When I picked up this book as the April selection for my local library book club, I was puzzled. “Why are we reading a book about white dudes walking the Appalachian Trail, written in the 90s?” I still don’t have an answer to that question. I mostly find it entertaining because, as has been common in my experience, my local library book club is entirely populated with women, and white women at that, so we are an interesting audience for Bryson’s exercising in navel gazing and personal exploration.
This book tells the story of Bryson and his friend Katz’s (an alias) attempt to hike the Appalachian trail as novice hikers in their 40s. It is also a love letter to hiking in American and the AT itself, serving as a pretty comprehensive history of the trail, the parks system and the role that progress has played on the exploration of wilderness. Like hiking, it was a wandering tale, and sometimes hard to follow. Bryson could have done with a little editing, in my opinion. Much like how his walk of the AT was abbreviated, this book could have been streamlined with some chunks omitted for time, and to better keep the audiences attention.
Bryson does a great job paying homage to the past time of hiking which is by and large a lost art in the digital age. There is much to be said for communing with nature, and stripping down to the bare necessities to push oneself to the limit. It is an honorable pursuit. And to his credit, Bryson doesn’t paint himself that way, but rather as a guy who wanted to give it a go, and was for the most part in over his head. The same goes for his companion, Katz, who is along frankly for lack of something better to do in his own life. Wheezing, complaining, and ill-prepared they stumble along the journey, fairing better than I thought they would.
I would also say that this book doesn’t age remarkably well. Particularly any time they talk about women seems particularly buffoonish and offensive in the time of MeToo and the Women’s March, sort of like watching reruns of Friends and cringing at the very 90s homophobia as an undercurrent of the story. This book exists in that world, where men were men, and women were (in this book) slightly judgmental wives, chunky companions in a port of call, or annoying hikers. But by and large Bryson and Katz are harmless, and this book is a snapshot of both the times, and themselves, as they undertook this challenge.
As I was confounded as to why we were reading this, I was similarly perplexed to find out that this has been made into a movie, because I cannot identify who the target audience would be. Starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte I’m glad that they have found a vehicle for themselves, but having read the book I cannot imagine it being compelling on the big screen and that it will be, much like the book, a self-indulgent experience.