[Warning: contains spoilers to A Walk in the Woods]
A year ago, after I announced my intentions of hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, about twenty people recommended that I read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. Many of them were absolutely ecstatic, so I was confident I would love the book as well. However, when I finally read it over the summer, I was disappointed and a bit disgusted with the guy. I might have been able to get past his general negative attitude about the trail experience, if not for his intolerant insults and bigamist imaginations of the rural south. Of course, I have yet to embark on my own thru-hike, so I don’t exactly have a right to judge. Still, I think a different outlook could have led to a better trail experience. Here are five questions he should have asked himself before beginning his thru-hike.
1. If you’re living for the towns not the mountains, why are you even hiking?
Initially, he reminded me of Bilbo Baggins, who set out rather spontaneously on an adventure for which he was unprepared.
I assumed that, with time, Bryson would come to embrace The Wild just as Bilbo had, but unfortunately that never happened. Sure, he appreciated the breathtaking views from sporadic overlooks, but he never found joy in his lack of urban comforts. He seemed happiest when he unexpectedly stumbled across processed food or paved roads. The Hundred Mile Wilderness (which includes the AT’s most difficult climbs and its greatest isolation) sounds like freedom to me, but Bill Bryson was so miserable there that he quit two days in.
2. If you can’t stand the culture of rural America, why did you choose this hike?
In case you have had the luxury of avoiding his over-hyped book, know that he found a creationist statement on a rural church sign so appalling that he skipped over a quarter of the Trail by driving from the southern Smokies all the way to Roanoke. At this point in the book, Bryson lost my respect, for that section of the Trail is the part most familiar to me and most beloved by me. That section is where, as a child growing up with the hazy silhouettes of the Smokies outlining the horizon of my city, I first felt a burning desire to retreat from “civilization” and embrace simplicity in the undeveloped forest. I’m not an experienced backpacker. I may never hike the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide trails. I chose the Appalachian Trail, in part, to commune with my homeland in a deeper way. It’s no surprise that Bryson lost my respect when he failed to appreciate the mountains and the culture so near and dear to my heart. This is not to say that cultural ties to the AT are a prerequisite for thru-hiking, or even that they lead to a better experience. Rather, I hope to impress upon any potential thru-hikers that if you cannot appreciate, or at least tolerate, the culture of rural America, this may not be the trail for you.
3. If you’re going to whine the whole way, could you please spare us all by never writing a book?
Bryson’s failure to tolerate viewpoints different from his own, as expressed by small-town Appalachians, prevented his appreciation of the southern section of the Trail, which in turn led to the failure of his thru-hike. Aside from his whiny attitude, Bryson’s unpreparedness was a huge problem. Make no mistake; I am not a spontaneous person, so I have great admiration for people who are. My point is that Bryson’s intentions were half-baked from the start. He didn’t do any short backpacking ahead of time to try out his equipment and get in shape. There’s nothing wrong with unprepared spontaneity, so long as you embrace it. But instead of embracing it, Bryson spent the whole hike, and the whole book, complaining.
4. If you’re thru-hiking just to say you did it, can’t you find an easier accomplishment to brag about?
More importantly than this, though, Bryson began hiking for all the wrong reasons. Essentially, he wanted to hike because “all the cool kids were doing it.” He wanted to thru-hike for bragging rights, so he could say he had done it. In some situations, that mindset works well. For example, I once drank a gallon of milk in less than an hour (56 minutes, to be precise) just to say I had done it.
It was a difficult task, and my success primarily stemmed from my determination to gain bragging rights. An AT thru-hike, however, requires a much bigger commitment, and therefore much deeper motivation than “it will make me look cool.”
5. If you have a better reason to thru-hike, what is it?
There are many good reasons to thru-hike the AT, which may be unique to each person. I suggest reading Zach Davis’ book for some phenomenal advice on sorting out your personal reasons for pursuing this goal. Even just by reading A Walk in the Woods, though, I realized my reasons are entirely different from Bryson’s. I want so desperately to escape from a world where people do things because they’re popular and even more so, I want to escape from the part of myself that so frequently succumbs to that mindset. I want to distance myself from the material comforts that surround me: from Netflix, from iPhones, from Longchamp bags, because I’m uncomfortable with the effect that materialism has had on me.
The discomforts that Bill Bryson incessantly complained about are what I anticipate; in fact, they are half of the reason I want to hike in the first place. In an almost monastic way, I look forward to a five-month purge from my indulgent lifestyle. When at a gift shop in Shenandoah National Park awhile back, I came across a sticker that read, “The Appalachian Trail: a footpath for those who seek solace in the wilderness.” I bought it, because it so perfectly captured the reason I yearn for the Trail: I am seeking solace. Although Bill Bryson didn’t find solace in the tranquility of the forest, I know that I will, because I’ve found it there before. Friends of mine have occasionally remarked that they find it unusual for “such a perfectionist” to harbor an abiding love for The Great Outdoors. Invariably, I explain that I love being outside precisely because that is the only place where I do not feel compelled to organize, to impose structure upon chaos. I have no desire to create order when I’m enveloped in Nature, for the natural world is already impeccably perfect in a different way. I have never found peace of mind as profoundly as I do on a walk in the woods. I pity poor Bill Bryson that he does not feel the same way.
And so, to the friends of mine who feared that Bill Bryson’s book would lead me to abandon my Appalachian Trail aspirations, it did not have that effect. For those of you who hoped it would inspire me, it did so by confirming that I am setting out on this journey for all the right reasons, and with realistic expectations. To those of you who love this book, I hope I did not spoil it for you, although I look forward to sharing a different perspective with you when I finish the Trail in August. To those of you who also aspire to hike the AT, I suggest also looking elsewhere for motivation and insight. Try reading the multitude of other AT books (such as Appalachian Trials), but also read Thoreau’s Walden, Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Homer’s The Odyssey. And to all twenty of you who recommended this book, for varying reasons, thank you so much for doing so. Despite my dislike for Bill Bryson, I am truly glad I read A Walk in the Woods.