Home > 1990, 20th Century, American Literature, Bryson Bill, Non Fiction > A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

  1. July 2, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    It *is* interesting how perspectives have changed so much. I haven’t read Bryson for decades and I suspect I might not gel with him nowadays. As for this one, the journey really does sound ill advised, and as for the diet – sacre bleu!!!

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 9:13 am

      I really enjoyed his Down Under about Australia and I was disappointed by this one. I don’t think it’s a bad book but it didn’t age well.

      And yes, it’s interesting to see that the awareness about environmental issues has progressed . My response to A Walk in the Woods would have been different if I had read it when it went out.

      It’s still a performance : walking these 870 miles wasn’t a picnic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. July 2, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    Yeesh, that “typical American” comment isn’t very kind.

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 9:22 am

      Sorry if it hurt your feelings. There’s a question mark, though.

      But you need to understand where I come from.

      For me, junk food comes from America. I’m not even fifty and I remember when the first McDonald’s arrived in a nearby city. We had no fast food restaurants at all. Never seen a hamburger in real life before that.

      And I discovered people ate sandwiches at home when I spent a few weeks in an American family. My mom only prepared sandwiches when we had a picnic and were eating out of the house.

      Like

  3. July 2, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    It was extraordinary that they would set out on this kind of an adventure with so little thought and preparation. They were lucky to get out with just blisters

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    • July 3, 2022 at 9:25 am

      They were well prepared as far as equipment was concerned. They had all the right gear and good maps and were informed of the trail.

      They weren’t as fit as I would have expected them to be to start such a strenuous trail. Unless, as I say, Bryson downplays how fit they were for the sake of the story.

      They still did 870 miles which is a great performance anyway.

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  4. July 2, 2022 at 6:58 pm

    I find his humor always condescending, but I like this book best. Especially if I focus on the nature description. I re-listened to it when we were on our way to the Appalachian Trail a few years ago.
    By the way, the movie is very bad, even worse as for Katz. And focusing too much on that than on nature itself

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    • July 3, 2022 at 9:27 am

      You really need to read Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. The descriptions of nature are far superior.
      What bothered me the most here was how unkind he was to Katz. For the rest, the book was written in 1997 and our perspective on hiking, nature and all has changed.

      Like

  5. July 2, 2022 at 10:18 pm

    I haven’t read Bryson in years, but this does sound disappointing. As you say, maybe it’s very much of his time. I’m not really tempted to pick him up again.

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 9:28 am

      I enjoyed Down Under but here, the duo with Katz bothered me and I think the book didn’t age well.
      Have you read the one about UK? (Notes from a Small Island)

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 3, 2022 at 12:04 pm

        Yes, that was one I read years ago. I remember enjoying it but I wonder if I’d read it differently now.

        Like

        • July 3, 2022 at 2:18 pm

          We have it at home too, I’ll get to it someday.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. July 3, 2022 at 9:54 am

    Oddly enough, I spent the weekend partly at the Bill Bryson University Library in Durham with my son. But it does sound like we have moved on, thank goodness, even though I suspect he might be exaggerating their cluelessness for comic effect.

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 2:17 pm

      I didn’t know he had a library named after him.
      I think he was better prepared than he lets on but I’m not so sure about his travel companion. It’s still an acomplishment, though. He did walk lots of miles in difficult conditions.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. July 3, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    I have never warmed to the idea of Bill Bryson, I don’t know why, but then I don’t read travel writing. We had real hamburgers in Australia when I was a kid with lots of meat and salad and mayo, an egg, beetroot of course. Maccas are just a travesty. I still make myself one sometimes (with vegie patties), and sadly, I live on sandwiches when I’m home.

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 2:22 pm

      Since he wrote books about two places I visited or intended to visit…
      It’s always a surprise for me when I read American books set in the 1950s or earlier and they have hamburgers or frozen fried fish or other premade food. (American Pastoral)

      PS : Still not fluent in Australian English, I had to research Maccas 🙂

      Like

  8. July 3, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    The only book of his I’ve read so far is A Short History of Almost Everything which I liked very much,but haven’t yet read any of the others. That they’d set off with little to no preparation is rather surprising.
    Interesting about the growing popularity of hiking in France. I’ve been watching off and on a programme on TV5Monde which features different hikes, and such pretty places.
    Re the junk food, it is becoming quite ubiquitous even in my part of the world now, though at home we still prefer fresh cooked meals, usually traditional foods.

    Like

    • July 3, 2022 at 4:01 pm

      They had the right gear but lacked physical preparation, according to their adventures and suffering.

      I didn’t even know they had such a program on TV5Monde but I’m not surprised. There’s a growing awareness about the place of nature in our life, the calming effect it has on people and a new tendency to enjoy and preserve it. I think.

      And yes, junk food is everywhere. We still have home cooked meals too but junk food and take away have a growing place in people’s food. (And it’s not green when you think of all the packaging) But it’s very old: after all, they found take away places in Pompeii.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 5, 2022 at 5:30 pm

        I can’t recall the name at the moment. I’ll look it up. I don’t watch very much TV these days but managed to catch it a couple of times by chance.

        Here it is the same, people are eating more junk food than before. You’re right, though, it isn’t all ‘modern day’

        Like

  9. July 3, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    Thinking about this one, I can imagine it HAS dated quite badly. He was a bit too glib in this one anyway even at the time, I recall. Love the French title!

    Like

  1. September 4, 2022 at 8:17 am

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