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Sunday, January 13, 2008

A REAL TRAVEL BOOK--A WALK IN THE WOODS

Many, many years ago Rob and I dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections over a period of time. However, as Scottish poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid plans….” Author Bill Bryson had the same plan, and in his unusual book, A Walk in the Woods, he talks about those plans and about actually hiking the Trail. This I learned—the AT hiker has no resemblance to me at any time in my life!!!!!

Lesson #1: The Appalachian Trail is NOT a walk in the woods. It is an arduous trek meant for a particular breed of fit people who refuse to step away from a challenge.

Bryson writes of the preparation for the hike. One must be physically fit in a way he could not imagine. He was not there. Equipment is expensive and extensive. He writes of buying and subsequently disposing of most of it, including food! Everything gets carried on one’s back—about 40 pounds, and that weight is something a hiker never quite forgets because the trail goes up and down mountain ranges. There are also dangers involved—bears, snakes, crazy murderers (about nine people between 1974 and the 1998 copyright date), diseases, accidents, lightning, crazed animals, mountains, etc.

As he hikes the trail, Bryson proffers a great deal of information on the history of the Appalachian Trail, nature, scenery, the existential quality of confronting real wilderness and a challenge of this magnitude, a lot of opinion on people, places, government and anything else that crosses his mind. There’s quite a bit to interest any reader. It definitely gave me a sense of the experience—something I prefer to experience vicariously.

Newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times reviewed this book as “Choke-on-your-coffee funny.” I’m not in agreement with this evaluation. I found his humor based on making fun of people and places—individuals and types—including the childhood friend, Stephen Katz, who hiked with him. If you like that type of humor….

What Bryson does beautifully is describing his own feelings of leaving behind our modern, illuminated, boisterous, frenetic world and stepping back in time into wilderness where he is alone with himself and his own thoughts in a natural setting so dense that he feels as if he is in another world. His comments on nature and the facts he offers that make up a significant part of his discussion are often outstanding.

He deserves a lot of credit for doing as much of the AT as he did and for recognizing that those who do finish have achieved something very special. As for me, even if my time had not already passed, Bryson’s travails would have talked me out of it. I’m one of the people he detests; I like to drive Virginia’s Skyline Drive and stop at the overlooks.

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