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
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
What has this adventure meant to you? What lessons has this experience
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
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
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.