Time now to introduce you to the best book I’ve never read! Though I have listened to William Roberts’s audio narration 3 times. I’ve never bought a paper copy because I’m waiting for someone to publish a special edition complete with pictures of the locations. That way I can kid myself that I, too, have walked (some of) the 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. (Publishers, please take note.)
Which is something that the intrepid Bill Bryson set out to do when in his mid-forties. Inspiration came from the trail itself, which runs very close to his home in Hanover. He started researching, and quickly decided that this was no undertaking to be taken on alone. (All those tales of hikers killed by bears, or murdered by fellow humans.) He advertised for a hiking companion. There were no takers for months, until a call out of the blue, and Bryson found himself approaching the challenge with his former travelling companion, Stephen Katz. (If you’ve read Neither Here nor There, you’ll know they ended up despising each other after that trip to Europe.)
When Katz arrives, overweight, a recovering alcoholic, and in worse shape than Bryson himself, you know that the terrain may not just be the greatest challenge they are going to face …
Bryson interweaves the hike with short sections of natural history and ecology, which never outstay their welcome. But the interactions between him and Katz, and others they meet along the way are pure comedy gold. Mary Ellen and Chicken John are unforgettable, though for entirely different reasons.
The Appalachian Trail is both the star and the villain of the piece. The undertaking to walk its entire length is abandoneed when two realise just how far they haven’t come after a number of weeks. The plan changes. They agree to abandon the Smokies (the weather, the rain getting the better of them), skip a bit, then take a break while Bryson goes on book tour, meet up again to finish off with the hundred mile wilderness in Maine …
… which nearly finishes them off!
All in all, I would say they made a valiant attempt. Hiking 870 miles of the AT is no mean feat! And I’ll say one thing, I’m glad I never tried it! Bryson does not paint this with rose-tinted glasses. His narrative voice is curmudgeonly, as he bewails the inadequacies of the maps, the shelters, his travelling companion …
but he was funny and marvellous company as I (now loathe to use the word hike) wandered through the gently undulating Lanarkshire woods during lockdown.
I frequently laughed out loud – just as well I had the woods mostly to myself. No bears, moose or other dangerous creatures to fear in my neck of the woods. Just an unexpected elephant peeking out from the bushes ….
The film was sometime in the making. Robert Redford first announced that he would star as Bryson in 2005. The film, for once reason or another, didn’t get made for another 9 years, which might explain why I thought Redford at the age of 78, “too weathered” for the part. Katz was played by a 73-year Nick Nolte. Am I allowed to say that these days? I’m not being ageist, just saying that I found it hard to suspend my disbelief. (Although the oldest person to thru-hike the AT did so at the age of 82. So maybe my imagination should stretch a lot further.)
The script also concatenated the timeline. I’ve no problem with that, because it did include the most memorable episodes and plenty of wonderful scenic shots. I didn’t like the injection of smaltziness though. Nor the episode which brought the hike to an end, which although it remained true to the feelings both hikers had at the end of their adventure, completely lacked the nuance of the original. Filmwise it was certainly more dramatic, but … no, just no.
Film 3* gives a good, if sanitised idea of what hiking the trail would be like. Audio book 5* (3 times!)