A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Official Guides to the Appalachian Trail)

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‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across erica and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.

That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.

Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.

As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.

Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.

In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me wit depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.

This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.

That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I Admit, I Didn’t Like “A Walk in the Woods”

Up in Minnesota this past weekend at my uncle-in-law’s cabin, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods, which for sometime now, my sister has been urging everyone in our family to read.That the book is very funny is the first thing anyone will tell you about it, and it’s true, I laughed out loud a lot during the first fifty or so pages. One part in particular, a punchline about Snickers candy bars, comes after a long build-up, and I struggled for two minutes to read it aloud to my wife, I was laughing so hard. The strength of the first fifty pages alone is undoubtedly responsible for a good deal of the book’s commercial success. People get just that far, call a friend and say “You’ve got to read this book.” If recommendations were given only at the end of the book there would certainly be fewer of them.Which is not to say that where A Walk in the Woods is not funny, it’’ bad. It’s just ordinary. There is, to begin with, the fact that while the book blurb reads, “Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native county by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail,” he in fact did no such thing. After six weeks of walking, Bryson rents a car and drives from Tennessee to Virginia. Then he takes most of the rest of the summer off, commuting to the trail for day hikes only, and returns for an aborted final trek through the last part of the AT, the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. So, an adventure story, the book is not.John Updike wrote about book reviewing, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Ergo, I will not blame Bill Bryson for not actually walking all that much of the Appalachian Trail. I will, however, blame him for the insipidness of many of the cultural observations he makes along the way. One chapter opens, “Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week.” Brilliant observation, Mr. Bryson, and surely the kind of insight that can be gained only after dabbling in the Appalachian Trail for a few weeks.Other Bryson reckonings are similarly astute. America is overly commercialized, loaded with parking lots and strip malls, and populated with overweight, incurious louts like one park ranger he meets who, in spite of having worked at the base of the AT for twelve years, has never actually set foot on the trail. Bryson lived in England for the twenty years before moving back to America and writing this book, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not realizing that there is little novelty in these cloying observations. Still, the book feels entirely like a set-up. The hike is pretense, a frame for shallow commentary and brochure-deep discussion of the natural phenomena Bryson encounters along the way.My wife would no doubt tell me to lighten up, and maybe so. Hunkered down in a Minnesota cabin, I was happy to find A Walk in the Woods in among the bookshelf miscellany, if only for the early laughs. At the end of the book, Bryson takes stock of what he’s accomplished. All told, he walked 870 miles, a little less than 40 percent of the Appalachian Trail. I would recommend adopting the same approach with A Walk in the Woods. Read the first fifty pages, and then call it quits.

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