Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods

I wish I could write like Bill Bryson – his self-deprecating humour and the irreverent take on the things and people around him are priceless. It is really easy to finish his books at one sitting; they are that enjoyable.

A Walk in the Woods is no different. The journey of 2 middle-aged, out-of-shape men on the longest hiking trail in the world is described with characteristic irony and wit. Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz (we have seen him before on Bryson’s earlier travels around Europe) attempt the 2100 mile (the exact length varies year on year, we are informed) Appalachian Trail along the east coast of the United States. They do not complete it, not even half of it; and the 800-odd mile they do hike is not done at one stretch. They break journey for a couple of months when Bryson attempts day trips on the trail. But this is enough to give the reader an idea of the difficulty of the hike itself and also why so many people attempt it (not enough according to Bryson).

The remoteness of most parts of the trail, its inaccessibility, the scary wild life, the unpredictable and sometimes savage weather, the less than useful maps and an unreliable traveling companion – all of these form the ingredients of Bryson’s travel tale. He makes us see the funny side of these (and some of these are hysterically funny) and that is a tribute to his inexhaustible sense of humour. The parts I like best are when he describes the rare fellow-hikers he encounters. My favourite is Mary Ellen, the know-it-all woman from Florida who talks non-stop. Bryson and Katz spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get away from her but she follows them like a bad penny until she finally drops off the trail even before Bryson and Katz.

All along Bryson keeps up with a continuing smattering of the history of the trail and the people who built this longest footpath in the world. He is also very vociferous about the mis-guidedness of government forest conservation policy. The US Forest Service builds hundreds of thousands of miles of road across US forest reserves and it does this to facilitate logging, allowing huge areas of forest to be clear-cut. According to Bryson, this isn’t even making the Forest Service money – an inefficient and quite mindless policy. It’s not a very encouraging or pretty picture.

At the end of it all, when Bryson and Katz hang up their walking shoes, you are a bit wiser about the Appalachian trail. You are also in danger of being looked at as slightly insane by strangers, especially, if like me, you were reading this in a public place. The guffaws and the chortles are unstoppable – but that’s why you read Bryson in the first place.