Books: Destiny calls. Don't wait supper

A WALK IN THE WOODS by Bill Bryson, Doubleday pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Bill Bryson is a publishing phenomenon. His last two books, The Lost Continent and Notes From a Small Island, have glued themselves into the paperback bestseller lists for month after month: the former for several years, in fact. We can safely assume that he is a very, very rich man - far too rich to bother (mid-life crises aside) with the high-grade agonies and low-level ecstasies of the Appalachian Trail, that grandaddy of all hiking tracks that runs for more than 2000 miles up the eastern seaboard of America.

Yet this is the setting of his new book. Home in his native America, Bryson decided to go for a very, very long walk - from Georgia to Maine, through 14 states, over several mountain ranges, within biting, stinging and murdering distance of "rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves and wild boar; loonie hillbillies destabilised by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, merciless fire-ants and ravening blackfly..." and more. Trembling with fear of blisters, marauding beasts and hiking-bores, he found a way of composing a love- song to his native land.

To the land, that is: not to the people. And there lies the answer, perhaps, to something I've been wondering about. Bryson's mega-success has always been a mystery to me: something other people understood, like the off-side rule. As a travel writer, social commentator and jockey of the Zeitgeist he isn't particularly original or perceptive; he's only occasionally funny, and he is dedicated to stereotypes. In Paris he finds rude, shrugging Parisians. On the English coast he finds B&B landladies with their hair in curlers hanging out furry nylon sheets. Is he living in a time-warp? But the great and enduring pull of Bryson, I now realise, is his relentless, heart-felt, low-level misanthropy. It is like being stuck in a traffic-jam with the kind of driver who thinks everyone else on the road is an imbecile. After a bit, it's quite entertaining. You're landed with it until the traffic moves , so you might as well laugh.

"I have long known," he tells us early on, "that it is part of God's plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth." He then proceeds to inflict quite a number of them on us. Most important is his travelling companion on this mighty walk, Stephen Katz, a sad and pudgy ex-drunk with two great advantages: he is the only person foolish enough to accompany Bryson on his hike, and he is such a perfect straightman for Bryson's comic act that if he hadn't existed Bryson would have had to make him up. Perhaps he did. It doesn't matter: travels with an aunt, or a donkey, have been superseded by travels with an Idiot-Friend, preferably breathless and complaining and with an unhappy home-life, and in Katz Bryson provides us with a plum specimen.

"Are you sure you're up for this?" Bryson asks during their first phone call (the first for many years). "Absolutely." "What kind of shape are you in?" "Real good. I walk everywhere these days." "Really?" This is most unusual in America. "Well, they repossessed my car, you see."

The Appalachian Trail (or AT, as we experts call it) naturally attracts a host of equipment-bores, but Bryson is more than a match for them. "What made you buy a Gregory pack?" asked one. "Well, I thought it would be easier than carrying everything in my arms," Bryson quips back, quick as a flash. The trouble with describing bores, though, is that they're boring.

Along the weary, foot-sore miles, at each damp campsite or gulag-like shelter, or while leaning on a stump waiting for fatty Katz to catch up, Bryson regales us with his research. Goodness, he has done his work. Facts and figures pour out: "The Smokies harbour ... over 1500 types of wild flower, 1000 varieties of shrub, 530 misses and lichen, 2000 types of funghi. They are home to 130 native species of tree..." Historical personalities appear: the "inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau" or "Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters". He gives a lively description of death by hypothermia. His pages bulge with geology, anthropology, sociology, botany, hypochondria. The manpower, road-building exploits and moral turpitude of the National Park authorities, which outstrip those of many medium-sized countries, are given their full statistical due, while Bryson deplores their carelessness of the precious land in their charge. Much of the information is interesting in itself, but it has been crudely stirred into the mixture. And when Bryson feels himself getting boring he simply ducks out by means of remarks like "I'm no geologist, God knows", or "That's enough science for one chapter".

But there's no doubting that Bryson loves his country, and this is the real charm of the book. His is a romantic soul, and he went to revel in the wilderness. The exquisite horror of small towns en route, into which he and Katz stumbled in search of baths and hamburgers and beer, with their neon-strip acres of carpark and their wobbling pear-shaped inhabitants, evokes the full force of Bryson's loathing of his fellow American. No wonder the most lyrical passages in his new book are those in which he describes the vast acreage of America that still has no people in it at all.