American Culture

Bill Bryson's pleasant "Walk"

#21: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (1998)

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and had a burning urge to go hike the Appalachian Trail. Of course, that might also have something to do with the fact that my girlfriend is heading there today to hike part of it. But whatever.

My experience with the AT is pretty limited, although the few places I’ve crossed its path are places I’ve crossed it a lot. The spot that comes to mind most is a foot bridge that crosses over I-90 in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. I’ve never stepped on that leg of the AT, but I’ve driven under it about a thousand times.

By foot, I’ve encountered the AT most frequently at Harper’s Ferry, WV. The trail crosses the Potomac River and rises up to Maryland Heights where it vanishes into the woods before climbing even further to run along the crest of South Mountain. In fact, my favorite stretch of the AT heads into the woods at the northern border of Gapland State Park several miles north of Harper’s Ferry. I remember a misty afternoon that cast a primeval air around the trail as it climbed into leafy greenness. Rain dripped from everything. The mud glistened.

I’ve intersected the AT at the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve always wanted to follow it to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. I’ve wanted to avoid it in Duncannon, PA, where a double-murder took place in September of 1990. Because I grew up in that area, the town’s name jumped out at me when I heard about the crime on the news. It struck me with such foreboding that it still sticks to me like a bad superstition.

My girlfriend and I hiked several hundred yards of the AT over the summer at Shenandoah National Park. We were, in fact, hiking up the impossibly never-ending trail to Hawksbill Mountain. The AT ran along the top of the ridge, so we made a point to walk out to it just so we could say we did the AT—only to discover that it also ran right by the parking lot where we’d left Caity’s car. For principle’s sake, we walked the trail there, too.

It was on that jaunt that I discovered an important truth about hiking, which Bryson so perfectly articulates:

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see exactly what’s to come…. Every time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long…. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?

Bryson’s book is at once clever, engaging, and chock-full-o information. I’ve read some of Bryson’s other works before—his A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of the more brilliant books I’ve ever read—but I’ve not read any of his more memoirish stuff before.

It’s not for lack of wanting to. A former NPS colleague of mine tried to get me to read A Walk in the Woods a few years ago. I wanted to, sincerely, but knew I didn’t have the time just then. She urged me to take her book; I reluctantly did so only because I knew it might be a while before I could get to it. It has sat there ever since (right next to the John McPhee reader I’d mentioned the other day, in fact).

Oh, my, am I glad I finally had the excuse to read this book. I have laughed out loud over and over.

Bryson discovers the AT almost by accident when he moves to a small town in New Hampshire after years abroad. He decides to check it out. “Running more than 2,100 miles along America’s eastern seaboard, through the serene and beckoning Appalachian Mountains, the AT is the granddaddy of long hikes,” he writes. “From Georgia to Maine, it wanders across fourteen states. Through plump, comely hills whose very names—Blue Ridge, Smokies, Cumberlands, Green Mountains, White Mountains—seem an invitation to amble.”

Bryson decides to take up that invitation, and the story of that amble becomes the premise of the book. Accompanying him is an old high school buddy he hasn’t seen in years, Katz, who is woefully overweight and underprepared. But Bryson soon discovers he’s not really ready for the mission, either. “I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared,” he writes after being on the trail just a few short days. “Every step was a struggle.”

He doesn’t help his case by psyching himself out with horror stories about bear attacks, either.  “What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp?” he frets after seeing a four-bear photo. “Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties—I daresay I would even give a merry toot—and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

Aside from liberal doses of humor, Bryson weaves in a lot of biology and ecology and a lot of history. He’s particularly damning of the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service—both so underfunded that their management borders catastrophically on negligence. Best of all, though, his removal from the modern world and immersion in the natural world provide ample opportunity for juxtaposing one against the other, resulting in rich, rich reflection.

The trail itself, he says, serves as a symbol of that contrast. “If a product or enterprise doesn’t constantly reinvent itself, it is superseded, cast aside, abandoned without sentiment in favor of something bigger, newer, and, alas, early always uglier,” he writes. “And then there is the good old AT, still quietly ticking along…unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle, really.”

Bryson finds miracles all along the way, too. His sense of wonder never shuts off even when his body winds down and his spirit flags. One of my favorite descriptions comes in the Shenandoah National Park, not far from Hawksbill Mountain, in fact. It evoked my own sense of awe being in those same woods:

a broad, ancient-seeming, deeply fetching glade cradled by steep hills, which gave it a vaguely enchanted, secretive feel. Everything you could ask for in a woodland setting was here—tall, stately trees broken at intervals be escalators of dusty sunshine, winding brook, floor of plump ferns, cool air languidly adrift in a lovely green stillness….

Caity will walk through that same terrain tomorrow, although winter will have stripped the lush forest down to its bare brown bark. All the bears will be hibernating. Most of the tourists will be home, waiting for spring to invite them back to the park.

I’ll cross paths with the AT later in the week, where it crosses I-66 outside of Linden, Virginia, on its way northward towards Harper’s Ferry. I’ll be driving east on the highway, on my way south to Caity’s. She’ll show me pictures from her hike, and I’ll tell her about my favorite passages from Bryson’s book, and we’ll both want to go hiking together. We’ll wait for spring, I suspect, but when we do finally go, Bryson will come along as company—it’ll be impossible to ever hike the AT without him.

1 reply »

  1. Nice review of Bill’s book Chris. I read it shortly after it was published and it pushed me over the edge. I had always wanted to hike the trail, it was a promise my brother and I made to each other in 1968. We were going to hike it together, but he was killed in action in Vietnam, so it never came to be.

    At my wife’s urging, I did start to hike it in 2007, finished 600 miles and then had to have a 6-artery heart bypass. It was a genetic thing, had nothing to do with the hike. I took three hundred days off to recover and then went back and finished the last 1600 miles. It was the most unforgettable experience of my life.

    One thing that I admired about Bryson’s book was that he was honest about it and admits not hiking more than 2/3’s of the trail. Actually, I thought that was what made the story so powerful, it demonstrates just how tough that hike is. Bryson was an experienced walker. I’ve read his story at least three times, and I rarely ever read a book twice, or see a movie twice.

    If you really enjoy that topic, do check out my book as well, THREE HUNDRED ZEROES: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail as well. It’s also a humorous take on the trail, but a very different story. It’s currently doing very well on Amazon.com, often the #1 walking book.

    See you out there on the trail one of these days…

    Dennis, “K1”

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