People have been recommending Bill Bryson books to me for years, but the one that I finally decided to pick up and actually read was A Walk in the Woods, Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. As someone who occasionally likes hiking, and often likes to think about taking on bigger challenges than I can manage, I’ve long been fascinated with the AT, but I can safely say that Bryson’s book has cured me of any desire to ever attempt hiking this 2000-mile trail that runs through the mountainous east coast of the United States. I don’t think that dissuading future hikers was Bryson’s intention, but that was the main effect his book had on me.
If the last book you read about long-distance hiking was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, you’ll want to get yourself in a different frame of mind before you pick up Bryson’s book (which was written several years earlier). Not only do we find ourselves on a different coast but in a different genre. Strayed’s account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an intense personal memoir with hiking as its backdrop; Bryson’s is a funny travel book. Rather than setting out on the trail because of a deep personal need to escape his life, Bryson simply wants to explore this network of trails in the eastern U.S., where he finds himself living after many years in England. And he has no illusions about actually hiking the entire trail from beginning to end in one go: he and a friend hike sections, getting on and off the trail as it suits them. So I’m not sure we can really say Bill Bryson has hiked the Appalachian Trail, but he’s certainly hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and learned a lot about the trail and its history, which he shares with great good humour. This book is really funny, but it is also quite starkly honest about the dangers and discomforts of hiking the AT, and I have to say that my general impression after reading it was, “Well, let’s call that Plan Never-Do.”