An Appalachian Experience: A Reflection on Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods

By Michael Carey

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Read by: Bill Bryson

Kindle | 1998 | 305 pages | $5.70

When the Appalachian Trail, affectionately shortened to the ‘AT’, is mentioned, it evokes a dozen or so descriptive words, maybe more, from people who have heard of it. For anyone who has hiked even a mile on the trail, to talk of the AT may bring up some emotions or personal experience.

But more than either these descriptive words or the feelings of the millions who have set foot on the rocks, dirt, roots, grass, or undergrowth of that nearly 2, 200 mile stretch of nature, much of the U.S. knows the Appalachian Trail through the words and experience of Bill Bryson. His book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, has sparked the interest and imagination of a new wave of hikers.

I set out on my adventure from Georgia without having read Bryson’s book and felt the odd one out. Friends had referred it to me, and I thought I would read it before departing. Time grew short, so I downloaded it to my kindle and hit the trail, starting from Amicola Falls on April 31, 2014. With minimal experience (3 days in the Shenandoah Valley with a friend on a 3 month trek back in 2007) and limited knowledge (reading a preparation guide), I set off in an attempt to complete the estimated 2,185.3 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

From the get go, I heard people mention Bryson’s book with varying opinions: “It’s pretty good”, “It’s funny”, “He didn’t even finish”, or  “You know they’re making a movie”. I felt almost instantly like I was up against Bryson. It was irrational. Why should I (or even how could I) compare my experiences with a book I haven’t even read?

But some amazing things happened during the duration of my trip (not least of which was the beard I grew). One thing: I cared less and less about comparing my time on the trail to Bryson’s while realizing I didn’t want to write anything about my hike until I had read A Walk in the Woods.

It wasn’t to compare my hike to his but to understand where everyone who had read his book was coming from. Now I know, and any resentment (from a jealous writer’s perspective) or competition (from a hiker’s perspective) has vanished.

In preparation for an attempt at a through hike of the Appalachian Trail, anyone, Bryson included, starts by getting together all the gear you need, and almost more of the gear you think you need. Five months is a long time to live out of a pack, but it is amazing how one can learn what is needed and what isn’t. I started with twelve days worth of food, probably 4 pairs of clothes, two methods for purifying water, at least ten batteries, a solar panel, and a couple pound trowel.

My pack weighed over fifty pounds I know, but I was scared to weigh it after I reached 45lbs and I was still packing. With sacks hanging off every side of my pack and the main compartment unable to shut, I walked away from my parents, whom had dropped me off, looking like a complete greenhorn.

Little did I expect that I would still be sending things home in New Hampshire and would learn to plan my stops so that I didn’t ever have to carry more than 6 days of food. Sometimes I think I might have gotten through on dumb luck, but I know the people I met out on the trail were there to back me up.

An interesting thing happened after A Walk in the Woods was published. People referred to it as The Bryson Effect: more and more people are hiking the trail each year. The percentages of people that make it to Neels Gap, or Harper’s Ferry, or even Mt. Kathadin that Bryson gives in his book are still close today, but the increase means that each year more and more people are completing thru-hikes.

And much of the AT’s popularity has been attributed to the success of A Walk in the Woods. And with the movie, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, coming out, the numbers on the Appalachian Trail are only expected to increase.  So in a way, Bryson, who hiked the AT almost 2 decades before me influenced my experience. I started late, but so did hundreds of others.

On my first day off Springer, I met two Germans and an Australian, as well as a score of others. The beauty and renown of the trail (thanks to Bryson and a handful of documentaries) has become an international endeavor, much like climbing Everest, but cheaper and longer.

Bryson mentions long stretches of trail where he saw or encountered no other hikers. My experience was almost opposite. At times, I wished for a more solitary, soul-searching experience, for travelling with others definitely helps to define your experience. We grouped up early, and made plans for the day, or coming days, and tried to stick to them. So even if I lost my trail friends during the day, we would catch up in the evening, and as such it became a social experience as much as nature. Some people seek the solitude of the woods (which I still did find often), but that is becoming, in small increments, more difficult to find.

A funny thing about the trail, only touched on by Bill Bryson, is the culture of trail names. Often you might not even know the real name of a person you’ve been hiking with for a week or more. “Oh, that’s just Turtle.”

I hiked with a Sherlock, Spider, Sunshine, Red Foot, Mecca, Yukon, K-Bar, Sonic, Pockets, Color Bandit, Wilderness Hawk, Tee Bird, Cinnamon Girl, and Chewy among many others. One pastime while hiking was to play the alphabet game with trail names of people you’d met. A section hiker/photographer who made and shared fajitas with a group of us was given the trail name X-Factor (partly in gratitude and partly because we didn’t have an ‘X’ name.

It’s tough to think about the whole experience of the trail. It is very long and has so many things to see and so many people to meet. When Bryson says, “If I walked twelve miles instead of, say, five, what would it gain me after all? Certainly not any sight or experience or sensation that I hadn’t had a thousand times already. 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,” I understand.

Everybody goes out on the trail looking for something, whether they have something in mind or are just searching, and at some point ask him or herself, “What am I doing out here?”

I was no different. I wanted to find the energy, purpose, and drive to move forward in life, not sure where it was leading me. Honestly though, every time I thought about the questions that I wanted to ask, I worked circles in my mind telling myself there was lots of time and never came to realize any answers. But in the meantime, I busied myself with the task at hand and the friends surrounding me.

Bryson’s purpose in the hike, as he states, was not just for the achievement and challenge but also to (as the subtitle suggests) rediscover America after years abroad. He manages to capture through experience, hearsay, and research the essence of the Appalachian Trail. I can attest to the frustration of seemingly never-ending climbs. I heard the stories of other hikers (a special, diverse breed anyway you separate them) and their experiences with unique shuttle drivers. I feel the difference in Bryson’s experience and mine (and there are many) speaks of the individual and the trail itself, which does change year-to-year subtly with a switchback here or a reroute there.

To tie his experience in with those of other hikers, Bryson presents the history of the trail, splicing his story together with historical tidbits about trees, wildlife, the creators of the trail, and even accounts of the deaths that occurred along its extensive reach. And the effect: it gives his book the sturdy legs of a hiker, legs that have summited mountains

I started A Walk in the Woods resistant, wanting to finish and say, “It could have been better.” But Bill Bryson won me over. Maybe it could have been better, but his unique approach to the subject of the Appalachian Trail and his exploits as a hiker is presented in an entertaining and enlightening read. I read some things I knew, some I’d heard, but in the pages of Bryson’s book, he also brings to light a plethora of interesting details and facts about the trail and its surroundings that in 5 months I wouldn’t have guess at. And to enliven this information, he earnestly, and with some sarcastic humor, tells of his adventure with his old friend, Katz.

The history of the Appalachian Trail alone, I’m sorry to say, although interesting, will probably never make a best seller. And personally, although they are making a movie about Bryson’s hike, I feel the book would not have found the acclaim it did without the extensive research on the history of America’s oldest mountains.

Therein may lay Bryson’s genius. It seemed to me that he presents the trail, in a way, as a testament to America, the land and the nation. As Bryson states of a moment on Mt. Killington, “I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was more acutely aware of how providence has favored the land to which I was born.”

He is speaking of the beauty of the vast scene stretching in all directions but also his knowledge of the Appalachian Trail that stretched out beneath his feet down to Georgia in one direction and up to Maine in another. Its construction took many years and still continues. The AT is claimed to be the largest volunteer effort in history. It is a melting pot of nature, love, sweat, tears, blood, and diversity. Surrounding it along the way are towns that have seen both fortune and tragedy and express in their histories the changing fancies of the people that have come and gone in the past.

All things considered, hiking the AT is an experience of a lifetime. Bryson expresses, even though he did not hike mile in and mile out from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin, that he hiked the AT. What I couldn’t have known when I started my trip, and Bryson couldn’t have known when he started his, was what exactly that might mean. “I thought for a moment, unsure. 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,” Bryson writes in A Walk in the Woods.

I do not speak for everyone (there were those that seemed to lap up every painstaking rock climb), but I have/had mixed feelings as well. I feel sad it’s over, but I know, when I was finally at the end, I was ready to get back to ‘civilization’. I still can’t help but feel I missed opportunities for more—a deeper experience, greater adventure. I had a lot of fun and saw some of the greatest sights the eastern United States has to offer. I had highs of “it can’t get any better” and lows of “what am I doing out here”. It seems a condensed version of the human experience, and I feel that Bryson shared that on his hike and captures it in his book.

He wrote, “But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”

If I may I’d like to adjust this statement to fit my own experience: But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars but found I preferred a hammock. For a brief, proud period I thought my calves would become larger than my thighs. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made friends. I continued my search for home.

And I’ll leave you with one last quote from A Walk in the Woods, “Most of the time I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is—whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze—perfect. Not just very fine or splendid, but perfect, unimprovable. You don’t have to walk miles up mountains to achieve this, don’t have to plod through blizzards, slip sputtering in mud, wade chest-deep through water, hike day after day to the edge of your limits—but believe me, it helps.”

So wherever you are in the world, or in your life, get out and experience “perfection.”

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