Literature

A Million Ways to Die in the Woods

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Bill Bryson, the great travel writer, takes to the trail: In his perhaps slightly over-ambitious travel report, A Walk in the Woods (1997), fascination and frustration are as close to one another as salamanders and sarcasm. A review.

I enjoy hiking. I like nature, and forests in particular. I’ve enjoyed certain reads of the “travel literature” genre, and I hold Bill Bryson in high esteem as a humorist and writer. Given all of this, it seemed natural that I would have to have a look at Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods at some point. First published in 1997, the book describes Bryson’s experience of hiking on the mythical Appalachian Trail (AT). For the uninitiated, this is the AT, straight from the horse’s mouth:

Running more than 2,100 miles along America’s eastern seabord, through the serene and beckoning Appalachian Mountains, the AT is the granddaddy of long hikes. … From Georgia to Maine, it wanders across fourteen states, through plump, comely hills whose very names … seem an invitation to amble. Who could say the words ‘Great Smoky Mountains’ or ‘Shenandoah Valley’ and not feel an urge, as the naturalist John Muir once put it, to ‘throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence’?

A first (well, technically second) paragraph that couldn’t be more inviting. What follows is an account of Bryson’s trail experience—from the preparations to his very last steps on the way. In the preparation stage, in particular, there are some great passages of Bryson’s signature humor. Consider, for instance, this lively description of the author trying to acquaint himself with the risks and dangers of a hike on the AT:

Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering ‘Bear!‘ in a hoarse voice, before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness. … 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.

So, A Walk in the Woods not only opens with a promise of adventure that literally makes you smell the scents of the forests, but also with a sense of the joviality, the humorous exaggerations and ironic embellishments that have become central to Bryson’s trademark style. A moderately fictionalized, fun account of Bryson’s journey on the AT is what I expected. But that isn’t quite what I got.

Sure enough, A Walk in the Woods is a travel report, chronicling the most important parts of the journey that Bryson undertook with his high school friend, Stephen Katz. Sure enough, too, it is a funny book at times, and sometimes very much so. Bryson’s sarcasm and derisiveness about life in general and his fellow human beings (including his friend and co-traveller) in particular surface every now and again, as if to remind the reader what the author is capable of in the humor department.

Bryson also dedicates a fair amount of space to things you would simply – and rightfully – expect from a travel book detailing a long-distance hike: descriptions of the woes and worries related to carrying your entire equipment on your back every single day, stories of annoying fellow hikers, unexpected weather changes, dreary camping meals and overcrowded bunk rooms. The book also, and in a surprisingly open way, deals with the conflictual relationship between Bryson and Katz, including some insights into rather uncivil thoughts the author-protagonist occasionally harbors about his friend.

But, alas, what would do very nicely for an enjoyable and fascinating piece of travel prose is ‘enriched’ by its author with passages, many passages, too many passages, that just don’t fit in seamlessly: Preachy paragraphs telling the sad tale of the extinction of particular species of mussels in the Smoky Mountains. Wild collections of facts that are at best material for a collection entitled something like, The Big Book of AT Trivia, Or: Did You Know that in 1991, David Horton Ran the Trail in 52 Days 9 Hours, Averaging 38.3 Miles a Day with 11 Hours of Running? (I wish I had made this up, but sadly I haven’t.) And, quite in keeping with the general tendency towards unnecessary information: Figures, figures, figures. Oh, and also figures.

Now, anyone who knows me a bit may think that all of the above points of criticism are rather odd, coming from me: I am myself, generally, quite environmentally-minded, and my propensity to get completely carried away by facts and figures has lead to more than a couple of bizarre situations (“I missed my stop while reading up on the history and construction of this particular metro line, where am I now?”). So if someone like me bemoans a travel book full of pro-nature messages, historical curiosities, and quantified data—what does that mean? Perhaps, plain and simple, that there is too much of all of the above, and in the wrong place.

Maybe it all comes down to a question of expectations: I do not read travel books or books by Bill Bryson, and I certainly do not read travel books by Bill Bryson, in order to be presented with random collections of geological, historical or biological facts that I could easily find elsewhere, and in a more systematic way. Nor do I read Bryson to be lamentably lectured about the tragic fate of Mother Nature in the Anthropocene. Yet, what I really seek in a travel report is all too often lost between passages that give me just that, sometimes spanning several pages.

On a randomly-picked page, I just counted no less than 21 figures. If you wonder how Bryson pulls that off in a piece of travel prose, here’s a particularly illustrative passage:

We were entering what botanists like to call ‘the finest mixed mesophytic forest in the world’. The Smokies harbour an astonishing range of plant life – over 1,500 types of wild flower, 1,000 varieties of shrub, 530 mosses and lichen, 2,000 types of fungi. They are home to 130 native species of tree. The whole of Europe has just 85.

I’ll spare you Bryson’s account of the animal life in the Smokies, although it includes a riveting excursus on “the reclusive and little-appreciated salamander”, of which, we learn, there are 25 varieties in the Smokies. Again: All of this may be of interest elsewhere. But to me, there are few things that connect less with genuine adventure and an individual experience of nature than a scholarly collection of botanical data, assembled clearly from heavy volumes sitting on a heavy study desk.

A Walk in the Woods, then, isn’t quite the exciting, hands-on report it could have been. On the other hand, it certainly contains enough humor, trail wisdom, and outdoor spirit to make the read worthwhile—even though it feels like a tedious exercise at times. Near the end, Bryson unwittingly finds a great description for my own, ambivalent reading experience when describing his conflicted attitude towards the AT:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings … that weren’t thoroughly contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness… All of this together, all at once, every moment.

I feel you, Bill. I really do.

Bill Bryson (1997): A Walk in the Woods. London: Doubleday. 320 pages.


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  1. Pingback: Review: A Walk in the Woods | pheuilleton

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