The Appalachian Trail—from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Me.—consists of some five million steps, and Bryson (Notes from a Small Island, 1996, etc.) seems to coax a laugh, and often an unexpectedly startling insight, out of each one he traverses.
It’s not all yuks—though it is hard not to grin idiotically through all 288 pages—for Bryson is a talented portraitist of place. He did his natural-history homework, which is to say he knows a jack-o-lantern mushroom from a hellbender salamander from a purple wartyback mussel, and can also write seriously about the devastation of chestnut blight. He laces his narrative with gobbets of trail history and local trivia, and he makes real the “strange and palpable menace” of the dark deep woods in which he sojourns, the rough-hewn trailscape “mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one has ever used or coveted,” celebrating as well the “low-level ecstasy” of finding a book left thoughtfully at a trail shelter, or a broom with which to sweep out the shelter’s dross. Yet humor is where the book finds its cues--from Bryson’s frequent trail companion, the obese and slothful Katz, a spacious target for Bryson’s sly wit, to moments of cruel and infantile laughs, as when he picks mercilessly on the witless woman who, admittedly, ruined a couple of their days. But for the most part the humor is bright sarcasm, flashing with drollery and intelligence, even when it’s a far yodel from political sensitivity. Then Bryson will take your breath away with a trenchant critique of the irredeemably vulgar vernacular strip that characterizes many American downtowns, or of other signs of decay he encounters off the trail (though the trail itself he comes to love).
“Walking is what we did,” Bryson states: 800-plus out of the 2,100-plus miles, and that good sliver is sheer comic travel entertainment.