Saturday, October 20, 2007

Books About the Trail

For better or worse, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods is the highest selling book about the Appalachian Trail. Many thru-hikers come out to the A.T. because of that book, and for many other non-hikers, it is the only source of information that they have about the trail.

While a humorous and often interesting read, Bryson's aim was to sell books, not necessarily present an accurate picture of the trail or thru-hiking. If the cover is any indication, it features a sensationalized man-eating Grizzly bear, which aren't found anywhere east of the Mississippi let alone on the Appalachian Trail.

Although I am not as critical of the book as some, I am unimpressed with some of Bryson's decisions in presenting the trail. Here are a few of my objections:

  • Bryson hiked less than 800 miles of the trail, mostly as day hikes, yet postures himself a thru-hiker.

  • Bryson perpetuates cheap-shot negative stereotypes of southerners that are unnecessary.

  • Bryson purportedly admits that bumbling sidekick, Katz, is made up - created from pieces of his own personality - and included for comic relief.

  • Their actions on the trail are frequently disrespectful to the landscape and to other hikers - setting a poor precedent for those unfamiliar with proper backcountry practices.

  • Bryson profits immensely from the book, but has not donated any proceeds back to the trail unless done anonymously.

The exposure his book brought to the A.T. has been dubbed as the "Bryson Effect." In the years following publication in 1999, more people attempted thru-hikes than ever before, leadng to overcrowding and poor trail conditions.

Since 2005 I have been following the buzz about the book being adapted into a movie with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Last I heard there is still no script, but hikers on the A.T. this year met crews who were filming establishing shots and landmarks. I can only imagine the mixed blessing that such a movie would bring to the Appalachian Trail. I am just glad to have hiked it before the circus, if it ever does become a movie.

If you're curious about the book, I'd advise checking it out from the library and saving your money for a donation to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy - just be aware that his story is a humorous embellishment, with loose creative license, and is not representative of a real thru-hike experience.

Recommended Reading

For something more substantial, I heartily recommend Earl Schaffer's beautifully written Walking With Spring - a reflection of his 1948 hike as the first person to walk the A.T. from end to end.

As Far as the Eye Can See by David Brill, is another good choice for a trail memoir about his 1979 hike. I enjoyed how it was organized in topical chunks, rather than the default (often dry) chronological account.

Blind Courage by Bill Irwin, a legally-blind man who walked the entire trail with his guide dog. I can't remember how many times he said he fell down, but the trail is difficult enough to complete for sighted people...

and one bonus:

A Blistered Kind of Love by Angela and Duffy Ballard. This well written account of their thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Lauren and I enjoyed reading about another couples' experience on a long distance hike.


  1. I've read Blind Courage and I actually got to meet Bill Irwin at a retreat many years ago. What an incredible story!

  2. Bryson, or his publisher, need to finally give the current cover art a dignified burial. Considering how much mail they've received concerning that bit of scare-mongering, you'd think they'd correct the error. Or maybe it just keeps selling books.

    The last Grizzly Bear east of the Mississippi was killed in 1786.

  3. In the direction of trail preservation, I just saw this and thought I'd send it your way:

    Dave & Kati

  4. Hi! I found your blog a bit late but I've been enjoying it nontheless. I read Bryson's book and, though I've enjoyed his other travelogues, I hated this one. I agree with your points about his attitude toward others and the trail itslef. I also lost complete interest in the story after he gave up on doing a thru hike and ended up doing the last part in pieces (probably just so he could finish his book). Your blog is one of the most intersting accountsof a thru-hike that I have read! So thank you for posting. I hope someday I get to experience the journey too.

  5. DijitalDharma,
    nice to hear from you and glad that our site has given you a glimpse of the trail. make sure your 'someday' actually arrives (for the trail or anything else you aspire to do) - it's easy to put things off. thanks again!

  6. I picked up Bryson's book because a co-worker left it lying around and I share some of your negative thoughts about it. He seemed to go out of his way to ridicule people he met on the trail, which I thought was particularly immature. BUT, it did lead me to Google the Appalachian Trail, which led me to a link to your blog, which I am very much enjoying.

  7. @DCS Great to hear you enjoyed the book and are enjoying the blog. Have a great one.