UKH

Mountain Literature Classics: Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods

© Ronald Turnbull

I was complaining to my friend David about this book. It's an account of a long-distance walk – a walk that the author didn't even complete. It's written in a discursive, lightweight style. It's the sort of thing I write myself. But, somehow, it's made the leap out of 'outdoor writing' across to the category 'best-seller'.

"Ah, but – " says David. "The thing is, Ronald. Bill Bryson is a lot funnier than you are."

A Walk in the Woods in the woods  © Ronald Turnbull
A Walk in the Woods in the woods
© Ronald Turnbull

The best of mountain adventure writing is mildly self-mocking. It's a quality I've admired in writers as different as Tom Patey, Alfred Mummery and Muriel Gray. But not this time. There's no mildness about Bryson's book. Bryson is deeply, intensely self-mocking. To the point where we wonder if two walkers so woefully unprepared – two walkers so deeply terrified of snakes, spiders, bobcats, bears, poison ivy, Eastern equine encephalitis and 'loony hillbillies destabilised by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex' – well, could they really have achieved even as much as 39.5% of the Appalachian Trail? We have to suspect that Bryson in real life is not quite so wimpy as he makes himself out to be.

Most long-distance walk stories skip over the boredom and the really miserable bits. Bryson is determined to avoid this mistake. Instead, he skips over all of the bits that are even slightly enjoyable.

I passed about 1 million trees on my own Appalachian jaunt  © Ronald Turnbull
I passed about 1 million trees on my own Appalachian jaunt
© Ronald Turnbull

Most long-distance walk stories skip over the boredom and the really miserable bits. Bryson is determined to avoid this mistake. Instead, he skips over all of the bits that are even slightly enjoyable

That's assuming there are some enjoyable bits of the Appalachian Trail. I did once do three days in the Appalachians. After two days of looking at trees from underneath I emerged onto a hilltop with a view. The view was trees, seen from on top. Over the three days I walked past approximately one million trees. Oddly, I didn't have the urge to carry on walking past trees all the way to Maine.

More serious mountain accounts have sections as long and tedious as the Great Smokey Mountains about motivation and mental health. Bryson does it in a dozen words. 'A little voice in my head said: "Sounds neat! let's do it!".' To grab a gun and join the revolution; to get pregnant with this particular bloke; to spend most of next year walking northwards in a wood; we decide these in an instant, without any of that overrated process known as rational thought.

Oddly, none of my own long-distance jaunts has been made into a movie with Robert Redford as me, married to Emma Thompson. When asked his star-sign by the tiresome Mary-Ellen (played by Kristen Schaal), Bryson's companion Stephen Katz (played by Nick Nolte) says 'Gemini'. Except in the book, where he says 'Cunnilingus'. (I don't know that one, says Mary-Ellen, I thought I knew them all.) And in real life? We could ask Mary-Ellen, except one thing we know for sure about Mary-Ellen is she's not called Mary-Ellen, else she'd have sued Bryson's ass off by now.

A rare view above the forest canopy... trees as far as you can see  © Ronald Turnbull
A rare view above the forest canopy... trees as far as you can see
© Ronald Turnbull

More importantly, the movie spoils the point by making the Appalachian Trail look attractive. This is done by shooting it at the five or six points in the 1850 miles that aren't actually covered in trees.

So yes, you can write an amusing book about the 'tedious, mad, really quite pointless business of stepping over every inch of rocky ground between Georgia and Maine', on a path that makes the endless peat bogs of the Pennine Way seem positively eventful. Better still, Bryson's account of the 1850 miles of Appalachian Trail saves you from having to walk the awful thing yourself. Except – you glanced up from the screen 20 seconds ago, and went 'That's neat!' And that's your Spring, Summer and Autumn of 2021 all sorted for you.

I hope you'll have fun. Bill Bryson did – for a couple of hours on Day 55.

A read in the woods...  © Ronald Turnbull
A read in the woods...
© Ronald Turnbull



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