Saturday, June 25, 2011

CBR-III: Book #37: A Walk in the Woods

For those of you who are friends of mine on Facebook you’ve seen the pictures I post when I go hiking. For those of you who only read the blog you might notice a couple of posts where I talk about hiking…I even have one completely dedicated to it. When my Army buddy Chris had leave from his post at Fort Stewart he called me up to do some drinking. During the course of that drinking with him and his sister we got into the conversation of hiking. His sister apparently does a lot of hiking and I mentioned a desire to hike the AT. She immediately began to barrage me with a list of everything that I would need, how much said gear would cost, and how I would logistically go about it. During the course of the bombardment she mentioned a book she really liked by a guy named Bill Bryson called A Walk in the Woods. It was his attempt at hiking the AT with a buddy of his. I’ve never heard of Bryson before but he is a non-fiction writer that has, apparently, written several well liked travel logs. I…for one…thought travel logs were all but extinct. He’s also known for his humor. Which is well used in A Walk in the Woods.

I’ve always heard that hiking the AT is fucking hard. You have to manage around 15 miles a day, it extends from Maine to Georgia, and you have within a certain time window to actually complete it (before the trail is shut down due to weather). Bryson manages to describe the details of the trail without overwhelming you. He mentions murders that have happened on the trail, of attacks by wild animals, and yet his attitude is basically…fuck it. He tells you these things, and then basically says he didn’t really give a shit. I think that’s the attitude that most people on the trail would need to have. Yes, you have the possibility of blah, blah, blah, but you basically just need to ignore it. It’s all about will power.

The book begins with him getting ready, then the addition of an old friend, Katz, who is going to go on the trail with him. While Bryson is in relative shape, Katz is the exact opposite. Remember the story I told you about Tim when he went hiking with me? Bryson almost gives the exact same description in his book. I would honestly say I also like the beginning of the book better. In the beginning it is more story, often humorous. In the end the book becomes more about a history lesson. This is due, mainly in part (and what seriously disappointed me in the book), to the fact that Bryson doesn‘t actually complete the entire trail. In fact, he doesn‘t even do half of it. There are times when him and Katz skip entire sections because they, “Don‘t feel like it.” By the middle of the book they just quit, and when they do go (way farther up the trail) to hike again…they quit again. Yet Bryson proudly declares that he still feels he “hiked the AT.”

An example of a humorous portion would be like this: “All the books tell you that if the grizzly comes to you, on no account should you run. This is the sort of advice you get from someone who is sitting at a keyboard when he gives it. Take it from me, if you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly comes for you, run. You may as well. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life.”

Interesting accounts like this: “There is one recorded instance of a woman smearing honey on her toddler’s fingers so that the bear would lick it off for the video camera. Failing to understand this, the bear ate the baby’s hand.”

Historical accounts like this: “To that end, biologists dumped several drums of a poison called rotenone into fifteen miles of creek. Within hours, tens of thousands of dead fish were floating on the surface like autumn leaves, Among the thirty-one species of Abrams Creek fish that were wiped out was one called the smoky mad tom, which scientists had never seen before. Thus, Park Service biologists managed the wonderfully unusual accomplishment of discovering and eradicating in the same instant a new species of fish.”

Or this: “Alden Patridge…On a typical trip he strode 110 miles over the mountains from Norwich to Williamstown, Massachusetts, trotted up Mount Greylock, and came back home the same way. The trip there and back took him just four days--and at this time, remember, when there were no maintained footpaths or helpful blazes.

He complains about the laziness of modern people…like this: “I know a man who drives 600 yards to get to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space.”

I can’t really tell you, therefore, if I truly liked the book or not. I mean…I liked it, but I was also intensely disappointed in it. Other than the fact that Bryson doesn’t even complete half the trail I was also looking for something less ecology based. Toward the end of the book, like I said, he goes on huge tirades about environmental issues and how humans are destroying everything. That’s not what I was looking for, especially considering the beginning of the book. I was looking for more of an internal perspective. I wanted to see if, after completing over 2,000 miles of trail, how it had changed him. I wanted to see how his view of nature changed. Sure, we get some looks at other hikers. He describes which shelters are awesome…and which ones suck. He talks about what it’s like to run into civilization again after being away from it for days. He even mentions how much a shower and an actual meal really matters. There are several times where his comments irked me though. I never really got the feeling that Bryson likes nature (considering all the times he ran for a hotel when given the chance). Some of his attitudes and perspectives were the exact opposite of the reasons I hike. He discussed how every tree started to look alike. How he didn’t like the solitude of being surrounded by nothing but trees, etc. That is the exact reason I hike. I like to be away from it all.

1 comment:

  1. I've read two of his books: one (A Short History of Nearly Everything) I really liked, the other irritated me (Neither Here Nor There). The second one was about his travels in Europe and he seems to like almost nothing the whole trip, and is constantly complaining. I loved seeing Europe when I was there, so I am sure I felt something similar to how you feel about his attitudes towards nature. I've been divided on whether I should pick up another one of his books, but I have heard that his book about Australia is one of his better ones.