I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I was fully prepared to hate this book.  I hate nature and camping and I really did not want to read a book about someone hiking the Appalachian Trail in nature while camping.  I'm allergic to nature, the only thing the sun does is burn my skin, and every camping trip I have ever been on was a disaster.  After a few pages, I quickly changed my mind.  Bryson is hilarious and extremely informative in a way that captivates you.  It also helped that, while he had done a bit of hiking in England, where he had spent the past twenty years, he wasn't a serious hiker and he was out of shape and a bit overweight.  He had just moved back to the states and settled in New Hampshire when he got the hair-brained idea to hike the Appalachian Trail.  He decided to leave in March 1996 and start in Georgia, at the southern start and as the time came closer, he sent invitations to his friends in Christmas cards to hike part of the trail with him.  The idea of being alone in the woods and perhaps reading the book on bear attacks was making him nervous about going alone.  Out of the blue, he got a call from an old friend he hadn't seen in 25 years since they back packed across Europe, arguing the whole way.  They parted company, and Stephen Katz went to Des Moines and lived the life of a druggie, and Bryson became a writer, married and had kids.  Katz, now a few years sober, asked if he could come with him.  Desperate, he gladly welcomes him along.  When Katz shows up, he is grossly overweight but eager, and Bryson reminds himself that he will not be alone.

In Georgia, a massive cold front has moved in, so their start is not a good one.  Bryson goes faster than Katz and often waits for him to catch up, or goes back to get him. Then at some point, Katz gets fed up with the weight of his pack and tosses food and other stuff to lighten his load. Now they are basically left with noodles, snickers, raisins, and coffee.  This has to last them until they can get to the store way up the trail.  It is hard going for both of them.  Eventually, between Georgia and Tennessee, a massive snowstorm hits and they get caught in it and barely make it to a shelter. On the AT trail, there are many shelters for hikers to stay in.  Some even have restrooms and water.

When they hit the Smokies, which are supposed to be incredibly beautiful (they really are) it is pouring rain and they are slogging through mud.  All the majestic views are obscured by the rain.  The flora and fauna that you cannot find anywhere else on the planet you can't see.  More importantly, the people who take care of the Smokies part of the AT trail, actually don't.  The shelters are not worth staying in.  No one takes care of the trail or provides anything for the hikers.  Frankly, it was a miserable experience.  When they got to Gatlinburg, they had had enough and decided to skip the rest and rent a car and drive to Roanoke, North Carolina and start the Shenandoah Trail.

 The Shenandoah is rather popular, in a way.  Over a million people visit it a year.  However, they come by car or camper and never go more than a few yards into the forest. For Bryson and Katz, it was rather nice, in that there were restaurants and hotels they could occasionally stay in if they wanted to.  The walking was also the easiest walking on the AT.

Katz is the perfect traveling campaign.  He has a smart, sarcastic mouth that you can't help but laugh at the things he says.  And he never holds back at saying anything to any of the people they meet on the trail.  He says what is on this mind. One night, when Bryson believes he has finally met a bear, after being awoken by crashing noises in the woods and seeing two pairs of eyes in the dark when he looked out of his tent.  All he has is what amounts to a butter knife to protect himself. He wakes Katz up to help him, but Katz just says all he has is a pair of nail clippers, which are useless, and if the bear is going to get them, it is going to get them and there is nothing they can do about it.  And then he promptly rolls over and goes back to sleep.  Whatever it was, it went away.  Katz makes any trip enjoyable, even when he's complaining.  I'd go anywhere with him.

When they got to the end, Bryson's wife picked them up and took them to the airport in D.C.  They planned to meet again at the end of the summer to walk the Hundred Mile Wilderness, in Maine, a daunting walk through rivers steep mountains and no stores or stops anywhere along the way.  Then you head to on to the final trek--climb Katahdin, a very high mountain.

During the summer while Bryson is waiting for August, he begins to go on local day hikes but finds them dissatisfying.  Soon he decides to drive to Harper's Ferry and drive/walk the AT trail.   Eventually, he gets sick of this and convinces his wife to drop him off in Massachusetts and he walks the state.  While there he meets the famous Chicken John. Every year on the trail, there is always someone you hear about who is on the trail who is known for something.  Chicken John is known for getting lost, which quite frankly, is rather hard to do on the AT, considering they have large white arrows on the trees and the paths are rather obvious.  Chicken John once left a town and walked three days and ended right back in the same town.  He said people were so nice to him and helped him out, gave him meals, and he once got his picture in the paper.  Bryce hiked Vermont and New Hampshire, with all their mountains.  He gives so much background information on where he is: the history, its importance on the AT, what he sees.  It is absolutely fascinating.  Some of it, though, will make you angry over what we have done to each other and to the land and animals.

The Appalachian Trail runs more than 2,100 miles. No one knows exactly how long it is.  Even the National Park Service lists more than one distance in various literature.  On top of that, the trail is constantly being moved.  The start point in Georgia used to be farther south, but the land was needed, so they moved the trail. This happens all the time to the trail.  Another thing to know is that the National Park Service is not there to take care of the trees.  It is there to build roads.  They are the second largest organization of road builders in the world.  They build roads so loggers can get to the trees.  The National Park Service was created to make sure we didn't cut down all the trees.  They are there to manage cutting down trees, including 1,000-year-old trees in Oregon.  I really have a hard time seeing why they did that.  There were plenty of other trees to cut down.  But they are not into conservation anymore.  They are letting so many animals go extinct for no reason. And don't get me started on all the trees that are going extinct or nearly so, like the American Chestnut which they just found some after years of believing it to be gone, or this one tree that they had treatment for, but they said the trees were too spread out and they couldn't save them all so they would do nothing.  They couldn't be bothered to use some of that treatment to save some of the trees, at least?  All trees are in danger now, including the Dogwood, which is North Carolina's state tree, and a truly beautiful tree.  Bryson really makes you want to go hug a tree or find a way to help all those poor animals.  He is also quick to say that while the National Park Service has a small budget and could really use the money to help fix things, they would probably find a way to blow it.  Also, he would tell you that the Park Rangers are the nicest and most helpful people you will meet.

"She told me that the previous year 1,500 prospective thru-hikers had started the trail, 1,200 had made it to Neels Gap (that's a dropout rate of 20 percent in the first week!), about a third had made it to Harper's Ferry, roughly halfway, and about 300 had reached Karahdin, a higher success rate than usual.  Sixty or so people had successfully hiked the trail from north to south."  Its a rare person who can walk the whole trail. Its more than just difficult, in a way, its harder to do than climbing Mount Everest. More people are hiking the trail every year and the government is not giving the National Park Service any more money to fix shelters, build more shelters, and provide other things hikers might need on the trail (like better maps).  Instead, the National Park Service is closing shelters and cutting back on Forest Rangers and other staff, never mind how they are mismanaging the cutting down of the trees.  It's completely insane.  Theodore Roosevelt, the President who started the National Park Service would be extremely displeased at what it has become.  We should all be ashamed that we are not demanding that are Senators and Representatives do something before we lose it all.

Note: This book was published in 1999. Robert Redford grabbed it up and wrote the screenplay intending it to be the last movie he made with Paul Newman (which is rather odd since Bryson and Katz are two men in their forties and Redford and Newman are way past that).  Sadly, Newman died before that could happen and the project floundered for a long time, as Redford was lost as to what to do about it.  Eventually, he settled on Nick Nolte, and from what I have heard, the movie is really funny and rather good.  It is out on DVD now.


 Woods are not like other spaces.  To begin with, they are cubic.  Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides.  Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings.  They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it.  They are a vast, featureless nowhere.  And they are alive.

--Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods p 44)

The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core.  This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was “grim and wild…savage and dreary,” fit only for “men near of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” The experience left him in the words of one biographer, “near hysterical.”
--Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods p 45)
 According to the map, the road (if a road is what it was) started in the middle of nowhere and finished half a dozen miles later equally in the middle of nowhere, which clearly made no sense—indeed, wasn’t even possible. (You  can’t start a road in the middle of a forest; earth-moving equipment can’t spontaneously appear among the trees. Anyway, even if you could build a road that didn’t go anywhere, why would you?) There was, obviously, something deeply and infuriately wrong with this map.

--Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods p 74)
 I never met a hiker with a good word to say about the trail in Pennsylvania.  It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place “where boots go to die.” During the last ice age it experienced what geologist call a periglacial climate…The result is mile upon mile of jagged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face—not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.  Lots of people leave Pennsylvania limping and bruised.  The state also has what are reputed to be the meanest rattlesnakes anywhere on the trail, and the most unreliable water sources, particularly in high summer.  The really beautiful Appalachian ranges in Pennsylvania—Nittany and Jacks and Tussey—stand to the north and west.  For various practical and historical reasons, the AT goes nowhere near them. It traverses no notable vistas, visits no national parks or forests, and overlooks the state’s  considerable history…Oh, and it also has the very worst maps ever produced for hikers anywhere.  The six sheets—maps is really much too strong a word for them—produced for Pennsylvania by a body called the Keystone Trails Association are small, monochrome, appalling  useless: comically useless, heartbreakingly useless, dangerously useless.  No one should be sent into a wilderness with maps this bad.

--Bill Bryson ( A Walk in the Woods p 173-4)
 That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.

--Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods p 225)
 Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense.  A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old. That’s all there is to it.  Without doubt, the moose is the most improbable, endearingly hopeless creature ever to live in the wilds.  Every bit of it—its spindly legs, its chronically puzzled expression, its comical oven-mitt antlers—looks like some droll evolutionary joke.  It is wondrously ungainly: it runs as if its legs have never been introduced to each other. Above all, what distinguishes the moose is its almost boundless lack of intelligence….Amazingly, given the moose’s lack of cunning and peculiarly blunted survival instincts, it is one of the longest-surviving creatures in North America.  Mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, wolves caribou, wild horses, and even camels all once thrived in eastern North America alongside the moose but gradually stumbled into extinction, while the moose just plodded on.

--Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods p 241-2)
Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Walk-Woods-Rediscovering-America-Appalachian/dp/0307279464/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467983115&sr=1-1&keywords=a+walk+in+the+woods

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