Bill Bryson chats about walking the Appalachian Trail and the book he wrote about his travels - A Walk In The Woods
Is hiking something you've always enjoyed doing?
Yes, though I've never done it in the States, and it's a completely different experience here because of the scale of everything. If you go out on the Appalachian Trail you have to bring so much more equipment--a tent, sleeping bag--but if you go hiking in England, or Europe, generally, towns and villages are near enough together at the end of the day you can always go to a nice little inn and have a hot bath and something to drink. It's a much more rigorous activity here.
Is there a difference between the culture of hikers here and in Europe?
Well, that's a good question. Essentially they're the same: people who like to go out and walk up hills and go through that sort of vigorous exercise.
What made you choose Katz as your companion? It would seem to be impossible to pick a more ill-suited hiking partner.
(Laughs) It was really a question of Katz choosing me. I quite genuinely didn't want to go out there on my own, I would have been grateful for any kind of companionship. I was just sort of wildly inexperienced at this sort of hiking. I had never camped outside before, never pitched a tent. So I was grateful to have anyone come along, and Katz was willing to do it. I remain very grateful to him, even now. For all the problems he had adjusting to it, he was a very loyal hiking companion. He stuck with me.
Do you still enjoy hiking, or did you get your fill on this adventure?
Oh yes. I haven't done any extensive hiking since then, but I still go out on the trail around here quite a bit [Hanover, NH].
Your book is filled with humor, but there is also a serious side to it. You document the loss of woodlands and bemoan the job the National Parks Service has done protecting our natural treasures. What do you think we should do to protect our environment?
Golly, I'm certainly no expert. The only point I was trying to make is that in this country we're very, very lucky to have this incredible resource, this great, vast track of wilderness that is still there. And as is widely know, these wilderness areas are greatly stressed by the incursion of shopping malls and logging, and a whole variety of things. They haven't been looked after as lovingly as you would hope and once they go, they're gone forever. That shopping mall is not going to return to woodland. What I was simply trying to do was draw people's attention to this fact so that we might try to preserve the Appalachian woods.
What has this adventure meant to you? What lessons has this experience taught you?
The real surprise to me was the friendship that developed with Katz, because, as you say, on the face of it I couldn't have chosen a more incompatible hiking companion. And yet, for all the squabbling we did en route, we became really good friends because of the shared deprivation and challenges. This tends to happen with people on the trail: they go out and whoever they're hiking with, they form a really strong bond. The other thing was an appreciation for the size of the world and for the glory of nature in a way that I could never have appreciated before. If you drive to say Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you'll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way. It made all of the aches and pains completely worth it.
Now that you've spent some time getting reacquainted with the United States after living in England for several decades, what observations can you offer?
The incredible extent to which the car has continued to overtake American life in every sort of way. My whole life it's been like that, but it seems even more so all the time. Roads get wider and busier and less friendly to pedestrians. And all of the development based around cars, like big sprawling shopping malls. Everything seems to be designed for the benefit of the automobile and not the benefit of the human being.
That's one of the reasons I enjoy living in New York City--people actually walk here.
It's becoming a lost art. It's really sad.
Last question, what are your hiking plans for this summer? Are you going to try for Katahdin?
I've got work commitments all through the summer so I'll be lucky to do a few short hikes. But in terms of Katahdin, that's my one really sincere and profound regret. We got very close, but didn't make it, and that was something that I had wanted to do very much. I've been talking a lot with my neighbor Bill Abdu, who I hike with in the book, and at some point he and I will go and hike the last of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and go up Katahdin. I cannot die without having done this.
Maine is wonderful. It can be very hard. I mean, if you look at the profile maps it doesn't look it, but somehow when you get out there it's really steep and hard. But the payoff is that you really are in the middle of nowhere and you see these views that make you feel as though you are the first person to ever see them. Obviously, you're not, but you feel like Lewis and Clark.
First published in Bold Type 1998. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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