A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – review

Bryson is popular. His writing style allows for fast, readily digested prose. There appears to be no subject he is unable to broach. His narratives are simple and erudite. His messages are a mixture of learning and experience. In A Walk in the Woods (AWITW) Bryson attempts to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in America. His attempt is unsuccessful, for Bryson is someone who writes books, and decides to go for a hike, rather than the other way around. Bryson is more comfortable at home surrounded by books. The majority of A Walk in the Woods is Bryson relaying information from other books, sharing his experiences of hotels/motels/bunkhouses off the trail, and at one point a monologue about how he’d given up walking to reconnaissance the Appalachian Trail by car. A Walk in the Woods is not a book for me, even though I found it easy to read.

For such a well known author, little is written about Bryson’s style and technique in academic journals. Actually, most journals ignore him completely. Mostly it’s glowing reviews in online newspapers. One serious article ‘Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods’ takes Bryson to task for his depiction of hicks and hillbillies.
Stefano Calzati argues in ‘Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing: Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy’ “that travelling and writing are two “practices of knowledge” which promote per se the marking of differences. In this regard, travel writing, as the novelistic genre that derives from such practices, cannot help but reproduce the epistemological distance between the self and the world.” And this is the overwhelming feeling that I take from Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – his account re-enforces, through his armchair approach, rather than eliminates, the distance between the self and the world.

Bryson’s phenomenology is filtered through his project, his style and his constant attempts to shock the reader to keep reading.
Bryson is more serious about writing a book than walking the Appalachian. There are three main elements that comprise AWITW. The elements do not always hang together well, but the writer is able, through his prose, to weave them together. The first element is his commission by his publisher to write a book. The second element, is the Don Quixote set up. The third aspect that pads the book out are the lectures. When Bryson gets bored with one element he falls back on the other.

The first, why would Bryson disclose to his readers that his publisher had commissioned him another book? What purpose does this give to readers? Bryson is attempting to build himself and his reputation up reminding us ‘these books don’t exist in a vacuum’. Also, Bryson, the man, is the main character in his books. He realises that the success of his career hinges on continuity across his works.

The second, the Katz/Bryson play off reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho, except Bryson isn’t deluded beyond not knowing why he’s walking the trail. Bryson is deluded in thinking he can walk the trail in one season. After walking for a few weeks, Bryson and Katz are killing time in an outfitters which leads to him looking at an overview map of the AT. He figures out that that the trail is long, much longer than he anticipated and instead of resolving to finish the trail, as Don Quixote would, both Katz and Bryson are put off and dejected. The most interesting struggle in the book is Katz’s attempt to quit drinking, but it comes very late in the piece.
Thirdly, unlike Don Quixote, Bryson, the character, can not be too out there, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter into armchair lectures on the history and value of a range of subjects consisting of: how dangerous animals are, the history and design of the Appalachian Trail, how Americans use cars too often, underground fires in Centralia, murder, climate change, geology, diseases, how stupid and fat people can be, especially ones who look like they’re from the movie Deliverance, forestry, the rise and fall of townships, hikers preoccupations with gear, botany, misdirected government spending, meteorology, hypothermia, ludditeness, war, ecological destruction, and so on. After a while, the trail becomes a backdrop for these fireside lectures Bryson, one can assume, wrote before or after being on the trail. In this sense the book is about Bryson’s ability to take cues from the trail and weave them into his research. Where he gets this knowledge from we don’t know, there are no references.
There is a morality to his lectures – but his attitude is incongruous to the way he has set himself up to interact with his characters. Bryson wants to give his readers guidance on the one hand, and then ask them to suspend their disbelief in the name of humour. So, for example, when he discusses how the AT avoids towns and is cocooned in green corridors (in contrast to the apparently more advanced designs of English/European trails), Bryson concludes: “doubtless it is all to do with its historic impulse to tame and exploit the wilderness, but America’s attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me.” p258 This is symptomatic of the manner in which Bryson presents his lectures. His information is to serve an agenda and his research concludes at the point where the agenda has been satisfied. The agenda appears to be primarily to provoke people to keep reading. Surely he must know that not all Americans wish to tame the wilderness and that some Americans share his views.
So when we turn to the people Bryson meets on, and (more often) off, the trail we gain more of a reflection of Bryson, than of the people themselves. Again, the agenda is provocation. Here is his telephone interaction when attempting to find a taxi in Gatlinburg:

“‘How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?’ I enquired.
‘Dunno’ came the reply.
This threw me slightly. ‘Well how much do you think it would be?’
‘Dunno.’
‘But it’s just down the road.’
There was considerable silence and then the voice said: ‘Yup.’
‘Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?’
’Nope.’
‘Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?’
Another pause. ‘Might be.’
‘And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?’
‘Dunno.’
I looked at the receiver. ‘Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.’
Then I hung up.”

Bryson’s characters are there to make him look smart and to support the preconceived worldview he wishes to push. It is because of this that the subjects of his lectures do not become integrated and he doesn’t appear to recognise the ecology and interconnectedness of the world in which he inhabits. A more enlightening approach would be to manufacture or even seek out an intelligent person who may be more helpful and illuminating. He could work all of his home reading into the voice of his characters.
Because of this provocative style, Bryson leaves himself open to hypocrisy and inconsistency. At the end of the taxi driver episode (in which he and his Sancho (Katz) buddy decide on a whim to give up the idea of walking the entire trail), they find themselves back in the dearth of commercial America, amongst shopping malls and carparks, the opposite of the woodlands they had been walking through:

“But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, K-marts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Blockbuster videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”
While it is not the role of a writer to be morally consistent, it is their role, especially in the context of non-fiction, to research thoroughly and to show their readers an interconnectedness. Instead, when recounting the phase of American history where demand for new world seeds and botanical interest was high, Bryson speaks with celebratory glee, apparently unaware of the relationship between that unregulated process and forestry the ugliness he describes above:

“The first people to venture deep into the woods from the east (the Indians [sic], of course had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the west or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants. America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the old world and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it…These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”

Contrast the above attitude to the one in this passage:

“In 1987, it [the Forest Service] casually announced that it would allow private timber interests to remove hundreds of acres of wood a year from the venerable and verdant Pisgah National Forest, next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that 80 per cent of that would be through what it calls ‘scientific forestry’ – clear cutting – which is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape, but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies further downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. It’s rape.”

And then this one:

“And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s great hardwood forests– the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world–and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”

Bryson does not draw any comparisons between the seed collectors, the forestry service ‘rape’ and climate change. The author seems intent on shocking the reader into further reading without considering an overall scheme. People starting and finishing Bryson’s work appears to be a more important criteria to him than jettisoning contradictory elements in his prose. An argument could be made that being in the same book, and written by the same author would constitute the correlations being drawn, but my opinion is that the structure, the schism between the elementsof the book, prevent such a reading.
When Don Quixote lectures, (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) he is so clearly out of touch with both the other characters in Cervantes story, and to us the readers, that we all humour him. Within Don Quixote’s absurd lectures, however, are some incredible conclusions, some of which we tend to agree with. But the Don Quixote, the character of Bryson, in A Walk Walk in the Woods never strays into the absurd. Often his observations are blatant and his treatment of others’ is cruel. One has to ask that perhaps if we didn’t treat each other the way Bryson treats people in his book, whether the planet would be in the state that it is.

Of course, Bryson and his fans might rebut my above points by claiming ‘lighten up it’s just a bit of fun’, or, present the book as a gateway to more serious studies of wilderness, ecology and nature. It’s creative non-fiction after all, so don’t take the deliberate littering seriously. There are light moments and Bryson does indeed reflect on the wonderful aspects of bushwalking or hiking. These appreciative moments are added and sprinkled throughout as if to remind us that that he’s not a negative bastard. There are some arresting moments that lift the reader up from the negativity I seem to keep returning to. Here’s a moment, on day one of their hike:

“When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where chilled air smells of pine gap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain’s open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass.” p53

At the end of the book Bryson wryly states the trail did not change his life: “but I certainly gained an appreciation and respect for the woods and wilderness and the colossal scale of America” p350. Perhaps, if he did complete the trail from one end to the other, if he allowed the experience to become more than an exercise for his publishers, he might have let go of the preconceptions that inhibit transformative processes. It is somewhat troubling that a writer takes on a major project lasting a period of years to finally say to his readers, ‘don’t bother, my book is all you need’. Perhaps he is attempting to provide counterbalance to the apparently naive rights of passage accounts that pervade nature and walking writing? Overall however, Bryson’s work is an intellectual, rather than phenomenological one.

 

References:

Bryson, Bill. 1998, A Walk In the Woods, Black Swan, London, England.

Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
Herzog, Mary Jean Ronan, Journal of Appalachian Studies, 1 April 1999, Vol.5(1), pp.123-128 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Stefano Calzati (2015) Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing:
Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy, Journal of Postcolonial Writing,
51:4, 422-435

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