Monday, March 19, 2012

A Walk in the Woods Review

            A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is a fantastic novel about the author’s journey on the Appalachian Trail in the United States. He carefully prepares for his journey and even has a friend, Stephen Katz, go along with him. The trail is unforgiving but Bryson and Katz persevere throughout. Bryson provides the reader with a fantastic and funny insight about the trail and how he continued on despite obstacles. Bryson manages to give the reader his first-hand experiences as well as some great history about the trail all in a book I could hardly keep closed.
            As soon as I began to read chapter one, I knew I would like this book. Bryson doesn’t seem like an accomplished writer from England, but rather just an ordinary, everyday guy. Though, that’s certainly not a knock at his writing—it’s fantastic! He’s humorous and adds little thoughts that keep the writing fresh and interesting. And just on the fourth page of the book we get this line: “I wanted a little swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.’” It’s lines like these that make me want to sit down with Bryson and have a burger and a beer. He’s relatable and hilarious, but he’s also able to present his humor in tasteful way.
            In chapter one, Bryson also goes through all of the gear and supplies he needs for his trip. It was really eye-opening to me because I hadn’t realized just how much effort goes into a large hiking trip. And then there’s the worry of diseases, which is enough to make me think twice about hiking. Though I enjoyed the educational value of this information, what I really like is how Bryson keeps it flowing. He doesn’t just bombard you with boring information; his writing keeps it fresh. After chapter one, I was definitely hooked. I couldn’t wait to see how his journey went.
            In chapter two, Bryson opens up with a little story about a black bear and their attraction to food. First of all, I like how Bryson uses a little story to introduce what he’s going to talk about in that chapter. He does this throughout the book and I think it’s a major reason why the book stays fresh and interesting. This really adds another dimension to the book and I learned a lot of new information. So in addition to Bryson’s hiking experiences, the reader also gets little interesting tales about other people sprinkled throughout. But after these stories, and with his own little tidbits of humor here and there, he gets more serious and talks about the methods of protecting oneself against a black bear. Bryson has a nice balance of humor and important information in his book.
            Some of my favorite little segments of additional information came as he was telling us about the Smokies. He provides us with some facts (the Smokies are home to 67 varieties of mammal) but still makes it interesting. He also offers some interesting information about bears. I found the recorded instance about the bear eating the baby's hand (are people really that dumb?) particularly strange. He then goes on to talk about salamanders and how nearly half of all the species of mussels in the Smokies are endangered. I would have never thought about mussels this type of setting, let alone think they’d be endangered. I like how Bryson mentions these things, even if it’s only for a few sentences, because it further expands my knowledge about the environment.
One of the most interesting tidbits that Bryson shared with us was about Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Bryson describes it as a place "providing all those things that the park does not- principally, slurpy food, motels, gift shops, and sidewalks on which to waddle and dawdle" (102). What really shocked me, as well as Bryson, is that Gatlinburg is actually more popular than the most popular national park in America (Great Smoky Mountains National Park). This place sounds absolutely disgusting but I was fascinated since I hadn’t heard of it before. It actually prompted me to look up some additional information about the place. It's really unfortunate to see these commercialized places with wax museums, tacky stores, and touristy restaurants in the middle of nature. Gatlinburg actually reminds a lot of Niagara Falls from what I remember. Do we really need a Rainforest Cafe, several wax museums, and glow-in-the-dark miniature golf at these places? We're surrounded by nature, but touristy attractions like these take away much of its beauty.
Another bit of information that Bryson shares that really fascinated me was about Centralia, PA. The town, which had been burning out of control for over 34 years, is dangerous, eerie, and quite unstable. Centralia is literally a ghost town with boarded up homes, driveways leading to nowhere, and white smoke rising from the ground. “All around it, smoke was hovering wispily off the ground, and just behind it, great volumes of smoke were billowing from the earth over a large area” (182). It fascinated me how people were not even forced to evacuate. Therefore, the occasional well-kept house could be found and there was obviously still some people inhabiting the area. And despite this place being incredibly creepy, as I read Bryson’s account, I found myself wanting to go there more and more.
I also really like how Bryson takes the time to talk about some of the history of the trail. He gives a total rundown of their formation, even starting with Pangaea. And he does it in a way that’s informative with hints of humor. “The continents didn’t just move in and out from each other in some kind of grand slow-motion square dance but spun in lazy circles, changed their orientation, went on cruises to the tropics and poles, made friends with smaller landmasses and brought them home” (191). I loved this line and it made me wish that Bryson wrote all of my college textbooks! I thought it was great that Bryson took a moment to give some history about the trail. It reminds the reader of just how grand the trail is. It’s always good to know the history behind something, whether it is a country, a trail, or even something much smaller and less significant.
My main (and basically only) complaint about A Walk in the Woods was that I felt that Part 2 of the book wasn’t quite as interesting as the first. Although it still held my attention quite well, I just enjoyed the journey of Bryson and Katz together. They’re humorous together and we learned a lot of unique and funny characters during Part 1. The day trips in Part 2 just felt a little disheartening and lacked the interest of the long, exhausting hikes in Part 1.  I also noticed that Bryson becomes a bit more cynical in the second half. He’s more caught up in the problems with the Appalachian Trail and his own personal struggles. Although it’s not necessarily a bad thing, there’s a noticeable change in his mindset. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate some of Bryson’s criticisms; it’s just that I preferred the satirical and more adventurous side of Part 1.
Bryson manages to cover history, geography, and humor all into one book, which is why I enjoyed it so much.  I happily read the book in under a week and it left me feeling ready for an adventure. It’s certainly a great read for anyone, particularly those into nature and adventure. I also think it’d be a great read for anyone preparing for a long hike. Bryson’s wit combined with great history of the trail as well as extra little stories really makes it an engaging read. 

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