Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Blogger: Steve H.

We have a winner!
A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
OK, based on my last couple of posts I know you are probably starting to think that I don’t like any books, but you would be quite wrong. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is a nice, funny, easy, educational read that might even have you lacing up your hiking boots. The author returns home to America after nearly 20 years overseas and, having moved into a quaint home in New England, very near the Appalachian Trail, decides to hike it. No matter that he is in his forties and completely inexperienced in this sort of grueling adventure. Bryson enlists his friend Stephen Katz, also in his forties, overweight and even more inexperienced, and the two begin their ill-conceived trek. Along the way we are treated to not only Bryson’s trademark wit, but also the memoir’s true star, Katz. Man is this Katz funny! You’ll love the part where he goes shopping for the trip and stuffs his grocery cart full of Little Debbie’s and any other junk food he can find. Later in a hilarious moment we witness Katz furiously discarding his sweets and other useless products along the trail, in an effort to lighten his load. And the part where Katz is being hunted by a jealous husband for his flirtations with the man’s wife is great. Although the narrative about their hiking is by far the most entertaining, there is a lot of other great historical and social information in this book. We learn about the Forest Service and their inefficiencies, and their offer to Disney to build a theme park in Sequoia National Park, I’m not making this up. We learn about cities that have been burning underground for years. We learn that a blind person hiked the trail with the help of his seeing-eye dog! And we unfortunately learn too much about the earth’s formation and shifting plates, as Bryson ventures too close to the cusp of text book writing. About half way through the hike my hero Katz disappears from the story, as he has to fulfill a job requirement for the summer. At this point Bryson also leaves the journey and returns to Maine and does some day hikes, but the story loses its energy. It was during the phase when Bryson was doing solitary day hikes that he seemed to be stretching the story and using some filler, thus the geology lesson. Katz does return, and with a grand old idea involving newspaper delivery bags in place of hiking backpacks, oh that Katz! The dynamic duo makes a noticeably less vibrant effort this time around. They end up getting separated and lost, and soon decide it’s best to head home while still in one piece. Bryson tallies up their progress, and finds he did a very admirable 39.5% of the trail, or 870 miles. Not too bad for a couple of inexperienced 40-somethings.
On a side-note, last month I was on vacation in the Smoky Mountains and had the chance to walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail, a minute portion at that, as in I didn’t even make it the 1.7 miles from Newfound Gap Road to Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. After driving through the gorgeous mountains for about 45 minutes, my girlfriend and I were greeted to more beautiful views and a ridiculously inadequate rest stop parking lot at Newfound Gap. We made 3 passes without success at finding an open spot, and upon heading out of the lot found an oh so precious roadside spot a ¼ mile down. We hiked it back up to Newfound Gap and drank in the magnificent views. Then we hit the trail. I must say it’s a bipolar set-up. To the left, where we began our journey, armed with just a bottle of water and our newly bought hiking sticks, we took our first steps onto what we think may be the fabled trail. There are no signs on this portion, just a grassy area with a dirt line running through it. We walk about 15 minutes but agree it’s not quite what we expected. We can hear cars passing just 10 feet above our heads, where the road parallels the trail. This is not exactly Davey Crocket country. Crystal advances onward while I, your fretting guide, stares at the sky, growing greyer and greyer by the minute. Rain is predicted, and I, freshly scared by Bryson’s brush with self-perceived hypothermia, am alarmed that at these altitudes the weather may turn for the worse. Did I mention that the temperature at the onset was a scorching 84 degrees? I mean what am I thinking, if the temperatures plummet more than 40 degrees in the few minutes we are out there, I would say the world may be coming to an end and we have much bigger problems than hypothermia. In my paranoia, I have worn long pants and a sweatshirt, whereas Crystal has worn just a ¾ length get-up, and I am incessantly warning her, pestering her to watch out for poison ivy, which I have no idea what it looks like, and to be careful of the pointy green plants that may transmit their itchy toxins. Yes, I really know how to narrow things down don’t I. After taking the wrong turn at a split, we decide to head back and check out the other side of the trail. This is more what we expected, a big sign pointing to the trail next to the huge man-made overlook. We snap some pics and decide to trek it the 1.7 miles to Sweat Heifer Creek, and maybe head up to the other stops as well if we have time. This seems entirely reasonable. The weather has cleared and I am ensured we are safe. But this is much different terrain than the last segment. This has a more built-up feel, whereas the other portion was unspoiled. This is akin to climbing stairs, only spaced three feet apart and seemingly put together by a workforce of blind builders. Each step seems to be made for Andre the Giant. It does however offer better views but an increased traffic pattern. There are tourists like us, but also real through hikers, complete with crazy hair and beards. Almost all smile nicely and quickly move on. There are some though that ruin a great walk. If you have ever played golf or putt-putt and had a group playing up your rear, you know what I mean. They come out of nowhere, at first just a gaggle of voices, trailing maybe a hundred feet back, but before you know it they are just steps away, racing through and then just a blur in the distance. The trail is all uphill and does give you a workout. At times I am sucking in air, and dumbfounded as I see young couples hand in hand meandering past me whispering sweet nothings to one another. How can this be? Was it the 4 course southern meal at the Dixieland Stampede the previous night, consisting of a whole mini-chicken, soup, biscuits and gravy and apple cobbler, that is anchoring me down? Crystal too though seems to be racing onward with ease, and she too delighted in the same hardy meal. I struggle onward, and after approximately 45 minutes of hiking, we finally ask another couple coming down from our destination how much closer it is, and they say we are about halfway there. At this point it actually is beginning to get late and we decide that a nice soak in the outdoor hot tub back at the cabin is a grand idea. We switch directions and head it back on down. The going is better, but my toes begin to hurt, as the Columbia shoes I am wearing, bought ten years ago, must have shrunk at some point in the last decade, as in my wisdom I never thought to retry them on after unearthing them from their dust covered grave under my bed. Ultimately we make it back to the car, remarkably with no blisters, free of hypothermia and without a patch of itchy skin, but with a sense of achievement that we have indeed hiked a portion of the legendary AT.

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