Book Review: A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson

First posted in 1999

Okay, a lot of you are probably going to disagree with my opinion of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. I've discussed this book at length with a number of people. I've met folks who absolutely loved the book for its humor, and I've met just as many who despised it for a number of reasons. I just happen to fall into that latter category.

Of the folks I spoke to who thought this was a great book, many pointed out that it should be read tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps that's so, but Bryson really started off on the wrong foot with me from the start. For instance, in the very first chapter, Bryson describes the many "perils" of the Appalachian trail, and includes among them "loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex" who roam the southern portions of the trail. He also notes that he purchased a "big knife for killing bears and hillbillies." Such references, facitious or not, did not settle well with me. In the back of my mind, I got the impression that Bryson is probably the type who hides in the corner at dinner parties, telling jokes about minorities for others of his type who will listen.

Aside from Bryson's offensive humor about our southern highlanders, there were two other themes in this book that made it very difficult to read. The first is the way that Bryson puts down anyone at the drop of hat, southern or not, simply because he feels he's better than they are. I found it interesting that Bryson felt superior to so many of the people he ran into on the Appalachian Trail, considering that he himself was admittedly out of his element.

The final theme that made this book nearly impossible to trudge through was the whining. It begins in the first chapter with Bryson's description of his first days on the trail:

"It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape - hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle."

He goes on to say, "Seven miles seems so little, but it's not, believe me. With a pack, even for fit people it is not easy." I've got to tell you, Bryson, while that may be the case for quite a few people, it is not the case for everyone. Go find a stairmaster and quit complaining!

It wasn't just the difficulty of being out of shape that Bryson complains about. The trail was always either too hot or too cold. Too hilly or too flat. There were either too many trees, thus shutting off the view, or too few trees, making the trail too sunny. I think there were two occasions in the book where Bryson claimed he was actually enjoying himself. As I read his constant complaints about the difficulties of the trail, his inability to put another foot forward, his fear of animals and hillbillies, his intense dislike for almost everyone he met on the trail, and his hatred for the elements, I kept thinking to myself, "Why don't you just get off the trail and go home? Quit whining already!" I won't spoil the ending for you, but Bryson's definitely no through-hiker.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the lack of trail ethics perpetuated through this book. On more than one occasion, Bryson's trail partner simply flings his belongings over a cliff or into the woods because they're too heavy to carry. Where's a park ranger when you need one?

I certainly hope that folks who read this book to learn more about what it's like to hike one of the most beautiful trails in the United States don't take too much of Bryson's opinions, complaints, and ethics to heart. The Appalachian Trail is a wonderful experience for those who have the time, money, endurance, and inclination to experience its many hidden wonders.