Outside the English building on FSU’s campus there is a hot dog stand where I would often go between classes for a cup of coffee. One day when I walked up and the girl working there was reading a book by Bill Bryson. “Do you like Bill Bryson?” I asked.
“He’s pretty entertaining,” she said, plugging the coffee capsule into the Keurig.
“Yeah,” she said, cocking her head, “but he didn’t even finish the trail.”
I had at least gotten far enough into the book to know she was right. A little over eight days and 100 pages in, Bryson and his churlish sidekick Katz reach Gatlinburg. Bryson sees a map of the AT in a gift shop and realizes, “Of the four feet of map before me, reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches” (105). Soon enough they rent a car and skip whole chunks of the trail. After only eight days!
“Yeah I guess you’re right,” I said, dropping my change into the tip jar. But despite the book’s glaring issues as an immersion memoir–namely that our author bailed on the immersion–I remembered laughing a lot and feeling a connection with our hiking duo.
On the first day of the hike, Katz, frustrated by fatigue and the weight of his pack, hurls many of his supplies off the top of a mountain. Bryson, who always way ahead of Katz, finds out that night when they stop to camp:
“‘Is there a reason,’ I asked, ‘why you are filtering the coffee with toilet paper?’
‘I, oh … I threw out the filter papers.’
I gave a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. ‘They couldn’t have weighed two ounces.’
‘I know, but they were great for throwing. Fluttered all over.'” (41-42).
And that’s just the start of the blunders had by the daydreaming Bryson and disheveled Katz. But when I picked up the book again last week to finish off Part II, I did so with the thought in mind, “but he didn’t even finish the trail.
The premise of Part II becomes even more inane as Bryson, after retreating home and losing Katz, takes day trips from his New Hampshire home down to Pennsylvania and over to Vermont to day hike sections of the trail. He drives home at night to sleep in a warm bed next to his wife and the whole thing seems so far his original intention as to be laughable. Of course, Bryson wants you to laugh, even at his own expense, but certainly not at his premise.
Finally, he and Katz reunite and attempt what Bryson describes as the most difficult stretch of the trail in Maine. “The Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing I have ever done,” Bryson writes, “and the Maine portion was the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail, and by a factor I couldn’t begin to compute” (246). The book at least receives a finale finish as the team gets back together to slog through marshland, traverse mountainous terrain, get separated and so run down by their range of emotions that–guess what–they quit again.
So Bryson didn’t finish the trail. Hell, he didn’t even hike half of it, or find out what a season-long hike is like. He addresses this in the book’s final paragraph: “We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail” (274).
Yeah. Keep telling yourself that, buddy.
I will, however, commend Bryson for the way he incorporates facts, histories, and anecdotes about the landforms he encounters and places he visits. These highly readable passages add depth to his journey. You read some fascinating stuff about glacial formation in Pennsylvania and the dangers of riddling the land with coal mines; you discover exactly how many people have been murdered on the AT and how; you hear about the billions of years it took to form the Appalachian Mountains and what the climate is like atop its highest peak, on Mount Washington. He incorporates outside sources smoothly and always in service to the story, which is surely a talent to emulate.