Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods—Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway Books; 1999; ISBN 978-0767902526).

David Miller: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail (Mariner Books; 2011; ISBN 978-0547745527).

This year I decided to concentrate more on non-fiction (with mixed results). Two of the books I read this year dealt with travels on the Appalachian Trail. Two more different books you could not find!

Bill Bryson decides to reconnect with the United States after a long time away by walking on the Appalachian Trail. He is joined by a friend, Stephan Katz and the pair of them stumble onto the Appalachian Trail, festooned with odd bits of equipment, candy, and many noodles.

David Miller, on the other hand, walks the trail with a very rigorous approach. He has carefully researched equipment, regular supply drops and more. He generally traveled the trail on his own, other than occasional encounters in shelters or on the trail itself.

There are similarities. Both authors enjoy the beauty, the reconnecting with nature. And the change in attitude, such as in this quote from Bryson:

Each time you leave the cossetted and hygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations—a kind of gentle descent into squalor—and each time it is as if you have never done it before. At the end of the first day, you feel mildly, self-consciously, grubby; by the second day, disgustingly so; by the third, you are beyond caring; by the fourth, you have forgotten what it is like not to be like this.

But then there are spectacular differences. Miller manages to walk the entire trail. Bryson and Katz bail out after a while; Bryson does some more on weekends and they hook up to finish the last section (only to bail again):

Pinned to a wall was a map showing the whole of the Appalachian Trail on its long march through fourteen states, but with the eastern seaboard rotated to give the AT the appearance of having a due north-south orientation, allowing the mapmaker to fit the trail into an orderly rectangle, about six inches wide and four feet high.

I looked at it with a polite, almost proprietorial interest—it was the first time since leaving New Hampshire that I had considered the trail in its entirety—and then inclined closer, with bigger eyes and slightly parted lips. Of the four feet of trail map before me, reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches.

Both are good books. Miller is more a guidebook (and he has written a book on the trail and maintains a website about trekking the trail) and Bryson is more a history of the trail, a commentary on nature...and humor. In fact, I could not read Bryson at night in bed because I would laugh so much I was afraid of waking my wife.

The differences, again, are striking. Miller talks equipment. A lot of equipment. He changes packs. He changes shoes. Bryson? Well, the final pair of quotes is from an encounter Bryson had at one shelter:

I knew with a sinking heart that we were going to talk equipment. I could just see it coming. I hate talking equipment.

“So what made you buy a Gregory pack?” he said. “Well, I thought it would be easier than carrying everything in my arms.” He nodded thoughtfully, as if this were an answer worth considering, then said: “I’ve got a Kelty.”

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