Bill Bryson speaks to The Adelaide Review about A Walk in the Woods, motor-centric lifestyles and being back in Australia 15 years after the release of his travel memoir Down Under.
In the closing pages of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, boarding-house mistress Mrs Bishop says, “I read in the paper the other day that a man from Portland hiked Katahdin to celebrate his 78th birthday.” To this, Bryson’s travelling companion Stephen Katz replies: “I expect I’ll be ready to try again by then.” At 78, Robert Redford is defending Katz’s words, taking A Walk… back to the Appalachian Trail and putting the journey on film. It is a tricky book to adapt as it demands a balance between Bryson’s adventures with Katz, Bryson’s solo travels, and snippets of the Trail’s environmental and social history. The screenwriters saved themselves some trouble by scrapping half of the first, all of the second and burying most of the third. Regardless, Bryson is satisfied. “The one thing you know when you’ve got Robert Redford making a movie is that it’s going to be an intelligent movie and he will put intelligent things into it, but I was very curious to see how you would do that and make it feel as if it’s a natural part of the narrative,” Bryson tells The Adelaide Review. “I thought they did that very well; the movie didn’t come across as too preachy or anything like that.” While not preachy, the writing sadly lacks the neat charm of Bryson’s original. A Walk… dips in and out of educational commentary with an admirable subtlety. For example, the book explains in fluid prose the plight of the perambulating American, who, at a stretch, may squeeze a colossal 350 yards of walking into their day. On screen, Redford blusters: “Americans need to walk more!” It isn’t the most graceful translation. Still, Americans do need to walk more, says Bryson, who is utterly puzzled by his US counterparts’ inability to see walking as a mode of transport. A Walk… is dotted with observations on motor-centric living, and Bryson says that the situation remains largely unchanged. He still believes US National Parks are designed to better cater for “tourists in motor homes” and “people who are buying in bulk; they’re for people who actually exist in bulk – Americans who live behind the wheel of their car”. This vehicular preference is something Bryson “resented” when he hiked the Trail, and something that stings him now. “Walking around an Australian city is a comparatively joyous experience to the States. Pedestrians are treated as at least as important as motorists, and I think that’s as it should be,” he says. “You’ve got this very strange situation in America,” Bryson goes on. “A lot of Americans are very fit; we’re not all overweight and obese, but even very fit Americans tend not to walk for day-to-day living. What they’ll do is get in their car, they’ll drive to a gym and they’ll do powerwalking on a treadmill, or a program of walking where a computer gives them certain amounts of elevation and that sort of thing… I do think that the American lifestyle has pretty much anaesthetised people into not walking any more for practical purposes.” It’s not only attitudes towards walking that are getting worse. Later this year, Bryson will publish The Road to Little Dribbling, a sequel of sorts to 1995’s Notes from a Small Island. The forthcoming memoir will revisit the Britain of Notes… after two decades, the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings and the GFC. Not to spoil the story, but Bryson was a little disappointed by what he found. Similarly, Bryson penned a travel memoir of Australia 15 years ago. Down Under was a delight, but the book he would write today would be quite different. “It’s interesting to see that the same sorts of things that are happening in England, [things] that I find slightly distressing, appear to be happening here,” says Bryson. “Essentially, I think the world is getting a lot more hard-hearted, and I think that’s sadly true of Australia right now, just in terms of turning back the ‘boat people’ and embracing austerity … I was slightly surprised to see that, but that’s certainly the way that Britain is going as well, and I think it’s very much the way the whole of Europe is going. I see that Australia is doing it and, well, I was slightly saddened to see that.” https://youtu.be/suK1e_3zNHg A Walk in the Woods will be in cinemas from Thursday, September 3. walkinthewoodsmovie.com