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A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods isn't quite up to the high comic-travelogue standard set by Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat—but it often comes close. Bryson and his buddy Katz begin their trek along the Appalachian Trail at its southern origin in Georgia:

It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape—hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see exactly what's to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come. Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs—nearly there now!—but this is a pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give you a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?

Humorous anecdotes are interwoven with philosophical asides, as at the beginning of Chapter 6:

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.

Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It's quite wonderful, really.

Bryson's writing is delightful. Besides laughs, he offers thoughtful reflections on ecology and society, economics and geology. He meditates on evolution and extinction. His math isn't always the best though. In Chapter 10 a tree ten feet in diameter is a bit more than twenty feet around (so π ≈ 2?), and in Chapter 11 he covers 1.4 miles in only a 20 minute walk (far too fast to be credible). But that's quibbling.

Among Bryson's best meditations is one near the end, after his odyssey is complete:

I still quite often go for walks on the trail near my home, especially if I am stuck on something I am working on. Most of the times I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is—whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze—perfect. Not just very fine or splendid, but perfect, unimprovable. You don't have to walk miles up mountains to achieve this, don't have to plod through blizzards, slip sputtering in mud, wade chest-deep through water, hike day after day to the edge of your limits—but believe me, it helps.

Perfect? No, but close enough ...

(many tnx to friend Caren for lending me her copy of this book!) - ^z - 2008-08-17

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