Monday, September 12, 2011

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Reviewed by Nancy

After living in England for twenty years, author Bill Bryson moved with his family to a small town in New Hampshire. There he noticed a path that disappeared into the woods at the edge of town, and upon learning from signage that this was the famed Appalachian Trail, Mr. Bryson became enamored with the idea of hiking said famed trail. He could not shake the idea, so he gave into it.
Oh, he was excited. He told his wife, his publisher, his friends and acquaintances. It was only after this initial flurry of expectation that he began to do research and found out what he might really be in for.
Let me tell you something about Bill Bryson. He is funny. I don't mean just run of the mill funny like the preacher in your church or your Uncle Harry who could tell a good story. Or funny like your cousin Edward who's quick with puns and gags. I mean FUNNY. I mean this guy could write an essay about litter control or insurance regulations and have you laughing your head off. He could write about anything and render it entertainingly.
Therefore, the story of this soft in the flesh, city-boy writer hiking the Appalachian Trail proves to be rich fodder. Before hiking the trail Mr. Bryson consulted and interviewed others who had done so. Hearing their tales of terror and deprivation he imagined all the things that might go wrong, including the wild animals one might encounter, ranging from deadly snakes to scalp snatching hoot owls to sofa-sized boars.
His musings cover a litany of diseases one might contract in that wilderness. I am familiar with some of the possibilities Mr. Bryson lists, and, being prone to hypochondria, have even feared at times that I might have one or another of them. Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever...  I have fixated on and manifested false symptoms of these diseases, buy what in the blue eyed world is giardiasis? Or shigellosis? I don't dare look them up, or I might begin to display the symptoms. I don't know what schistosomiasis is, and I hope I never find out. I sincerely pray I am never required to have a conversation with a medical professional regarding this disease, ailment, parasite, chronic condition, or whatever it is.
Mr. Bryson also touches on the possibility of being incinerated by lightning strikes or done in by foul play administered by other humans, but after bumping through his listing of diseases these eventualities did not much impact my psyche.
I believe it was when he began his study of equipment that Mr. Bryson was struck by  the true enormity of his undertaking. As he put it, he "ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas."  The problem with this was that he was going to need to carry all this stuff by himself. The purchase of the equipment did not include sherpas.
There were many shocks during the equipment purchase foray. Some of the shocks had to do with the fact that at various moments the author had no idea what the salesman was talking about. Others had to do with the price of the items. Perhaps the ultimate shock hit when he discovered that the darn expensive backpack he had chosen did not come with straps. The straps had to be purchased separately.
When he saw the pile of equipment he would be required to carry on his back, Mr. Bryson understood why the salesman had dwelled so much on the weight of the individual items. The author had maintained a somewhat cavalier attitude towards weight during the selection process, but understood the importance of an extra ounce or two per item once he saw all the equipment gathered into one place.
After this preparation, Mr. Bryson settled down to wait out the long winter months, planning to begin his journey in the spring. During many sleepless nights he pondered the possibilities of breaking an ankle, falling off a rock ledge, having a heart attack, or encountering an ax-wielding madman in the wilderness, and realized that he really, really, really didn't want to make this trip alone. What if he was OUT THERE ALL BY HIMSELF and he had a stroke? or a heart attack? or a bear attack?
The problem then became, who would go with him? Whom did he know who could drop whatever it was they were doing and go along with him? After months of casual invitations Mr. Bryson began to despair. Everyone he knew seemed to be busy. Everyone, that is, except his college friend Stephen Katz who gave the author a call in late February to ask if he might be the one to come along.
So, let us ponder this for a moment. If Mr. Stephen Katz is available, at the ripe age of forty, to drop everything and go for an extended jaunt through the wilderness, is he available because he is fabulously successful, independently wealthy, and eager for new challenge and adventure? Or is he available because he is a low achiever with no direction, no ambition, and absolutely nothing else to do?
I will not spoil this surprise for you. You must read the book to find out. Get the tissues ready, for you will weep with laughter.

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