Returning home to the U.S. after 20 years in England as a popular humor writer, Bill Bryson made a startling observation: Nobody here walks anymore. "You'll see people out sort of walking with little dumbbells," says Bryson, 46. "But if you have an errand to run, you grab the car keys."
His solution? Take a hike—or rather, tackle what may be the world's most famous hiking path, a trying trek he recounts in A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway, $25). Bryson got the idea after spying a marker for the some 2,100-mile national treasure near his home in Hanover, N.H., though he admits with a chuckle, "I had never pitched a tent in my life." Leaving behind his wife, Cynthia, 44, and their four children, Bryson gamely hoofed north from the trail's southernmost point in Georgia. Along the way, Bryson says, he learned to appreciate small pleasures: "a shower, hot meal, pillow—things we all take for granted." Fearing bears, he instead ran across colorful characters and awesome vistas. And though Bryson quit after just 870 miles, he still walks tall. "I found an America," he says, "that I didn't even know was out there."