A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is Bill Bryson’s autobiographical account of his attempt to complete the AT. Bryson moves deftly between humorous observation and serious discussions relating to the trail’s history and his hiking experience, covering sociology, ecology, botany, zoology, and anthropology.
The book begins with Bryson’s vivid description of his personal interest with the Appalachian Trail. A piece of the trail runs by his home, and the occasional traveler passes by throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. After several years, Bryson and his friend, Stephen Katz, set out to hike the trail from the south end—from Georgia to Maine. The first half of the book is heavy with grief and frustration; Bryson’s travel partner, Katz, is crude, overweight, and a recoverin alcoholic—even less prepared for the trip than Bryson himself. They struggle with gear, decide to discard expensive equipment and food, and stumble through the heat of America’s south and mid-Atlantic.
Upon reaching Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the two decide that the entire trail is too much of an undertaking. They skip a massive section of the trail, picking up again in Roanoke, Virginia. After nearly 800 miles of hiking the two call it quits—Bryson returns to his home in New Hampshire and Katz flies back to Des Moines, Iowa. Over the next several years, Bryson attempts to complete smaller portions of the trail. His inability to complete the entire stretch of wilderness is unsurprising—fewer than 25% of all through-hike attempts are successful.
If you are planning (or aspiring to plan) a backpacking or hiking-motivated trip, A Walk in the Woods is your must-need literary guide. Oscillating between laugh-out-loud funny lines and somber, contemplative meditation on the state of America’s forests, this book is nearly impossible to put down. The story is engaging, and Bryson is a wonderful travel companion.