If you are a book worm, one of life's great pleasures is the library book sale, where gently (and sometimes not so gently) used books can be bought for bargain basement prices. And so it was that I recently procured a $1 paperback copy of Bill Bryson's 1998 book A Walk in the Woods, a memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). As a Bryson fan (his recent book, At Home was my 2011 "book of the year"), I looked forward to his equal parts tangy and tart writing and punchy prose. In this respect, AWITW did not disappoint. In Brysonian style, digressions into the origins of the AT, its flora and fauna, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates and the lost stories of many small towns along the way unfolded, crisply and with vivid insight. Bryson's partner in crime is one Stephen Katz, both foil and foible, a recovering alcoholic Bryson vaguely knew a lifetime ago and who comes along for the ride.
For the first leg of the trip, as well as the book, we move smartly. Packs are purchased, routines are established in fits and starts, coffee is funneled through makeshift toilet paper filters each morning, tents are pitched and taken down, sore feet massaged each night by crackling early spring fires. A freakish snowstorm hits Georgia, providing narrative drama and the tone of peril as our doughy, middle aged duo overcomes challenges little by little. By and by, Bryson and Katz find their footing, the hike quickens, random strangers are met along the way, and a comfortable pace, both in their walking and the author's writing, are established. And then, just as the reader is getting comfortable and the hiking boots are broken in, the duo cuts their trip short. The suddenness of this narrative shift is jarring - as Bryson tells it, while stopping at a general store, he notices how very little of the full AT (which clocks in at about 2,100 miles) he and his partner have traversed.
They are quickly whisked back to civilization and from there, the book loses much of its thread. Bryson takes some day trips into Pennsylvania coal country while Katz is off stage, back in Des Moines and not to reappear until nearly the end of the book. The book becomes like Bryson's hodge podge walks, disjointed and unsatisfying. The privation of the wilderness is replaced by the knowledge that the author is traveling from place to place by car, parking his vehicle in a spot along the trail and then circling back to it by the end of the day. The greatest drama we hear of is a juvenile argument Bryson gets into with a "rent-a-cop" on a side road near a coal plant. Otherwise, Bryson's frustration at going from a hiker living day to day in the woods to a day tripper dipping in and out of the wilderness is palpable.
By summer, Katz has returned for the duo's trek through Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness - a trek of true challenge (at least back in the mid 1990s, before cell phone became commonplace). The trip ends up being ill fated - as Bryson fills in the blanks on Katz's life between the two legs of their trip, we learn he has slipped and returned to alcohol and having lost the hiking chops that he had developed down South. The duo aborts early on in the hike and are left to consider their fates. In this way, the book acts as middle aged meditation, of men coming to grips with weakened virility and submission to the hands of time and living that did not incorporate either clean living or good nutrition. That said, their 870 mile total was nonetheless impressive, a full 40% of the overall total of the AT, or, as Bryson notes, a walk from New York to Chicago (and then some).
A final note - Bryson wields a sharp pen and lacerating wit, but too often, his barbs came off as churlish, particularly some of the stereotyping he did of backwoods people in the South and in casual conversations with less serious hikers along the way. Perhaps this is owing to his years in England or maybe he's just a contrarian cuss, but I found his tone off putting at times. Overall, an uneven effort that I felt far better about spending one dollar on as opposed to the cover price of $14.95.