I haven't ever really had much interest in hiking though lately I've become slightly more interested in the idea of it - mostly in relation to day hikes in places like Hawaii, preferably planned by someone other than me. However, I've liked more of Bryson's work than I've disliked, and this is one of his more famous works. As can be expected from Bryson, it was filled with random information, some of it actually related to the topic, some of it a bit less so. There were also plenty of parts where he was making fun of himself, or others.
The premise of the book is that Bryson decides to walk the Appalachian Trail, and sells the idea to his editor. After inviting just about everyone on his mailing list to join, the only person to respond was Katz, previously mentioned in Neither Here Nor There (the one Bryson book I didn't like). Bryson considered himself a hiker based on his experiences in England, but quickly discovers that the Appalachian Trail is an entirely different endeavor. The adventure begins with his trip to camping store, where he gets his first real visual of the endeavor he is about to embark on. It seems Bryson's definition of hiking, based on the English country side, was rather similar to my idea - day trips with a possibly a nice dinner, and most definitely a room with a bed at the end. The Appalachian trail, on the other hand, involves camping, carrying your supplies with you, and four straight months of hiking, give or take. My idea of fun will never include sleeping in the woods (I had to do it as a cadet - although it probably is a bit less irritating when there aren't any guard duty shifts involved), and as a result, I really can't understand the people that go on hiking trips for months at a time. Nor do I quite understand what type of reality they live in where they can simply take off from their lives for four months or so at a time - are they rich? Are they hippies? Do they all have book deals? I thought I was lucky being able to take off 30 days in a row, and that's generally only because it's right after deployment or part of my PCS. Bryson also manages to scare himself with several books about bear attacks (are they still America's #1 enemy on The Colbert Report, it's been a long time since I've watched it regularly), and other crazy hiking incidents.
Bryson goes into the history of the trail, talks about many of the people he and Katz meets along the trail, and also just the excruciating beginning when he and Katz start their journey, both middle aged, one somewhat out of shape and the other incredibly out of shape. According to Bryson, the trail is an odd thing - it bypasses some of the best scenic views in the areas it is near. He also spends some time talking about certain park services efforts, some of which are amusingly ineffective while others are almost disastrous. Although Bryson planned to walk the entire trail, he soon realizes he may have overestimated himself as his mileage doesn't quite add up to his original plans. Eventually, Katz and Bryson decide to stop, and make plans to meet back at the end of the summer to hike the last part of the trail in Maine, which apparently is some of the more difficult terrain. I know some people are a bit critical of the book as a result, but I think if someone reads this book because they like Bill Bryson's other works and not because they are necessarily interested in hiking, they'll enjoy this. If they are looking for a guide to hiking the trail, they would probably learn some interesting facts, but should definitely read some other books as well. Since this was written in the mid 90s, I would be curious if anything has changed in the last 15 years. Obviously, hiking isn't an activity that has changed much over time with the exception of improved gear, but Bryson had mentioned that it had been becoming more popular with increasing numbers of through walkers finishing over the recent years. He also made a few complaints about technology on the trail, and given the current technology, I would be curious how many people use it as a chance to get away from it all, and how many try to document every single thing.