Happy trails — Bill Bryson takes a hike

I first encountered Bill Bryson in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything (the print version), which I thought was magnificent. Bryson has a way of delivering facts with humor, authority and an almost childlike wonder. He also has a talent for weaving those facts into whatever context he happens to be focused on. He did this brilliantly in At Home.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Random House Audio, 2012, narrated by Rob McQuay) isn’t quite as good as either of the two books I’ve just mentioned, but it’s still pretty good. The book relates Bryson’s sort of impetuous decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, or at least attempt to. As Bryson learns, it’s a daunting challenge. The trail stretches for more than 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine, much of it basically wilderness. He recruits an old friend of his, Stephen Katz (apparently a pseudonym) and the two out-of-shape middle-aged white guys start walking.

They never do make it all the way. Late in the account Bryson estimates that he covered less than 40% of the trail–39.5% to be exact (like I said, the guy is into facts)–but that’s mileage and time enough for some humorous adventures and a lot more information (facts). The more entertaining stuff involves the characters that Bryson and Katz meet along the trail. These include Mary Ellen, a nonstop talker, chronic Eustachian tube clearer and insufferable harpy; a guy named Chicken John, who has seriously dangerous limitations when it comes to his sense of direction; and various other obnoxious and/or companionable fellow hikers.

There are also some reflections on the dangers involved in hiking the AT, as it’s called. Bears, for example. Bryson and Katz have a perhaps phantom encounter with bears one night that sends Bryson into a panic, but which doesn’t seem to bother Katz too much, even though he’s armed only with a pair of nail clippers.



The relevant Bryson fact in this instance is that unprovoked black bear attacks along the AT are rare. Up until the time of the writing of A Walk, there had only been one confirmed human death at the hands – or, I guess, claws – of a bear throughout the two states of New Hampshire and Vermont since 1784. Interesting, huh?

Then there are your basic outdoor hazards such as hypothermia, various diseases transmitted by insects, and, well, death. Hikers have actually been murdered on the AT. In fact the year Bryson and Katz made their abortive effort, two women had their throats cut in their tent. All of these hazards are, as in the case of bear attacks, relatively rare but in the aggregate, well, they start to assume a kind of heft of risk.

There are also some more remote, but no less interesting, risks involving coal mines. Did you know that 50,000 miners died in American mines between 1870 and the start of World War I? Or that anthracite fires can burn for decades? (One got started in 1850 in Lehigh and didn’t peter out for 80 years.)

The book also shook whatever confidence I had in those venerable institutions, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Bryson complains that the Park Service has not been a very effective ecological steward of the lands under its management. But the Corps’ performance is even more disturbing, especially its ineptitude in the construction of dams, not exactly encouraging to those who might live downstream from one of these structures.

Let’s see, what else?

There’s some interesting data on the records for various thru-hiker attempts (thru-hikers walk the entire trail nonstop – well, they stop for the night, but you know what I mean). The fastest effort was something like fifty-two days, but that was done by some sort of elite/extreme athlete. Normally it seems to take about four months to hike the complete trail. What I found even weirder was that there is actually a record for the longest time it took a section hiker (one who does the AT in smaller increments and at different times) to cover the full distance. This record is a ridiculous 46 years. Why ridiculous? Well, if you divide the length of the trail, say 2,100 miles, by 46, you get 45.65 miles per year. But if you then divide that total by, say, 180, which would be way at the outer edge of the number of days each year that you could walk the AT, you get .25 – that is to say, a quarter mile per day.

You could do the low crawl of the AT faster than that. Maybe that’s why the record holder in this case isn’t identified.

Rob McQuay does a decent job of narrating the book (although I must say I enjoyed Bryson’s own reading of his book, At Home). I really don’t have any complaints. Okay, maybe one. He makes a reference to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island in Michigan, making the last syllable of Mackinac rhyme with “hack.” We all, especially those of us from Michigan, know that it rhymes with “saw.” Just remember: “hacksaw.” Okay, I know, that’s terrible.

Just one more fact from the book. At one point, Bryson notes that the average American walks just 350 yards per day (so maybe that 46-year record isn’t so appalling after all). Of course, the book was originally published in 1998 – I don’t know why the Audible Edition was so late in becoming available – and the interest in physical fitness in America has grown significantly since then. So now, the average American walks 250 yards per day.

Just kidding.

I think.

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