Critical Assessment

“There’s an awkward and telling moment, early in Bill Bryson’s new book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, in which he casts about for the exact reasons he’s subjecting himself to a five-month slog through the underbrush. There’s the fitness rationale: Bryson is a mildly overweight, middle-aged writer who’s tired of looking, as he puts it, like ‘a cupcake.’ There’s the he-man rationale: when faced with impending danger, Bryson would like to feel more like a flinty Cormac McCarthy protagonist than someone who is ‘jumpier than Don Knotts with pistol drawn.” Finally, there’s the ecological rationale: the Appalachian wilderness is endangered in any number of ways, and the author hopes to fax his readers an urgent dispatch from the front lines.

“Every year, some 2,000 people try to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. Only 200 or so make it to the finish. As it happens, Bryson and Katz don’t find themselves among that elite group. In fact, they don’t even come close. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ ends on a somewhat pathetic note, as Bryson tries to drive to sections of the trail that he’s missed, so he can day-hike through them. But few readers are likely to mind. You don’t sign on with Bryson’s big adventure because you expect him to show you how hairy-chested he can be. You sign on because he’s one of the most engaging cupcakes around.”

Dwight Garner, “Thinking on His Feet: A Long Walk with an Author Who Is Smart and Funny,” The New York Times, May 31, 1998.

14-walkinthewoods_300 First Excerpt

“We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night’s snooze–indeed was enjoying a long night’s snooze–when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything–through thunderstorms, through Katz’s snoring and noisy midnight pees–so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed–a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage–and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.

“Bear! . . .

“I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.

“Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn’t see anything at all of its shape or size–only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.

“‘Stephen,’ I whispered at his tent, ‘did you pack a knife?’

“‘No.’

“‘Have you get anything sharp at all?’

“He thought for a moment. ‘Nail clippers.’

“I made a despairing face. ‘Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see, there is definitely something out here.'”

Second Excerpt

“Above all, what distinguishes the moose is its almost boundless lack of intelligence. If you are driving down a highway and a moose steps from the woods ahead of you, he will stare at you for a long minute (moose are notoriously shortsighted), then abruptly try to run away from you, legs flailing in eight directions at once. Never mind that there are several thousand square miles of forest on either side of the highway. The moose does not think of this. Clueless as to what exactly is going on, he runs halfway to New Brunswick before his peculiar gate inadvertently steers him back into the woods, where he immediately stops and takes on a startled expression that says, ‘Hey–woods. Now how the heck did I get here?’ Moose are so monumentally muddle-headed, in fact, that when they hear a car or truck approaching they will often bolt OUT of the woods and onto the highway in the curious hope that this will bring them to safety.”