Happened to read another book (after Hiking Through by Paul V.Stutzman)dedicated to the longest trail in the world – the Appalachian Trail . The famous AT spans 14 states on the eastern coast of United States of American, from Georgia in the South to Maine in the North. The adventures of the trail beckon many hikers every year inviting them to experience the breathtaking vistas, unforeseen vegetation, diverse array of animals and not to forget the brutal weather, harsh conditions of the terrain and sometimes even threat to the life.
Bill Bryson decides to set off to hike through this 2100 miles long terrain accompanied by his old friend Stephen Katz. In the initial few chapters, the author vividly explains his preparation for the unique experience of life – from buying the right guide books and manuals, right gear, needful items to be carried, to acclimatizing the body for the trail.
Within just a few days of their trail, they realize how ill-equipped and out of shape they are for this big task but they do manage to survive the initial hurdles and continue on the trail at their own convenient pace. They keep walking on, counting the days, night, miles and sometimes the footsteps. Bryson and Katz take a break in between for a few weeks but during that time, Bryson undertakes a series of day hikes by car so as to stay close to the trail. During one such hikes he happens to be in a town of Centralia, which was once inhabited by people but owing to the underground coal fire which continues to burn for decades now, the town has been abandoned and now wears a deserted look. Bryson’s description of this town is simply surreal.
They do return to complete the last leg of the trail together but I leave it for the readers to find out how they take the hardest part of the AT – the heat and wilderness of Maine.
Among many things that I liked about this book, one is the way Bryson introduces the readers to so many other co-hikers they meet while on the trail from the ones like Mary Ellen belonging to the category ‘know-it-all’ , to ‘full of themselves and oblivious to others’ like one group of hikers and many others who fall in between these two categories. The author comments about the passions and obsessions of many and one common obsession which is noticeable among many hikers is their interest to indulge in the discussion on comparing and often condemning the prices and qualities of trail gears of other hikers.
Also, throughout the book, Bryson talks about the flora and fauna of the places they cover during their journey and brings to the readers the actual scenario and plight of the same in the hands of the humans. He has very objectively written about the number of species which have and still continue to become extinct in these regions and how drastically inadequate the efforts have been to arrest this plunder.
‘A Walk in the Woods’ as the name suggests is a travelogue and not a reference book or guide book for the trail. Bill Bryson has reported his experiences in an interesting manner with right proportion of humor to keep the readers engaged.
Stutzman of ‘Hiking Through’ was on a spiritual journey seeking peace and eternal happiness while physically he was on the AT . He was completely focused on covering mile after mile mostly alone and occasionally in the company of some co-hikers. Bill Bryson’s book has a more relaxed approach to the hike that is evident from the way the author undertakes the hike in the company of a friend whose probability of continuing with this task is drastically meager. He talks about nature, geology, politics, history, human psychology, and also hiking.
I must mention the way he summarized his experience on the trail through this paragraph -
“I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t thoroughly contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.’