Jesse Kornbluth reviews A Walk in the Woods and realizes that Bill Bryson is a funny, funny man.
Summer is for being outside, yes? Not in my part of the country, not this summer. Searing heat, steam room humidity — I’m taking my nature through a window. Nostalgic for the green spectrum? Nature programming on cable. Or a book. Set on a table near the A/C, iced tea near at hand.
So you’ve written a batch of books, Mr. Bryson, and now you live in New Hampshire, a state where people rest from the chore of meeting Presidential candidates by lacing up their hiking boots and exposing themselves to black flies. You’re tired of looking out the window. One day you take a walk. And you get an idea: I’ll amble the 2,100-mile length of the Appalachian Trail.
You have had zany ideas before, but you follow up on this one — in your Christmas card, you ask many friends to walk the trail with you. Only one responds. He is Stephen Katz, a college buddy who has gone on to abuse alcohol and drugs and is now sober, if not exactly tame. You have not seen him in a decade. The last time you did, you fought. But what the heck — he’s willing to do it, even if he is seriously weight-challenged. So, laden with candy bars and brand-new camping equipment, the two of you fly down to Georgia and start walking.
You fully expect to be re-enacting that really depressing scene from “Deliverance” within minutes of stepping into the woods. But you don’t need rednecks to challenge you. You have Katz:
I don’t know when I lost track of Katz, but it was in the first couple of hours. At first I would wait for him to catch up, bitching every step of the way and pausing after each three or four shuffling paces to wipe his brow and look sourly at his immediate future. It was painful to behold in every way. Eventually I waited to see him pull into view, just to confirm that he was still coming, wasn’t lying on the path palpitating or thrown down his pack in disgust and gone looking for Wes Wisson. I would wait and wait and eventually his shape would appear among the trees, breathing heavily, moving with incredible slowness, and talking in a loud, bitter voice to himself. Halfway up the third big hill, the 3,400-foot-high Black Mountain, I stood and waited a long while, and thought about going back, but eventually turned and struggled on. I had enough small agonies of my own.
At length, Katz appears, “wild-haired and one-gloved, and nearer hysteria than I have ever seen a grown person.” He has not helped himself during his absence: “It was hard to get the full story out of him in a coherent flow, because he was so furious, but I gathered he had thrown many items from his pack over a cliff in a temper. None of the things that had been dangling from the outside were there any longer, including his water bottle.”
Soon enough, personal relations — vital on a trip involving just two people — devolve:
For two days, Katz barely spoke to me. On the second night, at nine o’clock, an unlikely noise came from his tent- the punctured air click of a beverage can being opened– and he said in a pugnacious tone, ‘Do you know what that was, Bryson? Cream Soda. You know what else? I’m drinking it right now, and I’m not giving you any. And you know what else? Its delicious… Man that was so good. Now fuck you and good night.’
There is modest good news. The average American walks 350 yards a day. On the other hand, to your great pride, you and Katz cover more ground every 20 minutes than Mr. Average Joe does in a week. So you press on. You meet silly people — but then, who else goes for long walks in the woods on weekdays? You get lost. And, on occasion, you have the proverbial bliss that only Nature provides. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
“A Walk in the Woods” is not a book to be read in bed. I read a chapter that way, and soon I was laughing so hard I was gasping. Bill Bryson is a funny, funny man — and, though you don’t quite realize it, he’s a fabulous writer who sneaks the history of the Trail into the book so smoothly that you never feel you’re in history class.
This is a book that clever children and savvy wives give to Dads on Father’s Day, birthdays, holidays and any warm day when the Man of the House has dreams of outdoor glory. It’s a useful cautionay tale — it will discourage any reasonable male from attempting to duplicate the Bryson-Katz walk. Or even, for that matter, going outside, where there are bugs and heat and creatures that make noise in the dark.