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Archive for Thursday, June 10, 1999

A WALK IN THE WOODS

June 10, 1999

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Bill Bryson

"A Walk in the Woods," now available in paperback (Broadway Books, $11), has found its way into bookstore travel sections.

That's because the book, via the George Plimptonesque tales of author Bill Bryson, takes you on an often side-splitting hike along the more-than-2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.

But here's the thing, to mimic a succinct phrase Bryson often uses to signal that a point to ponder lies just up yonder: "A Walk in the Woods" is more suited for the couch potato than the trail-seasoned hiker. While the latter may be inclined to dismiss Bryson's wilderness-survival tips as old hat, and his daily treks as walks in the park, the reader who's more likely to suffer sofa sores than blistered feet will enjoy the vicarious trip.

Thanks to Bryson's scholarly-yet-folksy style and many hilarious subjects -- from Katz, his almost-reformed-alcoholic sidekick, to Mary Ellen, an annoying tag-along who Bill and Katz give the slip to -- any couch potato who starts reading this book is certain to be transformed. Into a couch hiker.

Indeed, this book will make you want to race home from work, put on your hiking PJs and rejoin Bill and Katz on the trail. You'll enjoy vivid descriptions of places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Mount Katahdin without risking Lyme disease, blood-thirsty bears or, as Bryson puts it, "loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex."

But here's the risk: Bryson may shame you off your duff and at least around the block a few times.

"Now here's a thought to consider," he writes. "Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. " On average the total walking of an American these days " adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That's ridiculous."

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson lived for 20 years in England, where he wrote travel memoirs and books on the language, which accounts for his abilities as a wordsmith. A recent move to New Hampshire accounts for the hiker who hits his stride as we follow him through 274 pages. As fate would have it, Bryson happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of his new hometown. A sign announced that this was no ordinary footpath but the celebrated Appalachian Trail.

Before Bryson and Katz hit that trail, they take us to an outfitting store, providing a valuable primer for greenhorns. The pair's first day on the trail, a trying climb up Springer Mountain, is good background for the novice and is laugh-out-loud funny, as well. Witness this morning-after conversation between Bryce and Katz, who discovered a unique way to lighten his pack:

"Is there a reason why you are filtering the coffee with toilet paper?" "I, oh " I threw out the filter papers." "They couldn't have weighed two ounces." "I know, but they were great for throwing. Fluttered all over. "" "What about some of that cheese?" "Flung." "Peanuts?" "Flung." "Spam?" "Really flung."

Thrown in along the way are some insightful commentaries on conservation and bungling governmental agencies.

"In fact, mostly what the Forest Service does is build roads. I am not kidding. There are 378,000 miles of roads in America's national forests. " The reason the Forest Service builds these roads, quite apart from the deep pleasure of doing noisy things in the woods with big yellow machines, is to allow private timber companies to get to previously inaccessible stands of trees. " Between 1989 and 1997, it lost an average of $242 million a year. " This is all so discouraging that I think we'll leave it here and return to our two lonely heroes trudging through the lost world of the Chattahoochee."

If you hurry, you can catch them.

-- Rob Roberts' phone message number is 832-7190. He can be e-mailed at jroberts@ljworld.com.

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