For reasons I can’t explain, because they’re aren’t any, I took it into my head to drop almost all else and read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I got Bryson because I was fairly sure he’d write well and I’ve never read him though I long meant to. I read all kinds of negative reviews of Strayed to try to convince myself not to read the book. I mean, she named herself Strayed because she had. How dumb is that? It didn’t work, I bought both and read them in parallel.
They are similar in a number of ways because they’re both about newish hikers hiking one of the great American trails. Bryson hiked the Appalachian trail and Strayed the Pacific Crest. Neither hiked the whole thing, but both hiked a large section. Strayed had never done anything remotely like it before as evidenced by the very large number of elementary mistakes she made. To her credit, she’s honest about this, but on the other hand, it seemed as though she was incapable of understanding certain basic principles which I, though not a hiker at all, grasp easily.
First off, you want your pack to be as light as possible. You need a lot of equipment and there’s only so much you can do, but you do all you can to make your pack lighter. She couldn’t even lift it at first. She didn’t practice at all. To set out on a hundred day hike without having walked even a mile with your equipment is nuts. Bryson was more sensible of all this and yet he makes the decision not to bring some of the food. His hiking partner, called Katz, in a fit tosses more of it aside on the trail in exasperation. How they managed to hike subsisting on raisins and noodles, I don’t know. Katz, also, had no hiking experience. Strayed at least had grown up in Minnesota and waited tables so she was used to being on her feet. Bryson had walked around England, which is apparently quite different. Strayed’s worst error in my view was not getting shoes that fit. Walking in the wrong shoes is misery anywhere, setting out into the wilderness with the wrong shoes is beyond misery. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. How do you get to the age of 26 and not know your shoes need to fit especially if you’re planning to walk a thousand miles in them?
Both did their hikes in the 90s. Both books are around 300 pages and padded. Strayed discusses her life before the hike in great detail – her parents’ flaws, her own, her sex life, her experience with heroin, and most of all her great grief at the loss of her mother. All this is what got her most of the bad reviews, but also probably what attracted Oprah and made the book a best seller. I feel like reading those reviews rather ruined any chance I had of offering an objective opinion on all this, so I don’t think I will. I knew pretty much all the stories she told from spoilery reviews and have no idea how I would have reacted to them if I didn’t. I found her highly readable in general though I tended to read the hiking parts more closely and got close to skimming her life stories.
Bryson pads because once they reach Gatlinburg and he realizes graphically how little of the truly enormous trail they’ve covered, they skip ahead. And then, after Virginia both have to get back to work for a while and plan to meet again and finish Maine. Bryson faffs about taking short day hikes in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. He has a lot of interesting stories about how people have died in the wilderness, the history of the trail and depressing stories about how we’re destroying nature even as we make a half-assed effort to preserve it. Honestly, once your past your twenties its much harder to find four to six months solely for hiking. Bryson makes a living off writing books of this sort and Strayed was a recently divorced waitress who wanted to make a break with her old life.
But when it comes to the hiking, their stories are similar and they make it quite clear this is no walk in the park. The Pacific Crest trail seems more arduous, further from civilization, just generally harder, but the Appalachian trail is plenty hard enough. Heck, if it was a cement walkway lined with inns for 2100 miles that would still be hard. That’s a long ass way. Carrying all your stuff on your back is hard. Trudging mile after mile is hard. Realizing after you’ve trudged a hundred miles you’re only a small fraction of the way. The weather on both trails goes from freezing snow to 100 degree broiling. Planning your food and water to last long enough yet not carry more than you need is also hard. The apparently constant ravenous hunger and bone-deep aching exhaustion. It seems a perfectly insane thing to do, walk from Georgia to Maine or the Western equivalent. And yet, I can also see the appeal: the warmth and friendship of other trail hikers, trail angels, becoming a part of nature, seeing the country in a way that few people do. On the other hand, sometimes it seems simply like an exercise in deprivation so you’ll appreciate the comforts of civilization more.
I enjoyed both books although I still don’t know why I read them. But I guess that doesn’t matter. I do wonder why it took her fifteen years to write this book. It apparently made the New York Times reviewer cry. Huh. I guess he identified a lot more than I did. You’ve been warned.