I’ve written before about that moment you come across a book that was exactly what you needed at the precise moment you needed it. I’m sorry if that’s not your relationship with stories, but it is mine, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson has been the latest example.
I technically started this book in St. Louis but I didn’t get absorbed in it until Cuba, Missouri. By Cuba, three “bad things” had happened (all of which have been resolved by now, don’t worry Mom), and I was one horrible thing away from calling the whole trip off and going home. I was homesick and tired and my money was evaporating faster than I had ever anticipated. But, amidst all of these things, I found a cozy bed at the Wagon Wheel Motel, and I read A Walk in the Woods.
As soon as I read what Bryson’s cabbie said, about a guy who had dropped out of hiking the AT, I knew I was reading the right book for my own mindset. “He said it wasn’t what he expected it to be.” I knew that feeling. Neither was 66.
“I had never encountered any step so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.” I felt that, even as Bryson did. His trip down the Appalachian Trail was nothing like my Route 66 roadtrip…and yet this was the perfect read for that feeling I was having.
For that reason, A Walk in the Woods was inspiring. For every obstacle Bryson came to, he determined he would move forward. It was also incredibly amusing. Between Katz, his primary hiking buddy, and the other interesting characters he met on the Trail, Bryson had one hell of a journey down the mountain. It is a true memoirist who can convey the exact feelings a person gives you, and Bryson did so expertly, giving us conversations and interactions that didn’t just tell the reader how it happened but truly put them in the scene.
Bryson describes his journey down the Appalachian trail exactly how he experienced it: that is, detailed in places and vaguely running together in others. The strangest part is that it works. While some books give specific accounts that are too specific or vague sections that leave a lot to be desired, Bryson gave us the perfect balance to let the reader feel like they are travelling down the Appalachian trail along with him and Katz. It made me, someone who never hikes-ever- want to do it.
And yet (and here’s a spoiler, if you haven’t read it)…he doesn’t make it. He doesn’t hike the entire trail.
In another story, this could be disheartening, even maddening. But the way Bryson tells it, it’s a type of victory. It’s learning your limits and the true scope of the challenge before you. It’s rediscovering your humanity and a connection with those around you, at the cost of what could be the experience of a lifetime.
I am going to make it to California…but I have a car. I understand why Bryson and Katz stopped. The beauty of his writing is that, despite the fact that he stopped, it is still a story that inspires one to continue moving forward. His encouraging voice, which sees the history and context of every movement he makes, is more than enough to inspire readers and compel them forwards.
If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Even if your own journey is more theoretical and metaphysical than his, he has a lot he can teach you. I know, because his book taught me.