Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson… I liked this book. I liked it a lot in some places. I enjoyed learning about the Appalachian Trail (AT) and getting to picture myself out in the wilderness alongside Byson. I even liked some of his anecdotes about the trail, like the times when his backpacking partner, Katz, would get angry at the amount of weight in his pack and toss valuable food and water over the side of a cliff when they were only a little ways on their journey.
The book gave me an appreciation for how hard it is to do something like backpacking, day-in and day-out, in sometimes-terrible weather, with sometimes-disagreeable people, and nothing to distract yourself with except your thoughts. Bryson did a good job of complicating the romantic feelings I have about the woods, the idea that to “get away” for more than just a day hike must be the most idyllic sensation in the world. He reminded me about what backpacking really is — trudging around with a huge amount of weight on your back and constantly staring at the ground so you don’t trip all over yourself in the process. The trail is rarely flat, always sloping either too steeply upward or too steeply downward to be comfortable, and that’s kind of about it. Oh, and some sensational beauty and serene moments that might be worth mentioning.
So, there was a lot that I enjoyed, and the book was a pretty quick read that didn’t require a lot of attention or emotional commitment. HOWEVER, I do have a few issues with it. Mainly issues with Bryson. Basically he comes off at a number of points in the book as — how shall I put it? — stuck up, elitist, and just plain mean. His characterizations people who live in small Appalachian towns didn’t set him off to a good start in my view. Relying on stereotypes of the “hillbilly” is probably not the greatest way to go around defining a region.
Additionally, he has some strange obsession with talking about how fat other people are, especially when he doesn’t like them. And he feels compelled to include way too many snide and sarcastic remarks about how the National Park Service is completely incompetent. (I’m not saying I know much about how competent or not they might be, but he could have at least made his arguments in more of a grown-up way).
Throughout the book, I couldn’t help comparing it in my mind with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I know isn’t completely fair, since they are very different people, who had very different reasons to do a long hike (which in Strayed’s case was the Pacific Crest Trail). But I couldn’t get out of my mind how much more I enjoyed Strayed’s honest, self-reflective, and self-effacing voice when compared to Bryson’s blusterings and rants. While she encountered many of the same challenges as Bryson, Strayed approached the trail as more of a lesson than something that should be perfect and comfortable.
The last part of Bryson’s book dragged on a little for me, since he never really gets back on the trail in the same way he does in the beginning. He drives his car out to the wilderness, does a day-long stint of hiking, and then goes back to his cozy home again for the evening and resumes at the next spot on the trail the next day. I’m not criticizing his choice to hike that way — I don’t feel the need to encourage the idea of one “right” way to hike the AT — but it did make the book a little less interesting at that point.
In sum, it’s a good adventure and outdoorsy novel to read, especially if you’re looking for something light. But it wasn’t my favorite because of Bryson’s voice.
SPOILER ALERT: Oh, and one final note — he never actually ends up running into a bear. Not required, but come on, let’s talk about the cover…