn’t walk the 2,100 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”

It would be nice to be able to join the club of hikers who have traversed this route on foot. Maybe one day, after I earn my hiking legs in Spain, I’ll give it a go (not the entire trail, mind you — I would like to stay employed). Then, like Bryson and Katz, I’d be “…able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.'” Though, my sniff would be womanly and graceful and I’d be carrying baby wipes for the woodsy endeavours.

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