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  • Philip Leung

How To Make Trees Interesting: A Review of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods

Bestselling author Bill Bryson showed readers his Appalachian Trail hike, through this delightful 305-page travelogue filled with science, history, friendship, and introspection.

The Appalachian Trail is a five-month and five-million-step journey for the average hiker. And Bill Bryson, standing at age 46, decided he would do it to rediscover the United States. Well, the fourteen eastern states covered by the Appalachian Trail’s 2,200 miles anyway.

So what do you see hiking through 2,200 miles of woods? For me, not much but trees. Bryson, though, managed to see everything - bears, flora, historical towns, ice age, murders, wars, to name a few. And that’s what he shared in A Walk In the Woods. He reflected and told stories as he stepped on rocks, slept in shelters, and conquered summits. Readers would follow on that journey, with Bryson marking his progress clearly by announcing “we had just picked up another state - our third” or “there is a board marking the traditional, but entirely notional, midpoint of the Appalachian Trail”.

The hike itself was no easy feat - days of walking in the woods, often in solitude and with pounds on the back. From finding the right gears to learning to pitch a tent, Bryson had to step out of his comfort zone. In Chapter One, Bryson delivered a series of promises: the animals in the mountain, the ever-changing weather conditions, and the solitude of a lone hiker. And he delivered on each of them. Throughout the travelogue, readers were kept interested by wondering if a black bear will attack Bryson, whether the weather conditions will derail Bryson’s journey, or how Bryson will cope without others on his journey.

There were encounters with interesting people. Say, Mary Ellen (“she was a piece of work“) and Chicken John, who was constantly lost on the trail. Then there was Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson’s old friend and sidekick. Katz was a great addition, not only to the trip, but to the book. He was relatable - after all, we all have a friend that’s the less-good hiker, right? He was funny and edgy, if slightly inappropriate with his pursuit of a married woman. The pair had conflicting wants: Bryson just wanted to walk, Katz was never much into it. But they supported each other on the trip, and Katz acted as the catalyst to Bryson’s self-discovery. After Katz left, Bryson experienced his lowest moment on the trail: “The irony of my moment was that I wanted to get back on the trail and didn’t know how,” he wrote. “I hadn’t lost just Katz, my boon companion, but my whole sense of connectedness to the trail.”

Bryson’s books, as always, are entertaining and informative at the same time. Learning about science and history is a joy since Bryson skillfully weaves short bursts of facts into his daily hike. A slight detour in Pennsylvania brought Bryson to a former mining town “that will burn for 1000 years”. He discussed the history of the trail and its present-day maintenance. He talked about the flora, as well as the animals. He reflected on America’s attitude towards nature, as well as his own obsession with the trail. Bryson did not shy away from giving his views on issues, from the cost of hiking equipment (“are you shitting me”) to moose hunting (“just something deeply and unquestionably wrong”) to people in charge of Park Services’ budget (“moronically negligent”).

I am almost certain that I would never complete the Appalachian Trail. But I am glad I, at least, travelled alongside Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz on their walk in the woods, and saw the trail through his eyes.

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