Wednesday 22 May 2013

Bill Bryson- Funniest Guy on Earth? My thoughts.

I just read Simon's of Stuck in a Book's post (here) about having difficulty coming at books that get so much media hype and stay at the top of best seller's lists.  I have always been a bit like this with Bill Bryson.  I just finished A Walk in the Woods by him published in 1998.  This one will do nicely for that year on my Century of Books Challenge.

I decided to get this from the library when I saw it on the shelf for the main reason I do love travel stories.  I also enjoy travel tales especially if by foot, bicycle or motorbike.  The Appalachian Trail has always appealed to me.  I have not been on it personally but I do remember travelling the Blue Ridge Parkway once. We also visited the beautiful White Mountains in New Hampshire a long time ago. Oh, yes and I remember my husband and I spent a disastrous honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains in a tent outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the pouring rain about 42 years ago.  So it is an area of the USA I am familiar with.

I decided I'd give this book my standard 60 to 100 pages and by page 5 I had tears in my eyes from laughter. I have read Bryson's  The Lost Continent about his childhood in the midwest and found that extremely funny yet by the end of it I thought there was just too much "funny."  I was getting weary.  Sometimes I think a good thing can be overdone.   I didn't find that concept quite so much in the reading of this book. I felt he wasn't looking for a laugh a minute through out the entire book.

I enjoyed his research about the trail and learned quite a bit of historical facts about the area and I laughed at his description of preparing for the trip and what to do if he encountered bears.  Encounters with bears were very much on his mind in the days leading up to the beginning of his journey.

For those who aren't familiar with this tale Bill Bryson decides to walk the 2200 miles distance of the Appalachian Trail that begins in the state of Georgia in the southern USA and finishes in New Hampshire in the northeast of the country. There are many mountain ranges and dark forests to traverse and it is possible to encounter bears, mountain lions and other very strange humans.  He was walking through 'Deliverance' country after all in parts of northern Georgia.

As he began thinking of the enormous scope of this project he decided to send out a note in his Christmas cards asking if anyone would go with him.  No one responded but later an old mate of his, Stephen Katz, thereafter known as just Katz,  whom he hadn't seen in more than 25 years rang up out of the blue and said he'd love to go.  Bryson grew up with Katz in Iowa and only had young adult/childhood memories of him.

The first question Bryson asked Katz was, " What kind of shape are you in?" The reply, "Real good. I walk everywhere these days."  "Really?" This is most unusual in America.  "Well they repossessed my car, you see." "Ah."

Several weeks later Bryson and his wife picked him up from the airport in New Hampshire where he lives.

Katz was arrestingly larger than when I had last seen him. He had always been kind of fleshy, but now he brought to mind Orson Welles after a very bad night. He was limping a little and breathing harder than one ought to after a walk of 20 yards. "Man, I'm hungry," he said without preamble, and let me take his carry on bag, which instantly jerked my arm to the floor. "What have you got in here?" I gasped. "Ah just some tapes and shit for the trail. There a Dunkin' Donuts anywhere around here? I haven't had anything to eat since Boston." 
"Boston? You've just come from Boston?" "Yeah, I gotta eat something every hour or so or I have, whaddayacallit, seizures." This wasn't quite the reunion scenario I had envisioned. I imagined him bouncing around on the Appalacian Trail like some wind-up toy that had fallen on its back."

They were about to be immersed into the wilderness in three days time so this pretty much gives you an idea of what this trek may be about.

I think a lot of people have romantic ideas of adventures on long walking trails maybe on the Appalachian Trail or across the UK or somewhere in Europe and whenever I think of trips such as this I think of really wild wilderness.  Okay, there were bears and other animals they were likely to run into but the number of people they encountered really put me off.   If I'm going to walk in the wilderness I don't want to run into a lot of people. I don't want to have to stay in the hut I'm told to stay in and I certainly wouldn't want to be told where I had to pitch my tent.  But the rules and regulations of this trip due to overpopulation and regulations by the National Park Service put me off ever wanting to do it.

I think that is probably due to my mindset now I am no longer only an American, plain and simply, but an American Australian being more Australian these days having lived here so long.  Here when you're in the wilderness you're in the wilderness whether it be rain forest or outback.  You don't run into other people. Perhaps you'd want to run into one or two, especially if they knew where they were and had great map reading skills and big bottles of water. But other than that wilderness here is really wilderness. You can always tell true wilderness here b/c some idiot will want to put a mine in the middle of it or cut all the trees down and you'll probably only see people who will be living in the trees to stop that.  The other thing I found really disconcerting about Bryson's trip is they came to highways a lot.  One minute in the middle of nowhere and the next there was a highway.

I loved his commentary (mostly negative) about the cutbacks in the American Parks services and the history of the tree felling in North America in general.  I also agreed with his environmental views and felt his angst at how so much of the wonderful North American wilderness has been developed especially with so many roads going everywhere and recreational developments.  At least Australia hasn't caught up with that yet but give them time and some more people and I can see it happening here as well.

But I digress.  I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the descriptions of the people he met. I felt like I was with him as I walked the trail. I admired the stamina of both of them especially Katz. I really didn't think Katz was going to last but to his credit he did quite well.  Some of the people they met on the trail and in the small towns they sheltered in were hilarious. The conditions were atrocious at times and yet they kept walking.

Bryson knows how to describe people and make each individual really stand out and his knowledge of the area was impressive. He'd done his homework.  He perhaps could have had a bit less of the evangelising regarding the environmental concerns. I got that pretty quickly but overall I enjoyed his writing and no one could doubt his passion for the environment.

If you've been in a funk and need something to make you laugh and see the ridiculousness in life then I feel Bryson could be your man.

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