Back in the United States after 20 years in Great Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes
— and to a writer with the comic timing of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings.
For a start there’s the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the hike, the primary foil for Bryson’s wit. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud trek. Bryson’s acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America’s last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration
— A Walk in the Woods is all of the above.
Most of what I had heard about Bryson’s book was it’s laugh-a-minute tone about two buffoons who entered this grand task totally unprepared. It was all that to be sure, but what I found unexpectedly was an education about the wilderness and its surroundings. From the National Park Service’s penchant for destroying that which they were chartered to protect, to the 19th century botanists who discovered and named more than a thousand plants and flowers, or the Civil War significance of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the plight of Centralia, PA, a town that is likely to burn for the next thousand years.
In the beginning Bryson went back and forth with himself trying to decide if he truly wanted to tackle this adventure:
I formed a number of rationalizations. It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land. It would be useful to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.”
Ultimately, he talked himself into it, and even managed to convince an unlikely participant to join him; the sweaty, slovenly, overweight, recovering alcoholic Katz. There are some who say that Katz didn’t really exist, that he was simply a fictitious character invented as a backboard for Bryson’s humor. Regardless, Katz was always at the center of the danger, the playfulness, and the stupidity
— like when the men went to the store for food supplies and Katz returned with pounds and pounds of Little Debbie snack cakes:
I packed for two hours, but I couldn’t begin to get everything in. I put aside books and notebooks and nearly all of my spare clothes, and tried lots of different combinations, but every time I finished I would turn to find something large and important left over. Notably, the oatmeal, which I didn’t like anyway, and the more disgusting looking of the Little Debbie cakes, which is to say all of them.
Despite the misgivings, the ineptitude, the poor planning and the total fear of the unknown, Bryson and Katz somehow managed to make their way to Springer Mountain in Georgia to begin the arduous journey northward. Before they even changed states they encountered a crippling snow storm, the realization that they were still carrying entirely too much crap, and a sudden wherewithal to endure these harshest of conditions.
As I mentioned above, I was impressed with the historical research Bryson undertook as he was penning this tale of his adventure. Some of what he found didn’t put various government agencies in especially flattering light. For example, when he skewered the National Forest Service:
A lot of people, seeing the word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees. Private companies would be granted leases to extract minerals and harvest timber, but they would be required to do so in a restrained, intelligent, sustainable way. In fact, however, what the Forest Service does is build roads. I am not kidding. There are 378,000 miles of roads in America’s national forests. It is eight times the total mileage of America’s interstate highway system.
and this anecdote from the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountains:
The Park Service in 1957 decided to “reclaim” Abrams Creek, for rainbow trout, even though rainbow trout had never been native to Abrams Creek. To that end, biologists dumped several drums of a poison called rotenone into 15 miles of the creek. Within hours, tens of thousands of dead fish were floating on the surface like autumn leaves. Among the 31 species of fish that were wiped out was one called the smoky madtom, which had never been seen before. Thus the Park Service biologists managed the wonderfully unusual accomplishment of discovering and eradicating in the same instant a new species of fish.
To his credit, Bryson later went on to acknowledge that the contemporary Park Service has learned from its early mistakes and has a better plan for managing the precious resources they are charged with protecting. The problem, in 1998 when Bryon wrote this book, and even more profound today is simply a lack of funds.
And so, many of these great lands and wildernesses in our parks and forests are falling into serious decay because of the huge backlog of restoration and conservation activities that are required. The Forest Service and Park Service have learned over the decades what not to do, and now what to do, but they simply can’t because there is nowhere near enough money allocated by Congress. As a result, more plant and wildlife species die, and perhaps important medicine goes undiscovered.
After several weeks on the Appalachian Trail, Bryson became impressed with its awesome venerability. “Consider this,” he said, “Half of all the offices and malls standing in America today have been built since 1980.”
Now compare all this with the Appalachian Trail. At the time of our hike, the Appalachian Trail was 59 years old. The Oregon and Santa Fe Trails didn’t last as long. Route 66 didn’t last as long. The old coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway that became known as “America’s Main Street” didn’t last as long. Nothing in America does. If a product or enterprise doesn’t constantly reinvent itself, it is cast aside. And then there is the good old AT still quietly ticking along after six decades, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.
When you’re on the AT, the forest is your universe, infinite and entire. Eventually it is about all you can imagine. You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape as far as the eye can see, the forest rules.
But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Dunkin Donuts, Blockbusters, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.
The Appalachian Trail changes you. Bryson came to love, and at the same time hate, the solitude, the “green tunnel,” the expansive sweeping vistas. He was delighted to be away from the trappings of modern civilization. As happens to many of us when we get away from the concrete and steel, he was totally transformed by the wild places and wild things he encountered. He said, “If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy
— something we could all do with more of in our lives.”
I know this is a spoiler, but c’mon folks, this book has been out for 16 years. Eventually Bryson and Katz realized they were physically incapable of completing the entire 2,000+ miles of the AT, so they made a few jumps forward by rental car, skipping large swaths of natural beauty along the way. Finally, too, they gave up entirely. As Bryson put it, “That was the trouble with the AT – it was all one immensely long place, and there was more of it, infinitely more of it, than I could ever conquer. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit. Quite the contrary. I was happy to walk, keen to walk. I just wanted to know what I was doing out here.”
After Bryson and Katz parted ways just north of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, they vowed to get back together in late summer and hike the daunting Hundred Mile Wilderness through the heart of Maine. In the meantime, Bryson tried a kind of car-section-hiking of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sections of the AT. It only took 4-5 days for him to realize that was no fun. It just wasn’t the same as living on the trail.
Through the rest of the summer he hiked various portions of the trail, in Massachussetts and Vermont, even tackling some of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. When he reunited with Katz in southern Maine, he told the story of one of his favorite experiences of all, upon encountering a moose by a stream:
It is an extraordinary experience to find yourself face-to-face in the woods with a wild animal that is very much larger than you. We stared at each other for a good minute, neither of us sure what to do. There was a certain obvious and gratifying tang of adventure in this, but something also much more low-key and elemental
—a kind of respectful mutual acknowledgment that comes with sustained eye contact. It was this that was unexpectedly thrilling
—the sense that there was in some small measure a salute in our cautious mutual appraisal. I was smitten.
Bryson learned a lot about himself along the way. He learned a lot about the Appalachian Trail, and about the America that surrounds it and is totally oblivious to what happens within its narrow path. He had mixed feelings, and mixed blessings, but ultimately a grand sense of accomplishment.
I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. I wanted to quit and do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see another hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.
We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.
William McGuire “Bill” Bryson, (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and science. Born in America, he was a resident of Britain for most of his adult life before returning to the U.S. in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to Britain, living in the old rectory of Wramplingham, Norfolk, and served as chancellor of Durham University from 2005 through 2011.
Bryson shot to prominence in the United Kingdom with the publication of Notes from a Small Island (1995), an exploration of Britain, and its accompanying television series. He received widespread recognition again with the publication of A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), a book widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science. Of course we hikers are quite partial to A Walk in the Woods (1998).