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I was recently introduced to Bill Bryson’s adventure on the Appalachian trail. I was at home one Sunday afternoon when a trailer for the newly adapted movie with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte came on the TV. I was immediately interested in this story and so I bought the book and began reading. A Walk in the Woods is the story of Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail back in 1998. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking trail that runs across the Eastern Seaboard in the U.S. It goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It was founded by two Americans, MacKaye and Avery in the 1920’s. In spite of a fractious relationship between these two men the trail has not only survived all these years, it has thrived.
It is approximately 2,200 miles long, although this number fluctuates a little bit every few years as the trail gets modified or rerouted. The A.T. as it is often called, is the oldest of the many hiking trails in America. Others such as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) have surpassed it in length over the years but it still remains the most celebrated. It is managed by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy who are a non-profit organisation. It is said to be the largest volunteer run under taking on the planet. As a result it is completely free from commercialism. Every year around 2000 people start off from Springer Mountain intending to hike all the way to Maine. These are called through hikers but less than 10% of them make it all the way. Bryson just happens upon the trail one afternoon shortly after his family moved to New Hampshire. He noticed a footpath that wandered into the woods and discovered it was part of the A.T. After this chance encounter the idea of hiking the trail began to percolate and Bryson couldn’t get it out of his head. It was as though the trail was inviting him on a great adventure. He decided to accept this invitation and thus began the journey.
“It seemed such an extraordinary notion that I could set off from home and walk 1,800 miles through woods to Georgia, or turn the other way and clamber over the rough and stony White Mountains to the fabled prow of Mount Katahdin, floating in forest 450 miles to the north in a wilderness few have seen. A little voice in my head said: ‘Sounds neat! Let’s do it!’”
In the coming months Bryson begins to formulate the trip in his mind. He collects every book he can find on the A.T. including an endless amount of hiking equipment. He also starts talking to anyone he can find who has hiked the trail or anything like it in the past. The more informed he becomes the more he realises that this is going to be much harder than he had first imagined. There were you see, as he had now concluded from his research, many things to be afraid of out in the woods. There were wild animals, dangerous weather conditions, not to mention the various diseases one could contract in the outdoors. Bryson describes in detail the many ways he could meet his death out on the trail. The one that he becomes the most fixated on is bears. He purchases books that describe, in very colourful detail I might add the number of ways that bears can kill, eat and dismember someone if they were to encounter them along the way. These stories don’t leave much to the imagination I can promise you that.
“My particular dread–the vivid possibility that left me staring at tree shadows on the bedroom ceiling night after night–was having to lie in a small tent, alone in an inky wilderness, listening to a foraging bear outside and wondering what its intentions were….. What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.”
Nevertheless Bryson still has a strong desire to go on the hike. I have read many books about people who go on these types of journey’s over the years. For whatever reason and in spite of fear they seem to be compelled to go. I have always enjoyed these tales of unexpected adventure. I loved for example Wild by Cheryl Strayed. There is however something different about this book. Perhaps it is the male perspective that brings about this particular approach. There is no obvious reason why Bryson is going on this trip. He has a good family life, he enjoys his career and it’s not a religious or spiritual calling either. He is not escaping disaster or recovering from tragedy. In fact if you were to ask Bill Bryson why he took this hike he would simply say that he wanted to go for a walk in the woods.
He ream’s off a number of rationalizations in the opening chapter of the book in order to justify this crazy notion, these include loosing weight and the fear that these beautiful surroundings might not always be there to appreciate. The facts about global warming in this book are frightening and it was written nearly twenty years ago. I dread to think what the situation is now. Although these are all respectable reasons I suspect that in the beginning Bryson doesn’t really know why, he just wants to go.
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.”
Although Bryson was determined to do the trail he wasn’t very keen on doing it alone. The Christmas before he was due to depart he sent out cards inviting anyone who was willing to go with him. A long time passed and no one had responded. Finally in late February Bryson received a call from his old school friend Stephen Katz. Some readers will remember Katz from Bryson’s book Neither Here Nor There where he describes a trip to Europe they took together in their youth. Stephen was calling to say that he would like to go on the hike if Bryson would have him. Of course he was delighted but at this point he would have gone with just about anyone who offered. The two men had grown up together but hadn’t seen each other in years. Their paths just hadn’t crossed as they were both leading very different lives. Katz was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who still lived in their home town in Iowa. Bryson was a writer who had moved away to England for many years, met his wife, got married and had children. Nonetheless they both agreed that Katz would fly to New Hampshire the following week and a few days later they would begin their adventure. From the first moment Katz arrives readers learn that this is going to be a very interesting ride.
Katz was arrestingly larger than when I’d last seen him. He had always been kind of fleshy, but now he brought to mind Orson Welles after a very bad night. Man, I’m hungry,” Katz said without preamble…. I gotta eat something every hour or so or I have, whadaya call it, seizures. Seizures? I said….. “Yeah ever since I took some contaminated phenylthiamines about ten years ago. If I eat a couple of doughnuts or something I’m usually OK.”
From here our two unlikely heroes trudge off towards the summit at Springer Mountain. On the first day out Katz is really struggling and Bryson, although he is somewhat better equipped is also finding it very hard. There are long periods of time where Katz falls behind and his safety is only known by the sound of his bitching and cursing in the distance. On one particular occasion, after loosing sight of him for some time Bryson discovers that Katz has thrown many items from his pack over a cliff in a fit of rage. Bryson now has to carry both and put up Katz’s tent as well as his own. They are if you excuse the pun, off to a rocky start. Bryson goes on to describe their big adventure out in the woods with great wit and dry humour. Much of the comedy comes from the fact that these two middle aged men are defiantly ill prepared for what the wilderness has in store for them.
It becomes very clear that Katz is out there not for the experience of hiking the trail but to be with his old friend. As I read on I grew more and more fond of these two unlikely heroes especially Katz. I admired the way he carried on even though he was truly miserable most of the time. He didn’t have to be there and yet he turned out to be a most faithful companion. Their friendship is one of the most touching parts of the story. I am almost certain that when Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey he did not have Bryson and Katz in mind and yet they are heroic in their own unique way. They help each other through the difficult moments step by step. Their encounters with other hikers, who are usually a lot younger and fitter than them are truly hilarious. Among my favourites are Chicken John because I too get lost a lot and of course Mary Ellen:
“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared.”
Although Bryson claims that there is nothing profound about his meander through the woods he does in fact stumble upon some meaningful truths and real observations along the way. American culture is one particular subject that he discusses at length. This novel was written in 1998, nearly twenty years ago and yet many of Bryson’s remarks still remain true. Except now it isn’t just America but the western world that he is talking about. The effects of technology, lack of exercise and solitude that we all engage in and the amount of excess that’s available to us all are some of the issues he tackles. Some times the truth of his comments made me cringe but Bryson does it in such a funny way that it rather takes the sting out of it:
I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn’t walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. ‘Because I have a program for the treadmill,’ she explained.
After weeks of being out on the trail and walking millions of steps the two men finally come to the realisation that they are never going to complete the entire trail. They have to face the fact that it is not possible. They must acknowledge the difficult truth that they are not twenty-one any more and they are not mountain men. I was struck by this revolution because in so many stories the moral seems to be don’t give up, you can do it, carry on regardless but this was different. Of course they both felt a sense of disappointment upon knowing it was time to go home but it didn’t feel like they were giving up. It was as if they were coming to terms with their limitations. Very often we equate these moments in life with failure. We berate ourselves for not being able to do more rather than looking at what we have done.
Bryson and Katz did something that most of us will never do. They saw beautiful sights that most of us can only imagine. When Bryson finally tallies up the miles it turns out he covered a mere 39.5% of the trail. At first he feels completely deflated by this but it works out at 870 miles in total, a huge accomplishment I think you will agree. I have certainly never done anything quite as impressive and yet he felt like a failure. This shocked me and yet I understood the feeling. There has been many occasions where I didn’t attempt something because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to finish it but look at what Bryson and Katz would have missed if they hadn’t tried. Personally I am so glad they did because I throughly enjoyed going for a walk in the woods with these two characters.
On the last day of their journey Katz blithely says “we did it, we hiked Maine” and Bryson gives him a confused look telling him that this was nonsense, they didn’t even see Mount Katahdin for God sake. Katz who is not known for imparting wisdom, dismisses this immediately as just a minor detail. He insists that he hiked the trail in snow and in heat, in the North and in the South until his feet bleed. No matter what anyone says he knows he hiked the Appalachian trail. I was very touched by this declaration. Instead of focusing on an arbitrary number that means nothing and says nothing about their experience they both begin to see it from another perspective. No matter how much ground they did or didn’t cover they accomplished a great deal. The trail gave them an appreciation for nature, patience, resilience, gratitude and most importantly a renewed friendship. Perhaps we all should remember that the effort is never wasted even if we don’t do exactly what we set out to do. Trying in itself is a noble act. They didn’t walk 2,200 miles but for Bryson and Katz the beauty was in the attempt.