Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

I'm penning this review of Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail" (Broadway Books, 1998, $13.95, 302 pp.), for the benefit of, I believe, the only person who reads my blog, my friend Evan.

I started the book, a New York Times Bestseller, about a month ago. It was suggested by and loaned to me by my boss, the well read Nancy March, and recommended by her and Evan, to whom the moniker well read would be a vast understatement (the man just posted 100+ books on his Goodreads account, within about 20 minutes of opening it...).

It won't surprise you, after this introduction from The Mercury's editorial big hitters, that Bryson was a longtime newspaperman in both the U.S. and the U.K. and is the author of several travel memoirs and books on language.

He has an easy way with language that draws you in and makes you a part of the moment, so that in the course of reading his adventure, you're sitting around a campfire with him on the Appalachian trail, sharing his fear of bears and mountain lions and such, or freezing your ass off in a dilapidated shelter during a partcularly slow-to-start spring in Georgia.

This may shock those of you who know me, but I have never been much of a camper (apart from a truly wonderful week-long stay on Assateaugue Island, Md., circa 1989, complete with giant mosquitoes and cold showers), though I do enjoy a day hike now and then. But hiking the Appalachian Trail is the stuff of legends and dreams. Wouldn't it be great to have six months free to take on that challenge?

Bryson did just that, for the sake of curiosity and art (writing the book) and proving something to himself. Not a born camper, either, Bryson got himself outfitted for the momentous undertaking, recruited a friend, the enigmatic and curmudgeonly Stephen Katz, to join him on his journey, and got himself to Springer Mountain, Georgia, early one spring.

Bryson and Katz embarked with the intention of hiking the entire AT, from Georgia to Maine -- a trip of about 2,100 miles. Their struggles and triumphs, the people they meet and the misadventures they have -- and Bryson's laugh-inducing retelling -- make the book a sheer delight. Aside from being a travel tale, Bryson includes a lot of history of the trail, the good and the bad of the National Park Service, the towns, wildlife, unsolved murders along the trail, what kind of food to bring with you (they breakfasted on raisins a lot, and ate lots of noodles...?).

One passage describes a group of hikers the two encounter while they are getting ready to camp on a nasty, rainy day in a trailside shelter in Shenandoah National Park:

"At about five o'clock, just to make our day complete, a group of six noisy people arrived, three men and three women, drest in the most preposterously Ralph Lauren-style hiking clothes - safari jackets and broad-brimme canvas hats and suede hiking boots. These were clothes for sauntering along the veranda at Mackinac or perhaps going on a jeep safari, but patently not for hiking. One of the women, arriving a few paces behind the others and walking through the mud as if it were radioactive, peered into the shelter at me and Katz and said with undisguised distaste, 'Ooh, do we have to share?'"

After this pack of fashionable hikers crams into and pretty much takes over the shelter, Katz and Bryson opt to leave and pitch a tent in the horrid weather rather than endure a night with a buch of pains-in-the-asses.

"We pitched our tens about thirty yards away -- not an easy or enjoyable process in the driving rain, believe me -- and climbed in."

The next day they packed up and left while their new acquaintances were still asleep. AFter they were out of sight of the camp, Katz says.

"You know that woman who said 'Ooh, do we have to share?' and shoved our clothes to the end of the clothesline?... Well, I'm not real proud of this. I want you to understand that. But when I went to get my shirt, I noticed her boots were right by the edge of the platform and, well, I did something kind of bad."

"What?" Bryson asked. And then Katz opens up his hand and there were two suede shoelaces. Then he beamed -- a big, winning beam -- and stuck them in his pocket and walked on.

Sometimes Katz is such a character, we forget he's actually a real fellow. He's a nice, if burly and crude, foil to Bryson's Everyman.

When the two decide to take a month-long break from the trail, because it's hard, because they miss civilization -- basically, because they need a break, I was kind of disappointed yet I could completely understand and relate. I don't think I could do the 2,100 entirety of the trail, not with my knees, or what's left of them, my fear of bears, especially since watching the documentary "Grizzly Man," and my lack of fondness for crazed hillbillies, giant insects, blisters and raisins for breakfast. But I was glad their adventures continued when they got back on the Trail a few weeks later in Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness.

But before they do that, Bryson does some solo day trips though good old PA, which is home to 230 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

"I never met a hiker with a good word to say about the trail in Pennsylvania," Bryson writes. The trail is rocky in the Keystone state. Very rocky. And does not, apparently, traverse the most scenic mountain ranges. "Lots of people leave Pennsylvania limping and bruised. The state also has what are reputed to be the meanest rattlesnakes anywhere along the trail, and the most unreliable water sources, particularly in high summer."

He also makes stops in Centralia, a town that's been on fire for nearly 50 years, and where I have not visited but am nonetheless fascinated by; and Palmerton, site of my beloved ski destination, Blue Mountain, and also of some mean hillbillies, according to Bryson.

After spending four days in Pennsylvania, walking just 11 miles of the trail, Bryson moved on to the Delaware Water Gap. By his description, I wanted to put the book down and go there tout de suite. There, in the state of New Jersey, which, according to Bryson knows how to maintain a trail that's not just a bunch of rocks like its western neighbor, are several worthwhile sites. These include a 41-acre mountaintop pond, formed by glaciers, called Sunfish Pond that's surrounded by trees, is secluded and "flawless."

All told, Bryson manages to log 870 miles on the AT -- a feat that he is proud of, yet he still has some regrets.

"I regret that I didn't do (Maine's Mount) Katahdin (though I will, I promise you, I will." I regret that I never saw a bear or wolf or follwoed the paddling retreat of a giant hellbender salamander, never shooed away a bobcat or sidestepped a rattlesnake, never flushed a startled boar. I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience," he writes. "...I had discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists."

And he shared it with us.
Anyone want to go explore the Delaware Water Gap?


The Truth Corner said...

When do we leave?
How sweet, a review just for me.

Scooter Kitten said...

Makes me wonder if I really want to hike the Appalachian Trail now. I'd rather encounter a bear than foolish rich folk.

Dennis D. said...

This is definitely a good book, written in hilarious Dave Barry-style. I've hiked the AT in several sections, and his stories ring true. But don't let any horror stories scare you; they all seem funny in retrospect.

PlanetResin said...

Hey Michelle, if you want to explore the Delaware Water Gap, pick up a copy of Pennsylvania Waterfalls by Scott Brown. Anything in Pike County is worthwhile. . . especially after a good rainstorm. Raymondskill Falls is probably one of the best kept secrets in the state. Go after a really big rain and you might even see me there with my kayak!