Four star review, originally posted here on June 1, 2018.
** spoiler alert ** This book was divided into 2 very distinct parts. I would give Part One 4.5 or 5 stars and Part Two 3 or 3.5 stars, so 4 seems like a fair average.
I believe that this is at least my 4th Bill Bryson book, and while I find all his books very entertaining, educational, and well-written, his travelogues suffer a little from the fact that Bryson seems to be a smug prick who you want to punch in the face. Bryson just complains about everyone and everything, mocks other people relentlessly, triumphs in his douchbaggery, and whines about how stupid everyone and everything is. If having a superior asshole as your narrator bothers you, then you may not like this book. I noticed this as a recurring theme in negative reviews of this book.
If you can get past that, though, then this book should suck you right in. I read the whole thing in just a few days. The best bits of this book about hiking the Appalachian Trail are the bits where, stay with me here, he is actually hiking the Appalachian Trail. The reader gets to go along on an adventure of extensive prepping, interacting with fellow hikers, learning about the environment, dealing with the beautiful monotony of a serious hike, etc. And for me the really shining moments were those involving Bryson’s travel companion Katz, whose ill preparation but determination plays against Bryson’s cockiness.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, after part 1 ends when,
They randomly stop hiking halfway through. Bryson never alerts us to the fact that the pair were only planning to hike half the trail, so it comes as a bit of a shock. And he never really explains this well; when did they decide on this plan? Was it from the start? Did you guys give up at some point? If the book is going to be about life on the trail, then the readers deserve to know what happened and when to commence on such a dramatic departure from the whole “Hike the Appalachian Trail” plan.
Katz goes home for a little while with a promise to return later to hike the last bit of trail. And Bryson comes up with some sort of weird “hike with a car” half-assed arrangement that leaves him essentially skipping over half the trail. We make a random stop on some decimated towns along the way that frankly deserve their own book instead of being shoehorned in as filler in a hiking book. Then Bryson does New England as a serious of pleasant no-pack day hikes where his wife packs him sandwiches and he gets to sleep in his own bed every night.
Things pick up again at the end with the re-arrival of Katz, when together the hiking buddies decide to cover the last couple hundred miles of trail in Maine. There is some legitimately enthralling drama that happens here, both man vs nature and man vs man, and you’re reminded at that point of just how much you missed the adventures from the 1st half of the book.
The main problem is that, despite fully acknowledging the disparity between his own experience and that of a real thru-hiker, Bryson’s book is just misleading. He could give us a taste of what a real Appalachian Trail experience is like by having hiked the first half of it, true, but half the experience is just plain missing. And that is not fair to those who DID stick it out and push all the way through. Bryson plays at humility here, but having listened to him being such a dick to everyone and everything for the last 200 pages, it doesn’t really come off as genuine.
Anyhoo, still definitely worth a read. But maybe skip ahead from the end of Part 1 until the last handful of chapters.