Two Tales of Two Trails

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail have a few things in common–most notably, long trails and long titles–but are quite different books. Long walks in nature are right up an environmentalist’s alley, so despite the title of this blog, they were books I was excited about reading. Neither totally lived up to my expectations, but both were thought-provoking. Here are a few of those thoughts.

Wild

wild

I actually wrote an essay about fear and hiking once, so this book resonated with me. The overview is that the author decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail partly in an effort to deal with big stuff in her life–her childhood, her mother dying, her divorce, her drug problems–and she basically succeeds (“from lost to found” kind of gives it away). The point is not what she did in her past or goes on to do in her future; the point of the book lies squarely on the trail, on the self-discovery that takes place as she shoulders an ambitious pack and loses her toenails.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Strayed does not shy away from describing the physical discomfort and emotional disquiet of her trek. From my own hiking experience, I doubt she’s hyperbolic about her physical woes (especially considering she hadn’t broken in her boots and overpacked in the beginning). Among other things, she’s a somewhat petite female–just from trying on hiking backpacks at REI, I can tell you that it is very hard to find a pack that truly fits. And for reference, a long hike like the Pacific Crest Trail can require something like 50 pounds of supplies. Carrying 50 pounds is a much different experience for a 100-pound woman (like Strayed, or myself) than for a maybe 200-pound man (Bryson).

Solo-hiking as a youngish female is also an extremely different experience than hiking with a buddy as a middle-aged man (Bryson). At times I felt that Strayed’s story verged on the repetitive: she was anxious, then she had a physical complaint, then she has some anecdotal experience with someone at one of the trail stops while resupplying, then she’s anxious again, etc. I think the book could have been much shorter and just as effective, perhaps even more intense. And the experience was an intense one.

A Walk in the Woods

AWITW

A Walk in the Woods is a book I’ve been meaning to read since reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue in high school. Bryson’s tone is light and clear, mixing detailed factual information and humorous personal observation in down-to-earth, easily digestible prose. So, that’s good. And if you’re looking for a general-interest book about the Appalachian Trail, it’s a solid choice. Living rather close to the Trail and having friends who have hiked portions of it, I’m not as bowled over by the history of the trail as maybe I could be.

Bryson has a book contract before he steps out, so he has a lot of the mental load taken off him–one of the biggest worries plaguing Strayed during her walk is money: she uses basically all her savings, carefully meted out along the trail, to do the hike, and she’s doing it on a budget. It might seem like hiking is always a budget activity, but there are still options. While Bryson spends many nights in trail shelters, there are also more days in hotels and more solid meals than Strayed records. He doesn’t spend outrageously, but the small luxuries add up–and the apparent freedom of his budget is a huge luxury.

Bryson also decides to section-hike and skip large portions of the trail, so it’s important to note that this book is not about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but is rather about the Trail itself–as an experience, as something of a natural wonder. This gives A Walk in the Woods a more varied structure so I found it to be a slightly more engaging book. There is more history and a wider range of information–in a journalistic vein–than Strayed provides about the PCT, although it should be noted that she also includes this sort of information.

While I did enjoy AWITW, I was a little bored in the end. As far as I can tell, Bryson doesn’t “rediscover America on the Appalachian Trail,” he just walks a little bit, gets somewhat bored by trees, and spends some strange weeks with a friend who volunteered to go along with him. It’s very tame. That’s not to say there isn’t interesting information about the Trail in here, and it’s funnier than your average trail guide. But it’s not a trail guide, and it’s not a particularly good story.

And then what…? 

Neither book totally lived up to my expectations. That’s not to say they’re not worth reading; they are. However, don’t push them to the top of your list. If it comes down to getting out and actually hiking or reading one of these books, hiking would be far more worthy of your time and effort. But for most of us, dropping everything and hiking for several months is something that–at the very least–would require significant life rearranging. In the meantime, we can get two tastes of very different trail experiences through these voices.

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