Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Walk in the Woods


Bill Bryson is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. He is wryly funny and observant, self-deprecating, able to puncture the pretensions of people wherever he travels. At one point in his life he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, which begins in northern Georgia and ends in Maine, almost at the Canadian border. (There is an extended trail that runs from Key West to the northern tip of Newfoundland!) He took a friend with him, Stephen Katz (not his real name) who was a continual pain in the ass.

I’ve read the book, and aside from what I mentioned in the paragraph above, almost everything else has been changed to one degree or another for the film version. I guess the major change has to do with ages. Bryson was forty-seven, recently returned to this country from a long residence in the UK. Robert Redford is seventy-nine (!), so it becomes a tale of two old codgers. Nothing really wrong with that, I guess. In both versions the men had something to prove, if only to themselves. And in the end, it wasn’t even necessary to make it all the way for them to feel they had done enough. I actually liked that. I’ve always sort of hoped that a certain percentage of Everest climbers get a few thousand feet from the top, take stock of their frostbitten toes and such, find that a lot of them are falling off, and say “Fuck this! I’m close enough!” In 1998 it was said that only one in ten of the “through-hikers” actually made it. These days the number is closer to 25%. It still means that most fall by the wayside … or see the silliness of trying to walk 2200 miles. That said, I have to admit that when I first heard of this trail, reading Bryson’s book, I sort of wished I had tried it myself when I was younger. Too late for that now.

The film itself is at its best when it glorifies the land itself, and that land is gorgeous. The actual story is mostly made up, things like falls and bear attacks. Redford and Nick Nolte are okay, bickering and male bonding. But this is a trifle, the least of an accidental trio of hiking films made in the last couple of years. (See Wild and Tracks.)