Over holidays my brother lent me Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I had read some of Bryon’s work for an intro to non-fiction workshop I took as an undergraduate and I even heard him speak at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, MA, but beyond that I haven’t really interacted with his work.
From what I knew of Bryson, I expected the book to be a humorously cynical travelogue, and it certainly lived up those expectations, for example the first interaction with a fellow hiker, Mary Ellen, has Bryson narrating:
“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared.” (pg 51)
While I certainly get a kick out of moments like this, after a while I find this tone grating because it reaches a point where any interaction within the text is tapered with the underlying expectation for a judgement.
However, I was pleasantly surprised that this kind of critique wasn’t reserved only for individuals, in fact besides Mary Ellen and some select towns Bryson speaks with a lot of admiration about the people encountered throughout his hike, but that the book took on an environmentalist critique of organizations and services along the AT.
Consider Bryson’s take on the US Forest Service:
“About 240 million acres of America’s forests are owned by the government. The bulk of this— 191 million acres, spread over 155 parcels of land— is held by the US Forest Service… A lot of people, seeing the word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees. In fact, no— though that was the original plan… mostly what the Forest Service does is build roads. I am not kidding. There are 387,000 miles of road in America’s national forests. That may seem a meaningless figure, but look at it this way— it is eight times the total mileage of America’s interstate highway system. It is the largest system in the world in control of a single body… Show them a stand of trees anywhere and they will regard it thoughtfully for a long while, and say at last, ‘You know, we could put a road here.’ It is the avowed aim of the U.S. Forest Service to construct 580,000 miles of additional forest road by the middle of the next century.” (pg 46-47)
or his comments on Shenandoah National Park’s treatment of hikers during congressional budget issues:
“…Shenandoah, despite it’s perennial want of money, found the funds to post a warden at each AT access point to turn back all thru-hikers. In consequence, a couple dozen harmless people had to make lengthy, pointless detours… This vigilance couldn’t have cost the Park Service less than $20,000 or better part of $1,000 for each dangerous thru-hiker deflected.” (pg 137-138)
But large, federal agencies aren’t the only targets of Bryson’s wit, he isn’t afraid to critique aspects of the trail itself. When going through Pennsylvania he complains:
“The six sheets—maps is really much too strong a word for them— produced for Pennsylvania by a body called the Keystone Trails Association are small, monochrome, appallingly printed, inadequately keyed, and heartbreakingly useless, dangerously useless. No one should be sent into the wilderness with maps this bad.” (pg 174)
he also gives credit where credit is due though, which is what any system, trail or otherwise, needs in order to thrive. Hiking through the Delaware Water Gap he writes:
“I had excellent maps. I was now in the cartographically thoughtful hands of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, whose maps are richly printed in four colors, with green for woodland, blue for water, red for trails, and black for lettering.” (pg 195)
Another large thread throughout the book is ecotourism. Bryson is distinctly aware that he is a tourist and as such puts himself in a position as a narrator to not only comment on traveling America by foot, but also to comment on the tourism industry and specifically America’s brand of car bound ecotourism such as Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or Mount Washington:
“They were everywhere, basking in the sunshine, draped over the railings on viewing terraces, wandering between various shops and food places. I felt for some minutes like a visitor from another planet. I loved it. It was a nightmare, of course, and a desecration of the highest mountain in the northeast, but I was delighted it existed in one place. It made the rest of the trail seem perfect.” (pg 231)
A Walk in the Woods is, at it’s heart, a fun, eloquently written, travelogue. But it would be a difficult task to hike and then write about the Appalachian Trail without indulging in an environmental bias and what I most admire about Bryson is his willingness to embrace this slant and not shy away from or apologize for it. In doing so he, provides his reader with both a detailed history and poignant present state of the American landscape that is in many ways a call to action, and at the very least is a call to get out and take a hike.