A Walk in the Woods
"Yeah, I've shit in the woods." Great indoorsman Bill Bryson yearns to deliver this line in a boastful, "manly sniff." At least that's one of the motivations he gives for deciding to take his soft-in-the-middle, middle-aged, middle-of-town-dwelling body on a 2,200-mile hike along the rugged, remote Appalachian Trail. And so the Iowa-born travel writer is off on another breezy, biting, self-effacing comic misadventure. He faces his daring and dangerous outing with an odd mix of bravado and babe-in-the-woods timidity. ("Black bears rarely attack," he writes early on. "But here's the thing. Sometimes they do.")
Along for the hike is childhood pal Stephen Katz, the irascible sidekick in Bryson's European travelogue Neither Here Nor There. Katz is no modern-day Daniel Boone either. His physical demeanor suggests "Orson Welles after a very bad night," and he travels with 75 pounds of Snickers bars in tow.
Into the woods this pair of pudgy couch potatoes go, beginning on a chilly mountaintop in Georgia. Of course the comic travails of urban tenderfoots in the wilderness has become a cliché--doesn't every sitcom send "the gang" out to some backwoods cabin for a taste of life without Charmin, Cheetos, and HBO? But thanks to his effervescent writing, Bryson manages to rise above his somewhat dog-eared premise. Each page has a zingy one-liner or inspired metaphor. (Bryson on the interior of a fleabag motel: "The walls and ceiling were covered with big stains that suggested a strange fight to the death involving lots of hot coffee.")
Curiously, though the hiking duo dream of civilization--fast food, convenience stores, motels-- they're struck by just how garish and pedestrian-unfriendly much of the modern world has become. Indeed, Bryson's down-from-the-mountaintop observations provide some of the book's best moments. Amid the tourist horrors of Gatlinburg, Tenn., he learns that the state legislature is again debating the teaching of evolution, some 70 years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial." "The danger for Tennesseans," Bryson writes, "isn't so much that they may be descended from apes as overtaken by them." Invariably, the two end up beating it back to the bush and their routine of arduous hiking and meals of Snickers, noodles, and Slim Jims.
Many of the book's guffaws come courtesy of Katz, who's equal parts prankster, whiner, and goof. Between silly moments, though, Bryson takes well-aimed swipes at the U.S. Forest Service (which has covered the nation's woods with 378,000 miles of road) and gives impassioned eulogies for the unique flora and fauna disappearing along the trail side.
It won't spoil anyone's read to reveal that the pair don't complete the entire Georgia-to-Maine hike. (After all, they are fat, middle-aged guys with bad diets and smoking habits.) And about two-thirds through the book, they separate, and Bryson walks parts of the trail alone in a series of one-day hikes. While Bryson could make a milk run to the local 7-Eleven into a hilarious epic, the book's sense of foolish adventure is gone at this point, and the reading is less riveting. But it is here that Bryson takes his alfresco number two, and fans of wisecrack-a-minute travel writing will be glad he does.