Book Review: A Walk In The Woods

Shannon read this book first and recommended I read it. A close friend of mine just completed the AT from north to south and afterwards I became a nuisance, probing him with endless questions ranging from what he consumed on the trail to what life questions he pondered. I was sure that my friend had achieved some sort of personal enlightenment while walking from Maine to Georgia - why else would someone subject themselves to walking in isolation for 2,000 miles?

Bryson’s reflection on his amble through the woods echoed that of my friend. Hiking the AT wasn’t this introspective quest, entering and exiting the woods as two separate people, the latter much wiser. It was just a kind of a thing you did. You walked a bunch, ate a ton of Snickers, and got a cool nickname. You appreciate at a much deeper level the perks a life indoors affords.

Bryson’s relaxed writing style makes the book hard to put down not from an enthralling story but from the casual gait of the conversation he has with the reader. I visualized the picturesque views on top of the Smokies, swatted at flies in the thick of the woods, and sighed with relief at the sign of civilization. I enjoyed both the vivid descriptions of the hike and the history Bryson smoothly interjects at each stage of the trip, lamenting the frustrating inability of the National Park Service and the evaporation of various species along the trail. This is also one of the only books in recent memory that made me audibly laugh. I’d annoy Shannon with my favorite lines of the book (something I never do).

It’s an ode to the realities of hiking for those of us who wouldn’t really consider ourselves hikers. I love being outdoors, hiking mountains and camping for a weekend at a time. But Bryson doesn’t spare the dirty details that often make the experiences at best trying and at worst distressing, and are often overlooked in romanticized descriptions of the outdoors.

My notes while reading the book:

  • Bryson starts out fairly miserable - probably not the right word, maybe overwhelmed is better - by the trail. Hoping for stopping points, aghast at the never ending slopes to peaks.
  • After spending time in the towns in northern Georgia across the trail, he becomes so bored and restless that even after hunkering down for a blizzard he wishes to keep pushing on as to die in the snow is better than spending another day in Franklin
  • The National Park Service isn’t as benevolent as one would think. It’s done it’s fair share of causing species extinctions - in Bryce Canyon National Park, once the Park Service took over in 1923, seven species died in half a century. They only use 3% of their budget on research.
  • Bryson seems to not enjoy the company of, well really anyone, on the trail. He meets the (word for involve) Mary Ellen as his first hiking partner. He enjoys company for the sake of company in Katz, not much for his personality. He encounters equipment-talkers and despises those conversations. He’s bearish on most of the lodgers he meets on the trail, whether they’re can drivers taking them from point to point, general store owners you smoke cigarettes and complain about yesterday’s hikers, or spring breakers from Rutgers
  • Once completed with the first half of the trip, he’s pulled back to the trail. He hikes the AT near his hone in NH, but doesn’t feel satisfied. You’re not supposed to hike the AT and then go home to mow the lawn! He eventually gets in his car to drive down to around harpers ferry to hike, hike back to the car, and continue on with the trail. It’s a bit begrudgingly - he pushes on because he can’t help himself, even though the idea is grossly flawed. He feels out of place on the trail sans Katz, and feels like he has lost all his momentum and purpose from the trail.
  • Pennsylvania seems like a miserable place on the trail, with its scraggly rock, poorly created maps, and murders. Bryson gives a little background in Pennsylvania’s dance with coal and gas, reciting the story of Centralia, a town evacuated due to a long-raging fire in the anthracite mines that sat for decades below the town until hikes began opening up in backyards.
  • Bryson often discusses the destruction of the area around the AT and the eastern United States in general - the extinguishing of beautiful song birds like the Bachman’s warbler and the evaporation of the Smokies grassy balds, mountaintop areas that are treeless but lively with flora and unique to the area, and are now being reclaimed by vegetation as the Park Service does nothing.
  • The 100 miles in Maine is the toughest part of the trail. Only 10% of hikers make it there, so it’s much more gnarly and unworn than other parts of the trail. There aren’t any camps or traces of civilization for 10 days - it takes pride in its ruggedness. There are many dreams to ford.
  • “I came to realize that I didn’t have any feelings toward 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 aches for its comfort. 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.”