‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson
Don’t look to ”A Walk in the Woods” for forced revelations about failed relationships or financial ruin or artistic insecurity. Bryson is hiking the trail because it’s there, and he’s great company right from the start — a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley and (given his fondness for gross-out humor) Dave Barry. When he has gone five days with little more to eat than some awful dried noodles, Bryson doesn’t deliver any profound thoughts on the primal nature of hunger. Instead he confesses that the moon has begun to resemble ”the creamy inside of an Oreo cookie.” From ‘Thinking on His Feet’ by Dwight Garner
A few weeks ago my girlfriend Julie and I headed out to the wilderness of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia to spend the Fourth of July weekend together. I was excited; it’s been so nice to share in my love for the outdoors with someone who appreciates them as I do. I was even more excited because it was our first time backpacking together, and what better way to find out the health of one’s relationship than by driving hours into the woods of Georgia…in JULY, and spend the next few days hiking up and down mountains in the sweltering heat, avoiding bear attacks, not showering, getting stung by insects at all hours of the day, carrying backpacks that weigh as much as a nine year old child. So as one could imagine, this was going to be a great adventure, in every sense of the word.
I love the outdoors. I grew up walking the trails of the Cleveland Metroparks with my dad and brothers. I remember waking up to a floating sensation as the raft I was sleeping on while camping (for comfort), was now actually living into its created purpose of keeping me afloat during a downpour of rain in the middle of the night on top of our poorly maintained green tent that had seen a few too many years of service. But it was in college, specifically during my first summer of camp counseling at Camp Jewell YMCA in Connecticut, when I really fell in love. We spent the summer hiking, camping, canoeing, making fires, building shelters, and playing in the greatest God created playground that a person can ask for. I was hooked on the outdoors, and I am a better person for it.
Bill Bryson is a name that I came across while in college also as I first came across his book, ‘In a Sunburned Country’ while I was preparing for studies abroad in Australia. After reading his dry, sarcastic, hilarious accounts of not only his experiences, but also the history of the island nation of Australia, I knew I found an author I can celebrate. It wasn’t much longer afterward that I discovered ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and found a true kindred spirit.
So nearly 15 years later, I found myself listening to ‘A Walk in the Woods’ on my drive down from Virginia to Georgia, where I would meet Julie for the beginning of our own walk in the woods.
We headed onto the trail for a 30 mile trek over five day, four night adventure. I couldn’t help comparing our own experience that of Bryson. I could imagine his travel companion hurling random items off the trail in frustration over the weight of his pack and the unmerciful terrain one has to travel—I thought about it myself more than once. A tape played in my head over and over of his several paragraphs (pages, really) spent on recounting the horrific stories of bear attacks, as Julie and I slogged through the forest. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) Bryson never came across a confirmed bear sighting. We, on the other hand, happened upon a momma bear on day two digging for food while her two cubs climbed amongst the trees in an all day game of tag. Again, fortunate for us to see such a beautiful sight; unfortunate for us, to have momma bear get pretty aggressive towards us as unwelcome guests in these mountains.
Here’s what I really love about hiking: it’s so simple. Just about anyone can do it. I’m not the biggest, or fastest, or most adventurous, but I always enjoy hiking. Some people ask what you would do if you didn’t have to work for a living; I would hike every day. I love the simple beauty of the trees, streams, and vistas. I love the positive energy circulating through one’s body with the rhythm of walking the tree covered trails; the body positively responding to the exercise that will strengthen the muscles and relieve the tension from the long days at work. I love the fact that all you need to survive is on your back; it reminds you of just how little one truly needs in this world (a most valuable lesson for us in the developed world). Simple meals of peanut butter, oatmeal, and soup taste better on the trail. Sleep is more appreciated on the trail (though admittedly sometimes hard to come by). One can hear more subtly, smell more vibrantly, and fell more delicately on the trail.
When we live a simple life, somehow all this other ‘stuff’ just seems to float away into a larger, clearer understanding of how this world works—what is truly important. Believe it or not, life goes on whether or not we see every Instagram post from our friends in a given week. The weather will continue to change, whether you get regular updates on your phone or not. Sporting events will come and go. Horrible things will still happen in this world, and amazing things will still happen in this world.
Is it that we become a different person in the woods? I don’t think so. I think we remain just who we have always been; maybe we just are able to pull back the layers of ‘stuff’ that has attached to us over the previous weeks, months, and years. And if there is a good ‘product’ of the wilderness experience, maybe it’s being able to see others for who they really are, and even see yourself, perhaps for the first time, for who you really are.
Yes, we hiked for hours each day. Our feet ached. We sweat. We smelled. We were bitten by bugs all hours of the day. We ate simple meals. We slept on the ground. We climbed up mountains, and then down mountains. We did all of this every day, and then we repeated it over and over again. It’s what we did; we were hikers. And you know what? I can’t wait to do it again.