“You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules.”
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail was first published in 1997. Two things haven’t changed since then: we love nature and we’re scared out of our wits of it. Bill Bryson has written many books on a series of topics and this was my first time reading him, but definitely not my last. This book is a memoire of his hike along the Appalachian Trail, the oldest hiking trail in America, going from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The premise: two old friends who haven’t seen each other in years decide to hike the Appalachian Trail together. However, this is just the anecdote that allows Bryson to speak on a number of topics related to the wilderness: the pioneers of hiking, global warming, the history of the Appalachian trail, bear attacks and, over all, the relationship between American culture and the wilderness. This is perhaps the topic that I spent the most time thinking about after reading A Walk in the Woods, perhaps because my own culture shares a lot of things with America’s, we have a lot in common when approaching nature.
But first things first. A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. You could think there are two kinds of people, those who can’t even stand a picnic on their perfectly mowed lawn, and those who would sleep under the stars every night if they could.
The truth, however, is that most people undulate in between. While I spend a lot of time planning trips and fantasizing with camping, bonfires at the beach and remote places, I also fantasize a lot of my bed and of a nice rug in front of a chimney in a cabin. The indoors make sense for us. We are not made to remain outdoors forever, perhaps never have. And perhaps that is why the great outdoors are so compelling and have always been for human imagination: we admire and dread the thunder andthe storm, we set out fairytales in the woods because we don’t fully understand them, just as we don’t fully understand wild animals, even when we envy their freedom and strength.
In fact, I think Bryson addresses these matters very clearly when talking about a painting by the 19th century American painter Asher Brown Durand, Kindred Spirits, which is an example of the both the awe that nature inspires in us and the romantization is has suffered:
“I can’t tell you how much I would like to step into that view. The scene is so manifestly untamed, so full of an impenetrable beyond, as to present a clearly foolhardy temptation. You would die out there for sure—shredded by a cougar or thudded with a tomahawk or just left to wander to a stumbling, confounded death. You can see that at a glance. But never mind. Already you are studying the foreground for a way down to the stream over the steep rocks and wondering if that notch ahead will get you through to the neighboring valley. Farewell, my friends. Destiny calls. Don’t wait supper.”
And that is what Bryson understands. He does not romanticise nature, or forces himself to understand its ways, instead he experiences, suffers it and enjoyes it as well as he can. Along the 2,200 (he did not hike it all but he kind of did, too) we get a narrator that is hilarious when describing the nuisances of the trail, and one that is excitingly heartwarming when describing the serenity and thrill of the different landscapes. A narrator, too, who is descriptive to the right extent:
“And so we walked. We walked up mountains and through high, forgotten hollows, along lonesome ridges with long views of more ridges, over grassy balls and down rocky, twisting, jarring descents, and through mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods, on a wandering trail eighteen inches wide and marked with rectangular white blazes (two indestructible wide, six long) slapped at intervals on the gray-barked trees. Walking is what we did.”
Many things happen during this hike: there are annoying characters that are painfully funny, people getting lost, supposed bear sightings, a lot of bear attacks anticipation, hunger and cold and some hypochondriac talk about everything that could go wrong, but also some real talk about the wonders of hiking and what I think is the reason some of us like it:
“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of few hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret […] Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, ‘far removed from the seats of strife’, as the early explorer and botanist William Bartra put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.”
And trudge they do, for most of the AT. And whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials. Something I found particularly interesting was the story of the little Pennsylvania town, Centralia, where an underground fire of the coal mines has been burning for decades. Bill Bryson is number one in the list of the people I would love to have dinner with.
And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. When comparing the AT to some other hikes, Bryson writes:
“The footpaths we followed [in Luxembourg] spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets […] It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.
In America, alas, beauty has become something you derive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”
Deification or destruction. While planning my weekend hike with a friend, I realized the situation in Mexico is quite the same. Either they blow up a mountain to build very fancy buildings, or you have to drive for about to hours to get there. Either they sell protected natural areas to big hotel chains, or they turn in into a National Park where you can’t really get without a guide. I don’t think there’s an outdoor area in Mexico City that has not been tamed, made into an organized park with concrete paths and artificially blue lakes. Last year when I visited a friend in Austria I was amazed to see her house was very close to a forest, an actual forest where you could get lost, imagine that. If I want to go to a forest here, I’d have to drive, find a parking lot and possibly come into an area with picnic tables and only one species of trees. Is it possible for culture to coexist with the wilderness? I believe it is. I believe we don’t have to understand it to respect it.
A Walk in the Woods is not just an account of a hike along the AT. It is a deep reflection on the human treatment of nature and a critique of western culture before the mobile phone, a critique that I believe would be more severe these days.
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Bill Bryson. This book is a perfect counterpart for Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is abou the Pacific Crest Trail. Already bought Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson?