Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bill Bryson's Writing Can Be Dangerous: Review of "A Walk in the Woods"

Boston's venerable transportation system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), is known as "The T" to denizens of the Commonwealth. Several times each hour, riders on the T's various subway lines are regaled with mindless and inane recorded messages urging us: "If you see something - say something." We are being prompted to keep at least one eye peeled to look for suspicious packages that may erupt at any moment. I am fortunate that these pronouncements are routinely ignored, otherwise some observant passenger on the Red Line may have reported seeing a graying White Rhino laughing explosively as the subway car made its hesitant and arthritic way from Wollaston to Kendall Square. Bill Bryson's writing always causes me to break out in spontaneous and spasmodic chortling, snorting and guffawing. Such was the case last week as I treked through the pages of "A Walk in the Woods," Bryson's account of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I offer this nugget that appears early in this travel book that doubles as a commentary on many aspects of American life. In this excerpt, Bryson shares the rationalizations that led him to embark upon an assault on the AT, the longest hiking trail east of the Mississippi:

"I formed a number of rationalizations. It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and the beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure, nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Acres Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff: 'Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'" (Page 4)

Bryson, and his sometime companion, the Pickwickian "Katz," hiked selected portions of the AT - beginning in Georgia and petering out anticlimactically on the way to Maine's Mt. Katahdin. Along the way, they encountered ups and downs - both topographical and existential. Bryson's singular style of recounting their Quixotic adventures and misadventures reminded me of the peregrinations of Quixote and Sancha Panza as told by the literary pioneer, Don Miguel de Cervantes. A reviewer from the Philadelphia Inquirer captured poignantly the brilliance of Bryson's style: "Bryson is a very funny writer who could wring humor from a clammy sleeping bag." Well said.

In a rare moment of philosophical reflection, Bryson and Katz discussed their mutual decision to abandon their quest far short of the goal of the trail's end point. This quotation stands as an excellent representation of the book as a whole and of the ambivalence that the trail itself evoked in Bryson:

"'So, do you feel bad about leaving the trail?' Katz asked me after a time.

I thought for a moment, unsure. I had come to realize that I didn't have any feelings towards the AT that weren't confused and contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the endless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts; I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off. 'I don't know,' I said. 'Yes and no, I guess.'" (Page 389)

In my day, I have hiked short spurts of the AT in the White Mountains' Presidential Range. With Bryson's help, I can now envision what the rest of the adventure may be like. Maybe it is time to dust off the hiking boots! It would be a welcome respite from the Red Line!



1 comment:

Unknown said...

I read Walk In The Woods years ago, and I still laugh every time I see it on my bookshelf. The scene with Bryson coming over a hill to see Katz throwing everything in his backpack over a cliff in order to lighten his load is hilarious. Bryson: "Toilet paper?! Why are you throwing out toilet paper?! It doesn't WEIGH anything!"