Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Walkers

After I saw the movie Wild, about a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a friend suggested I read A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson, a journalist who decided in the 90s to hike the Appalachian Trail (before that phrase took on a new meaning). Bryson had spent time hiking in England, but wasn't especially fit, or prepared, for the 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. In fact, as the book points out, people die on the hike--from bears, murderers, snake bites, exposure, etc.  But Bryson was determined to try.

He lives in New England, but travels down South so he can hike his way north.  One friend, Katz, is willing to join him--a guy who's out of shape, a bit of a smart ass, and a lover of Little Debbie snacks and women of any kind.  Maybe not the best hiking partner, but any companionship on the trail is better than none.  Indeed, Katz becomes, if not the central character, probably the reader's favorite.

The story follows the hike, but does a lot more.  Bryson--a journalist by trade--tells us along the way about the history of the trail, the flora and fauna, the geologic background, and the stories of different towns and historical figures.  He also goes into heated discussion of issues like overdevelopment and threatened species.  And he tells us about the hikers and others he meets along the way, often humorous oddballs.  (And though there's a bear on the cover, he never meets one face to face.)  Most of the book, in fact, is pretty funny.

For weeks and weeks he trudges on through all sorts of terrain and weather.  There's snow (he starts around Spring but it's too early), pelting rain, sweltering heat, steep mountais, etc.  Maybe the biggest surprise is after the first couple weeks he essentially quits.  Not entirely (or there'd be no book), but he and Katz decide after immense struggle that they've hardly dented the trail--no way they'll do it all. So Bryson decides he'll hike bits and pieces, sometimes doing just day trips.  Still, even if he doesn't become a "thru-hiker," he walks around 870 miles, which is enough for anyone.

Halfway through the book Katz has to go home for some time.  He's missed, but there are enough incidents and characters to keep the plot going until Katz returns for the big finish.  When I saw Wild, my main thought was hiking is nice, but it's even nicer to sleep in a comfortable bed near a toilet and a shower.  TV is nice, too.  And now that I've read Bryson's book, I'm sure of it.

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