A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Bill Bryson, 1999
For reasons even he didn't understand, Bill Bryson decided in 1996 to walk the 2,100-mile Appalachian trail.
Winding from Georgia to Maine, this uninterrupted 'hiker's highway' sweeps through the heart of some of America's most beautiful and treacherous terrain. Accompanied by his infamous crony, Stephen Katz, Bryson risks snake bite and hantavirus to trudge up unforgiving mountains, plod through swollen rivers, and yearn for cream sodas and hot showers.
This amusingly ill-conceived adventure brings Bryson to the height of his comic powers, but his acute eye also observes an astonishing landscape of silent forests, sparkling lakes, and other national treasures that are often ignored or endangered. Fresh, illuminating, and uproariously funny, A Walk in the Woods showcases Bill Bryson at his very best. (From the publisher.)
See the 2015 movie with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
Listen to the Screen Thoughts podcast as Hollister and O'Toole compare book and movie.
• Birth—December 8 1951
• Where—Des Moines, Iowa, USA
• Education—B.A., Drake University
• Awards—(see below)
• Currently—lives in Norfolk, England, UK
William McGuire "Bill" Bryson is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of North Yorkshire, UK, for most of his professional life before moving back to the US in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to the UK, living in Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University.
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of William and Mary Bryson. He has an older brother, Michael, and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth.
He was educated at Drake University but dropped out in 1972, deciding to instead backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high school friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (who later appears in Bryson's A Walk in the Woods). Some of Bryson's experiences from this European trip are included as flashbacks in a book about a similar excursion written 20 years later, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.
Staying in the UK, Bryson landed a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water in Surrey. There he met his wife Cynthia, a nurse. After marring, the couple moved to the US, in 1975, so Bryson could complete his college degree. In 1977 they moved back to the UK where they remained until 1995.
Living in North Yorkshire and working primarily as a journalist, Bryson eventually became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times, and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent.
He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Still living in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire, Bryson started writing independently, and in 1990 their fourth and final child, Sam, was born.
Bryson came to prominence in the UK with his 1995 publication of Notes from a Small Island, an exploration of Britain. Eight years later, as part of the 2003 World Book Day, Notes was voted by UK readers as the best summing up of British identity and the state of the nation. (The same year, 2003, saw Bryson appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.)
In 1995, Bryson and his family returned to the US, living in Hanover, New Hampshire for the next eight years. His time there is recounted in the 1999 story collection, I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to American After 20 Years Away (known as Notes from a Big Country in the UK, Canada and Australia).
It was during this time that Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz. The resulting book is the 1998 A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The book became one of Bryson's all-time bestsellers and was adapted to film in 2015, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
In 2003, the Brysons and their four children returned to the UK. They now live in Norfolk.
That same year, Bryson published A Short History of Nearly Everything, a 500-page exploration, in nonscientific terms, of the history of some of our scientific knowledge. The book reveals the often humble, even humorous, beginnings of some of the discoveries which we now take for granted.
The book won Bryson the prestigious 2004 Aventis Prize for best general science book and the 2005 EU Descartes Prize for science communication. Although one scientist is alleged to have jokingly described A Brief History as "annoyingly free of mistakes," Bryson himself makes no such claim, and a list of nine reported errors in the book is available online.
Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language—Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1994). He also updated of his 1983 guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. These books were popularly acclaimed and well-reviewed, despite occasional criticism of factual errors, urban myths, and folk etymologies.
In 2016, Bryson published The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in England, a sequel to his Notes from a Small Island.
In 2005, Bryson was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and has been particularly active with student activities, even appearing in a Durham student film (the sequel to The Assassinator) and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. He has also been awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities, including Bournemouth University and in April 2002 the Open University.
In 2006, Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day."
In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair on the state of science and education.
On 13 December 2006, Bryson was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature. The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.
In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow of the Pomfret School in Connecticut.
In May 2007, he became the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. His first area focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007. (From Wikipedia. Adapted 2/1/2016.)
Funny, yes. But Bryson also provides valuable lessons in history, geology, botany, zoology, meteorology, and bureaucratic failures. He’s a "walking" encyclopedia and endlessly fascinating.... Some have commented that Bryson’s jeremiads on politics, commercialism, and rural southerners are unreasonable and unfair.
A LitLovers LitPick (July '07)
Don't look to A Walk in the Woods for forced revelations about failed relationships or financial ruin or artistic insecurity. Bryson is hiking the trail because it's there, and he's great company right from the start—a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley and (given his fondness for gross-out humor) Dave Barry.
Dwight Garner - New York Times Book Review
A laugh-out-loud account....If you were to cross John Muir's writings with Dave Barry's you'd end up with A Walk in the Woods.
National Geographic Traveler
Returning to the U.S. after 20 years in England, Iowa native Bryson decided to reconnect with his mother country by hiking the length of the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. Awed by merely the camping section of his local sporting goods store, he nevertheless plunges into the wilderness and emerges with a consistently comical account of a neophyte woodsman learning hard lessons about self-reliance. Bryson (The Lost Continent) carries himself in an irresistibly bewildered manner, accepting each new calamity with wonder and hilarity. He reviews the characters of the AT (as the trail is called), from a pack of incompetent Boy Scouts to a perpetually lost geezer named Chicken John. Most amusing is his cranky, crude and inestimable companion, Katz, a reformed substance abuser who once had single-handedly "become, in effect, Iowa's drug culture." The uneasy but always entertaining relationship between Bryson and Katz keeps their walk interesting, even during the flat stretches. Bryson completes the trail as planned, and he records the misadventure with insight and elegance. He is a popular author in Britain and his impeccably graceful and witty style deserves a large American audience as well.
The Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, GA, to Mount Katahdin, ME consists of some five million steps, and Bryson (Notes from a Small Island, 1996) seems to coax a laugh, and often an unexpectedly startling insight, out of each one he traverses. It's not all yuks though it is hard not to grin idiotically through all 288 pages, for Bryson is a talented portraitist of place. He did his natural-history homework, which is to say he knows a jack-o-lantern mushroom from a hellbender salamander from a purple wartyback mussel, and can also write seriously about the devastation of chestnut blight. He laces his narrative with gobbets of trail history and local trivia, and he makes real the 'strange and palpable menace' of the dark deep woods in which he sojourns, the rough-hewn trailscape 'mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one has ever used or coveted,' celebrating as well the 'low-level ecstasy' of finding a book left thoughtfully at a trail shelter, or a broom with which to sweep out the shelter's dross. Yet humor is where the book finds its cues—from Bryson's frequent trail companion, the obese and slothful Katz, a spacious target for Bryson's sly wit, to moments of cruel and infantile laughs, as when he picks mercilessly on the witless woman who, admittedly, ruined a couple of their days. But for the most part the humor is bright sarcasm, flashing with drollery and intelligence, even when it's a far yodel from political sensitivity. Then Bryson will take your breath away with a trenchant critique of the irredeemably vulgar vernacular strip that characterizes many American downtowns, or of other signs of decay he encounters off the trail (though the trail itself he comes to love). 'Walking is what we did,' Bryson states: 800-plus out of the 2,100-plus miles, and that good sliver is sheer comic travel entertainment.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Walk in the Woods:
1. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the unlikely friendship between Bryson and Katz. What is the relationship based on? Consider, especially, the episode in Maine when Katz gets lost: somehow the friendship is altered. How does Bryson's attitude toward Katz change over the course of the book? How does Katz himself change? Or does he? What was Katz's motivation, anyway, to walk the AT?
2. The book offers an excellent microscope through which to examine the meaning of friendship—our own friendships. Do the two men remind you of friends who tested your patience, but who exhibited intense loyalty?
3. In fiction a journey usually symbolizes a journey of self-discovery—at the end the protagonist comes to learn something about him/herself. Although A Walk isn't a novel, do either of the men come to greater self-awareness by the end of their journey?
4. The tone of the book veers back and forth between humor and seriousness, even anger. In fact, the book is a sort of jeremiad against environmental threats to the great wilderness areas of the country. Is Bryson's anger justified? He criticizes, but does he offer solutions? Are there solutions?
5. Katz pokes fun at rural Southerners, which some readers find funny, others find offensive. You?
6. Bryson ponders the attraction of hiking: ''You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation." If you're a hiker, backpacker, camper, are your experiences similar to or different from Bryson's? For those who aren't hikers, are there other avenues to "exist in a tranquil tedium"?
7. You might also talk about the numerous characters Bryson and Katz meet on the trail. Mary Ellen is one, for instance: how do you feel about their treatment of her?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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