Would have been my True Story bingo square if I’d gotten my act together to write this up Thursday night while distributing candy!
It’s hard to say whether Mark Sanford did a disservice to the adventurous hikers braving the 2,200-mile trail that runs from Georgia to Maine or whether, perhaps, he inspired a few people to give it a go by raising awareness. At any rate, this book has nothing to do with political scandals, extramarital affairs, or clandestine trips to Argentina, so if that’s your bag, stop reading right now.
A Walk in the Woods is a travel memoir in which Bill Bryson attempts the journey with friend Stephen Katz. Neither Bryson nor Katz are in stellar shape or know exactly what they are getting into as they embark on their journey. One might say they are grossly unprepared, expensive trips to a trendy outdoor outfitter notwithstanding. As I began reading, I wondered whether this was going to be a sort of Dave Barry-esque slice of Americana; indeed, I chuckled a few times and then glanced guiltily around to see whether anyone noticed, so aware was I of how unhip I must seem to fellow customers of the Japanese restaurant where I was eating lunch that day. I might as well have stood up and announced that I also enjoy New Yorker cartoons if I was really so eager to age myself. But while there is some “out-of-shape-intellectual-white-guy-roughing-it” humor involved, I enjoyed this book reasonably well for the descriptions of the different sections of trails and for Bryson’s other, more thoughtful musings.
Bryson addresses the paradox that is the Forest Service, noting that by the late 1980s, it was the “only significant player in the American timber industry that was cutting down trees faster than it replaced them. Moreover, it was doing this with the most sumptuous inefficiency. Eighty percent of its leasing arrangements lost money, often in vast amounts.” This book was published in 1998, and I’ll confess I haven’t done a ton of research into this, but somehow I suspect that government efficiency hasn’t tipped in the planet’s favor over the last twenty years. (A quick Internet search revealed to me that the mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” The word “productivity” raises some red flags for me as does the “needs” of generations). Bryson also talks about the National Park Service and its inability to protect species living under their jurisdiction. According to Bryson, “Altogether, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America’s national parks this century.” The author is eager to point out that many wonderful, dedicated people work for the parks departments and U.S. Forestry Services–he speaks highly of the rangers and representatives he meets along the way–but government bureaucracy and inefficient use of funds practically leave him speechless. One need only look at the damage done to California’s Joshua Tree National Park in the 2018-2019 government shutdown to see that trees are generally the big losers in political power struggles.
I most enjoyed the passages where Bryson describes his time on the trail itself. While he and Katz met up every night and camped together, they didn’t generally walk at the same pace, so he spent much of his time alone. He notes, “There is no point hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods.” As a moderate day hiker, I was jealous of this description. I can’t say I have ever truly lost track of time or place in the woods, even though I’d like to. I’m so tied to where I need to be later, my usual frame of mind is, “this is great. . .I wonder if I’ll have enough time to [fill in then blank] when I get home.” I envy anyone who can truly let go of every thought beyond the path in front of them. Perhaps we need to be completely submerged in the woods for days on end to accomplish this.
Not to be a spoiler, but Bryson and Katz do not complete all 2,200 miles of the trail. Bryson ended up walking about 800 miles, or a third of the total distance, in several chunks. Still, that’s 800 miles more than I did. As various people in history* have been paraphrased saying, “Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you should do nothing.”
*Not attributed to Mark Sanford.