Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Title: A Walk in the Woods
Author: Bill Bryson
Pages: 276
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travelogue
Release Date: July 1, 1998
Publisher: Anchor
Source: Personal Copy

After spending nearly twenty years living abroad, Bill Bryson decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. He viewed this potential adventure as a way to reconnect with the beauty and tranquility that encompasses the American wilderness. Plus, he also "wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff -- 'Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'" After reading that quote on page four, I knew I had picked a good book.

Once the decision to hike the trail was made, Bryson spent many hours researching and learning about the environment in which he would be living for months, including a small obsession with the bears that call the woods home that lead to many laugh out loud moments. Accompanying him on his adventure was a man named Stephen Katz from Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. One thing I quickly realized, along with Bryson, was how little I know about what is necessary for one to bring while camping, including such items as tents, sleeping pads, cooking utensils, water purifiers, waterproof pack covers, and clothing for all types of weather conditions, just to name a few. The amount of equipment, not to mention the money, needed is astonishing. For me (and most people, I think) the cost alone would be the biggest deterrent to undertaking such a serious endeavor. After making their purchases and packing everything up, these two out of shape, middle-aged men began the daunting task of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn't the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts.

Throughout the novel, Bryson includes many interesting facts and anectdotes about the Appalachian Trail, including the history of the trail itself, cities (both past and present) along the trail, the people who are responsible for the trail, and information regarding ecology and environmentalism. One criticism I did have was in regards to the middle part of the book, where I felt like the consecutive fact-based chapters were a little tedious and felt almost like filler. I did learn things, but I began to feel myself zoning out a little when it came to certain parts of the trail's history, and the conservation elements, while completely necessary, bordered on preachy. I only wish that Bryson had cited more sources or presented a solution to the degradation of our natural resources, instead of just expounding on the problem like so many other books. However, these issues weren't enough to keep me from enjoying the book, and I felt that the beginning and end of the novel did a good job incorporating information with the actual recounting of their hike, keeping me interested. 

As I kept reading, what really won me over was not the actual events, but Bryson's writing style. Much of the book uses such a conversational tone that the inclusion of history and factual information doesn't disrupt the narrative structure much. His humor manages to shine through at just the right moment. A lot of reviewers felt the author was a jerk who mocks many of the people and situations he encounters, but I thought there was something very honest, very human, in his sarcasm. A lot of his thoughts and actions weren't exactly admirable, but I can't say that I wouldn't have done the same thing in certain situations while under such stress. I am definitely guilty of having the same dry humor he exhibits. Maybe this is why I felt more of a connection. 

There is a lot more to the story than what I've written about here, but I don't want to give much away. I think you know if this is a type of work you'll be interested in reading, and I want to make sure that people are able to go in as fresh as possible. I didn't know anything about this book when I started, and that only added to the enjoyment.

A Walk in the Woods was definitely a good introduction to Bryson's work. While I don't think I will ever take on such an extreme endeavor in my lifetime, I have definitely regained an interest in day hiking. I don't have the time, stamina, or perseverance to hike something as enormous as the Appalachian Trail, but I do enjoy nature and being outdoors. Hopefully, I can start planning more trips to the trails now that spring has arrived, and the weather has improved. I would recommend reading this book if you are looking for a way to learn more about one of nature's splendid creations in a down-to-earth, honest travel memoir format.

Now, I can't wait to pick up some more of Bryson's work. Have you read anything else written by him? Any recommendations for a good follow up? Feel free to share!


  1. I liked this one a lot. He is a good writer IMO.

  2. I love Bryson and his humor and writing style means he can talk about any topic and make it interesting. His latest book talks about stairs and the history of and it's interesting! My favorite Bryson book is probably Neither Here Nor There and Katz makes an appearance there as well.

  3. I bought this at a library sale (the large print edition was all they had, lol) and I'm looking forward to reading it - even more so after your review!

  4. Love, love, love this book! (And most of his, in fact.) And he does an extraordinary job reading the audio version.

    I think I've read everything he has ever published, incluing a couple of writing reference books. I think my other favorite is probably In a Sunburned COuntry, which is a travel book about Australia. I also really liked Neither Here Nor There, mentioned above by Red. His most recent book, Home, is excellent, but it has less of a strong narrative. For me, it was better as pick-up-and-put-down book to read over the course of time rather than straight through.

  5. I love this book- it's one of my top 2 all time nonfiction reads. I read his book about moving to England but didn't like it quite as much. But there aren't many books I loved as much as this one!

  6. I've read Made in America and At Home. If you didn't like the fact chapters in A Walk in the Woods though, you may not like either of these two books. They are almost all facts and stories. Made in America is about how American English differs from British English. If you love words, it is a good book to read. Check my blog tomorrow for more info on At Home - I've got a wrap up posting!

  7. I love, love, love Bill Bryson's writing. He has a wonderful style that really has a tendency to suck you into the book. You should definitely read more by him!

  8. A Walk in the Woods is my favorite by him, but I also really liked Neither Here Nor There and The Lost Continent. I recently read Bryson's The Mother Tongue, which is about the English language. It wasn't laugh-out-loud funny like his travel books but it was interesting read and did have its moments of humor.

    Also, I'm excited that you're reading The Shadow of the Wind - it was my favorite read of 2010! Hope you're enjoying it!

  9. Bryson is quite popular with customers in our used bookshop; I have never read him myself, but I think this summer I am going to rectify that.

  10. Diane - I definitely enjoyed his writing style. It was easy reading his prose for long periods of time.

    Red - Thanks for the recommendation! I'm definitely going to research Neither Here Nor There now. You're right about his humor helping make any topic interesting. I never thought I'd be as interested in a novel about the AT as I was here.

    LL - I hope you enjoy it! Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

    Rayna - Can't wait to research those other Bryson books you mention. It's really great to find an author who makes you want to read about random/obscure topics...helps me learn! Also, The Shadow of the Wind amazing! I'm so enthralled by it, making it really hard to put down.

    BookGirl - I think Bryson would make a great summer read. Not really a "beach read," but not a complex literary masterpiece either. A perfect in-between book!

  11. I love Bill Bryson! Walk in The Woods was one of my favorites of his, as was The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid. Both very funny.


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