Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A few years ago, a student of mine recommended this book. I bought it, stuck it on my TBR pile, and started reading it over the summer. I enjoyed it, but it got swept into a box when I decided to paint the bedroom, so I had about half of the book to read when I found it again earlier this month. Though I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction, this book had me laughing out loud multiple times–to the extent that my husband kept looking at me funny and asking “Are you okay? Oh… you’re just reading again!”

The book follows author Bill Bryson as he attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail. He’s over his prime, and hiking is a challenge for him, but his spirit is strong, and his eye for humorous observation is keen. The humor is augmented when his only companion is an unlikely man who is ill-suited to life on the trail.

Bryson alternates between recounting his experiences on the trail with (usually) interesting facts about plants, animals, the history of the trail, the US government and state organizations (especially the departments responsible for the trail), and other historical and educational tidbits. These were interesting and relayed with humor, so they were usually engaging to read.

The only time I got a little bored was when Bryson accounts his time in Pennsylvania. At this point on the trail, he took to day hikes and checking out local attractions rather than focusing on the trail. While parts of this was interesting, I wished he would just get back on the trail, already (interestingly enough, he wished the same thing).

When I mentioned to a coworker that I was finishing up the book, I learned that it had been made into a film that was currently in theatres. So of course I had to go see it. The film was funny as well, and I thought the two main characters did a decent job capturing the spirit of the book (especially Katz, Bryson’s companion). The film shortened the book (which is long at almost 400 pages) but kept the important elements, interactions, themes—and even some of the most important “lines” from the novel. It’s not a 100% substitution for reading the book, but as far as book-to-screen translations go, this one came close.

What I enjoyed most about the book was vicariously living through someone’s experience on the Appalachian Trail. It’s something I’ve thought about doing once in a while in my life, but practical considerations always seem to get in the way. If the physical challenge isn’t enough, who has several months to devote solely to hiking?

Since Bryson did get me to consider doing at least part of the trail someday—and I do mean only a small part—I liked that he included a list of suggested readings in the back. But interest in the Appalachian Trail aside, I recommend this book for anyone looking to gain an appreciation of nature while being entertained and—ironically—not having to set foot outside one’s home. It’s true that since I’ve read the book, I have more of a keen eye for nature and water features. I live relatively close to the Appalachian Trail, and each time I pass by certain roads, I keep my eyes open for the hikers that I occasionally spot, sporting heavy packs and scraggly hair. Whereas once they were simply a neutral feature of the road, now I look upon them with a bit of awe and a bit of admiration.