Postal Reading group
February 2020
Notes on the book A Walk in the woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s name is synonymous with travel writing, where he has an enviable reputation for combining humour and insightful commentary. This present book, A Walk in the woods, is no exception, concentrating on the America of the Appalacian trail, the world’s longest continuous footpath.

Although I have previously read two of Bill Bryson’s travel books (Neither here nor there and Notes from a small island), this was the first time I have read one of his books about America. Similarly, without having seen the film, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book. The writing style is familiar enough, so based on the description, I was expecting a humorous account of walking the Appalacian trail. Although this is loosely the subject of the book, it seems to be more of a “State of the nation” kind of book, using the trail as a starting point. Thus towns near the trail get plenty of coverage, such as Centralia, the centre of the coal mine fires, and institutions associated with the trail such as National Park Service with its inept approach to management. Disappointingly, however, there is remarkably little about the actual walking.

Of course, a guide book to the trail wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, although given his comments there would clearly be a market for one, especially if it were accompanied by decent maps. However, given the length of the trail, and its propensity to cross as many mountain peaks as possible, the natural history of the area must be fascinating. Similarly, his experiences along the way could easily have made an engaging account. Instead, he seems to divagate from the trail, while writing as much as while walking. The inevitable pauses to stock up on food, and to secure a more comfortable night’s sleep seem to become the focus of the story rather than mere interludes. Although many of these are interesting, it is difficult to argue that graphic details about the inside of a bunkhouse are more interesting than the glories of major mountain ranges!

To be fair, I did learn a lot about America from Bryson’s wry observation: the National Park Service which seems more concerned to facilitate commercial interests; the rather strange approach to personal liberty; and the uneasy juxtaposition of wilderness and consumerism. Although I was not familiar with these specific examples, as so many of these themes are present in Britain, the state of America should come as no surprise. Here, as in America, it is clear that the government values commercial interests over those of people or the natural environment.

Equally, while the actual walking does receive some coverage, he seems to take more interest in its various hazards, than any pleasure he might gain from the natural environment. His preparation for the trail seemed to consist of reading everything he could find on bear attacks, while neglecting his physical fitness. Although he had not undertaken any serious long distance walking, and was understandably unaware of some advice, he does seem to have been particularly stupid at times, though I am similarly bemused that rucksacks should require a separate waterproof liner or cover. Although his inexperience may be very amusing, it can become frustrating at times, and I doubt that his example will encourage many to attempt a long distance footpath.

Apart from my disappointment that the book wasn’t, more directly, about the walking, the only real criticism which I would make is about the author’s humour which, at times, seems to be rather misplaced. This is noticeable in his attitude to some of the other hikers on the trail with, for example, Mary Ellen receiving a lot of criticism. While Bryson was cautious about undertaking the trail on his own, he seems overly critical of others who are often described as ‘mere’ day trippers. Sadly, his own inexperience, and that of Katz, mean that his comments are misplaced. As eccentric as some of his fellow hikers were, surely they deserve some credit for tackling the trail in their own way.

In summary, this book would seem to be typical of the author: easy to read, engaging and humorous, up to a point. Although I was disappointed not to have read more about the walking and the landscapes along the trail, much of it was still interesting. There’s much to be learnt about the state of America from his observations, even if his wit was sometimes misplaced, and his interactions with fellow hikers were hardly exemplary. Overall, it is well worth reading, but don’t expect him to be writing advertising literature for the Ramblers’ Association just yet!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler