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Metro Pulse Take a Hike

Author Bill Bryson tackles the Appalachian Trail -- and discovers a lack of pedestrians.

By Tracy Jones

MAY 18, 1998:  Take a look at Bill Bryson's picture on the dust jacket of his new book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway), and you'll see a friendly-faced guy in tweeds and glasses, a guy who looks as though he would be equally comfortable on a Little League field or a college classroom. It's an All-American face. You learn that he was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, heart of the heartland, which only adds to his apple-pie image. So when this humorist and travel writer talks, you can't be blamed for expecting a flat, Midwestern, Keillor-esque drawl. What you get instead is an elocution worthy of My Fair Lady's Professor Henry Higgins, a lovely and elegant voice tinged with a decidedly British accent. From Des Moines?

"Well, I lived in Britain most of my adult life, so it's quite understandable," says Bryson. As a young hitchhiker traversing Europe with his friend Stephen Katz (an adventure that became the book Neither Here nor There), Bryson discovered he wasn't ready to exit the motherland at the end of his sojourn. He stumbled into a job at a psychiatric hospital outside London, where he met his wife, a student nurse.

"I unexpectedly fell in love with her and fell in love with England both at the same time. I never really intended to stay forever, but you know how life is," Bryson says. "I was very happy there for 20 years, but it was never like it was part of a long-term plan."

Now that he's moved back to America, Bryson's American publishers do have ambitious long-range plans for the author, whose books are regular bestsellers in the UK. A Walk in the Woods is being poised as Bryson's "break-out" book, the one that will take him from a writer's writer to a semi-household name. After he moved to New Hampshire three years ago, Bryson—whose last book was an account of his walk through the countryside of England—decided to through-hike the Appalachian Trail as a way to reacquaint himself with his native country. He and the ubiquitous Katz ("That's not his real name, by the way, but in all other respects he's a real person") set out from Georgia to hike to Maine. One rainy night on what Bryson's book calls "the astoundingly ugly main street" of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Katz and Bryson discovered that after weeks of exhaustive walking, they had completed only a tiny portion of the trail. They made a decision to dip into parts of the trail, then go their separate ways before reuniting on a hike through the Maine trail

Bryson's trip to Knoxville on May 18, during which he'll be signing at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, will be his first trip back to the Smokies since that soggy hike. He hopes he gets to see them in sunlight.

"In terms of actual beauty, they're just about unbeatable," he says of the Smokies. "It just poured with rain almost the whole time we were there, after the first afternoon. That did, literally, dampen our appreciation of it."

It's also true, though, he says, "that hiking in national parks was our least favorite part, by and large, of the Appalachian trail." Bryson, who has some harshly funny words for the Park Service in his book, struggles to explain his ambivalence toward the organization. "On the one hand we are incredibly lucky in this country to have the national park system that we do, and the National Park Service deserves credit for that. But they don't always look after [the parks] in the way that you might hope. My own feeling is that their orientation is very much directed toward people in cars and recreational vehicles [rather] than to the people who use the parks the way I think they ought to be used, i.e., on foot."

The most ironic example of this, to him, is that many national parks lack the means for hikers to walk into the park to reach a trail. When he and Katz were outside the Shenandoah National Park, for example, they discovered that they could take a beautiful scenic drive into the park but couldn't walk there very well, although they did anyway. "We had to walk seven miles along the hard shoulder of a quite busy highway, along the guardrails and with our packs sticking out. If you're in this sort of pedestrian world...when you're hiking on the trail, [it's] really infuriating that they've spent millions of dollars to build a highway but absolutely nothing to build a little side trail."

To someone used to walking in England, car-crazed America can sometimes seem overwhelming. "We seem, in this country, to have lost the idea of walking as a practical thing. People will go out and go for a walk for exercise, they'll go for a walk to walk the dog, they'll get into their car and they'll go up into some hills and they'll go for a hike, but the idea of walking to town to do some shopping or to go to a bank, it doesn't occur to anyone now. And then you discover if you try to do that, you can't. There are no sidewalks. You take your life into your hands."

But, he says, there is a trade-off. England is so much more compact, the hiking trails there are very crowded. Bryson says the Appalachian Trail, all reported protests to the contrary, is not crowded.

"That's actually quite a controversial statement in the hiking community. But I really do genuinely feel that the Appalachian Trail could absorb an awful lot more people. Every year more people go out, but relative to the population of the eastern United States, you're still talking about a very, very low proportion. And it's a real shame that more people don't make the effort to go out there, because it's fabulous. We're just so lucky to have it."

In the book, his serious reverence for the trail comes through just as strongly as his sense of humor. Some British critics have groused that although the book is funny, it lacks a certain acerbic wit that Bryson brought to Britain and other subjects. He admits this is probably true.

"You have to be a lot more careful now in your criticism of things American. America as a nation has become kind of touchy. But at the same time," he adds, "this book wasn't about the way America operates. It was about the wilderness. For all the criticism I make of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forestry Service, the achievement of the United States in having this much wilderness at the end of the 20th century is something we can all be proud of. And I was pretty well bowled over by that."

By including the history of the trail in his book, Bryson hopes to honor the volunteers who made it originally possible. "The AT doesn't seem like that much of a miracle now, because there've been a lot of other hiking trails. But when it started, it was unheard of. The idea of these guys, all volunteers, building a hiking trail of 2,200 miles was just so wildly ambitious. That they actually achieved it really is stupefying."

Bryson says that his own failure to complete the trail dogged him for a while. "For a long time I felt very guilty that we didn't. I set off with the sincere intention of hiking the whole trail from end to end, and when we got to your neck of the woods, which isn't very far into the trail, we just realized this is way beyond us."

Once he accepted it, though, he says, "I actually enjoyed the trail a lot more. I felt as if I had been freed from the drudgery side of it and could go out and just enjoy it." Remembering the exhausted hikers he spied on the trail, Bryson says, "[To a] lot of people who try to hike it right through, it becomes like a job and a task, whereas it really ought to be a joy. It's hard enough as it is without taking all the pleasure and gratification out of it.

"I think you have to make a huge mental adjustment in order to walk the trail from end to end," he continues. "You sort of abandon the real world for this wilderness environment. And you've got to do it for a long time, week after week, just plodding along. You have nothing to think about and nothing to do all day but think. You have to somehow accommodate that, so a lot of people accommodate it by going a little crazy, becoming a little strange. They become focused in a way that seems a little bit bizarre."

Not Bryson. Although he's still a hiking and walking advocate, and will always have the traveler's wanderlust in his soul, he thinks it's time to take a temporary detour. Besides his travel books, Bryson also writes humorous and intelligent books about language and word origins. One of these, The Mother Tongue: The English Language and How It Got That Way, is used regularly in college linguistics classes. When he's through with this book tour, he says, "I'd like to do more books in that kind of vein. The great advantage of doing a book like that is that you can lead a normal life during the time you're working on it. You go to the library all day, and then you come home for dinner."

For a man who's spent many a spring afternoon eating instant noodles in the pouring rain, such creature comforts can't be overrated.


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