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A Diary of Bill Bryson's first month on the Appalachian Trail
(Adapted from A Walk in the Woods)
Stephen Katz and I begin our great adventure at Springer Mountain, Georgia. Within hours, Katz throws half his pack, including most of our food, over a cliff.
We proudly make coffee using toilet paper as filters.
We meet Mary Ellen. "I have long known that is part of God's plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared."
Arrive at a town. Ingest white bread and Coke, conveying us to the brink of orgasm.
Hit major road. Hitchhike and get picked up by drunk driver with wanton fiancee, who drive us to Hiawasee, Georgia.
Meet hiker who informs us that Mary Ellen is telling everyone on the trail that Katz and I are a couple of overweight wimps -- actually pussies -- and that we don't know the first thing about hiking.
Day 9 continued
Arrive at Big Butt Mountain. 'Nuff said.
Get snowed in at a motel in Franklin, North Carolina. Katz buys a TV Guide and 18 cans of cream soda.
Reach the Smokies, which run exactly between North Carolina and Tennessee. Katz and I practice urinating across state lines.
Day 18 continued
Spend restless night at rodent-infested shelter. Katz awakes gleeful -- during the night he managed to kill seven mice with his water bottle.
Get to Waynesboro, Virginia. Katz meets "Beulah" at the Laundromat and gets chased by her husband, "Bubba T. Flubba."
Encounter a bear! Katz arms himself with a nail clipper, while I reach for a butter knife.
Bill Bryson is a pretty normal guy. He is of average height and build, with reddish-brown hair and somewhat normal bearing. He wouldn't -- one way of the other -- stand out in a crowd. He has a normal life. He's been married to the same woman for a couple of decades and together they have four children, and all of them are normal, too.
It is perhaps this inherent normalcy that has made Bryson's books so warm and so accessible. Bryson writes beautifully. And this ordinary guy with an ordinary life goes off and has adventures and then writes about them with extraordinary wit and style. And we love him for it.
Bryson's latest adventure is documented in A Walk in the Woods. The title is perfectly Bryson, in many ways. The book is about his adventures along the Appalachian Trail, the mammoth American wilderness trail that runs over 2000 miles and through 14 eastern states. It's the longest continuous footpath in the world and snakes through some of the most renowned landscapes in the United States: the Smokey Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, the Great North Woods of Maine and the Berkshires. The Appalachian Trail is no one's idea of a walk in the woods: there are bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants... it's more than a stroll in the park.
"It was a hell of a book to do. I mean the experience was really required. And then I knew right away -- I mean really early in the trip -- that it was going to be a fun book to do," says Bryson, whose soft voice registers the 20 years he lived in the United Kingdom
He acknowledges the change that his time living outside of the United States has made to the way he speaks, "I've always been pretty soft-spoken which made me sound un-Iowan to begin with. A lot of the time I was in England I sort of had to pass for English in the sense that I was working on newspapers on Fleet Street and it didn't pay to be obviously American. Also, I was infatuated with the place and I suppose I wanted to fit in and all of those things contributed to knocking the edges off my voice. I stayed faithful to my original vocabulary but I think the modulation in your voice changes. The rhythm of the way you speak."
The rhythm of the way he writes has been affected as well. There is a decidedly British flavor to Bryson's prose and -- especially -- his humor. It's ironic humor told flatly and hilariously with no nod to punch line or laugh track. Bryson says that his US readers don't always get the humor on first take.
"When I do a reading anywhere in Canada I get bigger laughs than in the US. Canadians will respond a lot more readily to ironic humor than Americans. And they'll get it right away. Where Americans really have to warm up to it. When you do a reading they tend to cotton on to it as the reading goes on. You have to smile a lot to let them know it's just a joke. It's a different culture."
Even so, Bryson says, ironic humor is a universal thing. "Everyone in the English speaking world has a real appreciation for irony. In Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand wherever you go people pretty much get the same jokes. Then you go to the United States and that stops. I don't know what the explanation is exactly, but it's strange."
Knowing this about his audience, Bryson took care with A Walk in the Woods. Unlike his previous book, Notes from a Small Island, this latest book is an American adventure and thus would be of interest to an American readership. "I can't deny that with this book that I had the American market much more in mind. I have flagged the jokes more carefully in the American edition."
Regardless of this, A Walk in the Woods is still infused with Bryson's charming, dry wit: some of it very British in tone. The butt of many jokes was Bryson's traveling companion on the trip, Stephen Katz. Katz' character is cartoony and broad enough that it's easy to wonder if he's a real or fictitious character. Bryson says that Katz is very real. Too real, perhaps, for some tastes.
"Katz' name isn't real, but he is real and he would deny this but he's really a very likable character."
Bryson was concerned that Katz not be offended by his portrayal of him in A Walk in the Woods. "I wrote the book and sent it to him after it was published in Britain and I didn't hear anything from him for six weeks. And I thought, 'Oh god. He's really pissed off with me.' And finally he called, and he talked about other things altogether like he was avoiding talking about the book and finally I said 'Did you read the book?' and he said, 'Ah Bryson, you know it's all bullshit but it's pretty funny.' So he was pretty gracious about it. I mean considering inevitably what I had to do to him.
"I exaggerate freely with almost everybody in every book so in some ways it isn't exactly him. It's a caricature, but all the incidents are real. Like the business of throwing all of his food over the cliff and having these tantrums and our little mishap on the mountaintop in Maine. All of that stuff is real. And he really is a reformed alcoholic who struggled. So, essentially it's him and anybody who knows him would recognize him."
While Katz wasn't the perfect traveling companion, he did provide a perfect note of comic relief. And, somehow, he completes the picture: two middle aged guys on one of the most daunting trails in the world. An experience that Bryson says was one of the most profound of his life. "It gave me a real appreciation for the outdoors and the scale of things."
It was, says Bryson, a physical challenge beyond any he'd previously endured. "I didn't grow up hunting and fishing and being an outdoorsy kind of a guy. I just didn't come from that sort of background. And I suppose there was a part of me that had always felt that I wanted to be a bit more... you know... get that kind of Daniel Boone spirit. Particularly after we moved to New Hampshire which is an area where that's quite big."
Profound experience or no, Bryson says that the actual walk in the woods wasn't a joyous experience at the time. Lucky for him, he just picked up a north face jacket online. "I hated almost every minute of it while I was doing it. We were really unlucky with the weather. It rained a lot and there was blizzards. Spring was incredibly late that year. It was hard to enjoy it at the time."
That which can be endured makes us stronger. Bryson was empowered by his ability to rise to the challenge and see it through as far as he did. "It's one of those things that's really, really, really hard while you're doing it but when you're finished you're glad you did it. Like going on an Outward Bound course or something. It's good for you. There's no question that it does you a lot of good. You may not express any joy in it at the time."
Part of the good it did him was helping him return to his boyish figure: 28 pounds towards it, at any rate. "I lost a whole lot of weight. The day I came off the trail I was 28 pounds less than when I went on. I was really depressed at how quickly you pack it all back on. I mean I tried hard: you know I made all this effort and lost all this weight I tried hard to keep it off and I exercised a little bit but I think your body wants to be a certain size and it'll do everything it can to get there."
Bryson and Katz completed a total of 870 miles on the trail. But they didn't do it all at once. "I went on for six and a half weeks and I knew I had to go off for a month after and go on a book tour around the States," he was promoting Notes from a Small Island at the time. A culture shock, he found, from being in the woods without television or any amenities to being on a tour and staying in hotels and being on TV. "After that I'd go back for a couple of weeks or a few days: I messed around a lot more. Finally in the end we headed off to Maine for what was supposed to be three weeks and then had that disastrous experience in Maine. So I started hiking in early March and did the last hike in mid-October."
It was really strange, Bryson says, spending six and a half weeks on the trail and then going straight on a book tour. "Six weeks doesn't sound like a lot but you start to forget about the things we're used to. It was hard to come back to the soft places like this."
There were soft places on the trail, as well. Places where the trail would meet a town. The culture shock, says Bryson, was almost palatable. "When we were hiking it was almost a little miracle when you left the woods and went back to the real world. There is so little interconnection between the wilderness world and the world that everybody else inhabits. It's very hard to go back and forth between the two."
Of the dangers that Bryson and Katz expected to meet on the trail, it was the prospect of encounters with bears that frightened Bryson the most. "I made this terrible mistake of reading a book about bear attacks," the book in question was Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by a Canadian academic named Stephen Herrero. Bryson bought the book almost as an afterthought while preparing for his trip. It was a purchase he would come to rue later on.
"I defy anyone to read that book and not be nervous going out in the woods. Even though black bears are not aggressive at all and it's very rare for them to attack, they do do it often enough that if you're that one person in two million, it's enough." More than enough, some would say.
"Bears are very smart and very strong and of all the creatures that are likely to do something to you in the woods, they're the ones that will do it." Despite his fears, Bryson and Katz managed to avoid attacks by bears throughout their journey.
Bryson's adventure on the Appalachian Trail seemed a fitting return to the US: the place of his birth. His wife is British as are his children and the move to New Hampshire was a big one. He did it, "Because I could. Because of what I do we could live anywhere. We were living in an isolated little village in the Yorkshire Dales and it was very pretty and a really nice part of the world and we were happy there but it was becoming increasingly impractical to live there." Bryson's children were getting older and the adult Brysons felt the need to move somewhere more urban. Once that decision was made, they thought, "Why stop there? We decided to move back to the States. It would be a good experience for the kids and we thought we'd make a change. And it has done that. It's given me a new perspective on looking at the world and what I do and it's been a worthwhile experience."
Despite it being something of a homecoming, Bryson found he needed more readjustment to life in the US than he had thought he would. More, in fact, than other members of his family who had never lived outside of the UK. "Readjusting to life in the States has been a lot harder than I expected it would be. A lot of the time I just felt like I didn't really want to be here," Bryson admits. "Not that I had anything against America, I just sort of thought, 'I've done that.' You know? 'I've been there. It's been 20 years and there are no surprises here.' I sort of thought 'I wish we'd gone to Italy or Australia or somewhere different.' Whereas my wife and kids were deliriously happy because they were doing that: they were going somewhere that was completely new and exciting."
Bryson's children are aged seven, 13, 18 and 19. "Boys on the outside and girls in the middle," Bryson says with a smile. And the children have adjusted fabulously to life in their father's homeland. "The two older ones felt that there was a certain cachet in having a British accent. People tended to say to them, 'Oh I love your voice,' so they tended to cultivate that."
The younger children have adjusted as well. "The two younger ones have become very Americanized. The seven year old especially: he has almost no trace of a British accent at all. A little bit when he's around his mom. But when you see him on the playground or something, he's just an American kid."
The United States, says Bryson, "Is a country built for kids. They love everything about the US. My son came over when he was 16 and he could drive: he would have had to waited until he was 18 in the UK. So the first summer he gets a job and then in August he buys himself a car and he thought he was in heaven. And the seven year old was five at the time and he discovered there was a cartoon network. 24 hours of cartoons. It really is a country for kids."
With his family happily adjusting to life in New Hampshire and the Appalachian Trail under his belt, Bryson is looking ahead to his next project. "In January  I'm going to go off to Australia and do a book on Australia. And then I think I'm going to leave travel books for at least a book. It's hard for me going away from home all the time and you have to go for long periods."
The travel books, says Bryson laughingly, place an increasing demand on him by their very proximity: or lack of it. "I'm running out of nearby countries and I have to keep going further and further. The separation is not something I like."
The land down under, says Bryson, fascinates him. "I really want to do Australia because I think it's just an amazing country. It's just so far from everywhere and it's so much like a hybrid of America and Britain. In some ways it's so like the states and in other ways it's so unlike it. To me it's just an interesting place. It's like, they have all these strange animals because it's so isolated. And people have evolved in their own private way as well. I mean, they're really nice, really charming people but different."
With a walk in the outback nearing and five successful books under his belt, the future looks bright for Bill Bryson: with or without an extra 28 pounds. | 1997
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.
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