I added this book to my TBR the very first day I joined Goodreads in July 2008, so yes I do feel accomplished for finally having read it. And it was a good time! I was a bit worried based on a few reviews I’d read ahead of time that it would be dated, and it was a tiny bit (mostly in some jokes Bryson makes that read a little fatphobic to my 2018 eyes and ears, but would have been absolutely bog standard in 1998). But overall, this read like any other Bryson book I’ve read. He’s an observant guy with a passion for historical detail and nature, and while he doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment on people, I never felt he was doing it in a way that was inhuman. I mean, if I would have met Mary Ellen on that trail, I would have been thinking somewhat unkind thoughts as well.
So this book is Bryson chronicling the year or so he spent hiking the Appalachian Trail. He didn’t do it all at once (and didn’t do it in full). He hiked most of it with a friend, Stephen Katz, who he’d gone on a Europe trip with in their 20s and come out the other side not really being great friends with anymore (they are in their mid-forties here). But Katz heard Bryson was going to hike the AT and offered to come along. At the time, Bryson was just grateful he wouldn’t have to do it alone, but Katz was as much a hindrance a lot of times as he was good company (he would often get frustrated and just throw their supplies off mountains, and then sheepishly have to tell Bryson about it afterwards; just thinking about this makes me laugh, but I’m sure Bryson wanted to kill him at several points).
The book is as much a travel memoir about hiking around the US as it is about the trail itself. Bryson peppers in equal parts trail stories with Katz, history of the trail (and local landmarks they see along the way), and other personal musings. He lets you know his biases up front, and he does have some (he’s not fond of the way the US Parks Service treats the land under their care, and he’s contemptuous of crass commercialism, for example).
I did the audio, and Bryson doesn’t narrate it himself as he has other books, but I enjoyed the bite of the narrator’s humor, especially when Katz was involved, or when Bryson is going off about bears (there are huge sections devoted to this, and they were maybe my favorite, because Bryson is so clearly in awe and terror of them at the same time). I would recommend this if you like travel writing and humor, and if you’ve never read Bryson before, this would be a good place to start, though my favorite of his still remains In a Sunburned Country.
Read Harder Challenge 2018: A book about nature.