A Walk in the Woods Summary

Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

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A Walk in the Woods Summary

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A Walk in the Woods is a travel memoir that documents Bill Bryson’s trek along the Appalachian Trail. The comical, yet heartfelt memoir is made all the more surreal by the fact that Bryson had no actual experience in hiking. Moreover, he did not know anything about the potential difficulty in hiking several of the more difficult trails on the circuit. Though this might have—and has—spelled disaster for others, Bryson’s narrative explores the themes of endurance and, almost ironically, the place of commonsense in navigating the journey of one’s own life.

Bryson begins his journey in his hometown of Hanover, New Hampshire by going to a sporting goods store and buying a plethora of hiking gear. Though he has no real idea what much of the gear is for, Bryson plans to actually hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, which is 2,200 miles. He will begin at Springer Mountain, located in Georgia, and then end at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Accompanying him for most of the journey is Bryson’s friend, Stephen Katz, who is just as unprepared as Bryson is, highlighted by his arrival with a duffel bag full of Snickers and his being out of shape.

The two begin at Amicalola Falls, which is about seven miles from Springer Mountain. Though they are in good spirits, the two friends soon realize that they are perhaps in over their heads. For starters, they begin the trek on a cold day in March. Also, they are undeniably out of shape yet carrying forty-pound packs on their backs. Though things seem disparaging at first, they eventually find a groove in the previously perilous hike and continue on. Bryson comments on how they are able to meet various types of hikers along the trail, including Boy Scouts, seniors and students. One fellow hiker, Mary Ellen, who is described as less-than-bright, actually stays with the duo along the course of a few days.

A snow front almost strands them early on, leaving them in the boring comfort of motel rooms and bunkhouses. After a few days, however, they are able to reach the Smokey Mountains, which actually turns out to be more difficult than their earlier hike through Georgia. After a strenuous hike, they eventually make it to Clingman’s Dome, a noted landmark which is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. While on vacation in Tennessee to celebrate their accomplishment, the pair decide to skip the rest of the Smokey Mountains. Instead, they drive to Roanoke, Virginia, which is a flatter trail.

The pair begin their hike again on the easier trail, and are relatively without incident until Katz begins a relationship with a married woman and is subsequently forced to hide from her angry husband. After a few trials and errors, including dodgy rest quarters, the pair end the first leg of their journey in Front Royal, Virginia. The men part at this point in the narrative, but make plans to meet up for the summer, where they will then hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine.

Bryson continues hiking alone, though finds the hiking in Pennsylvania too rocky and uncomfortable. When he finally makes it to New England, he finds himself enjoying the hike more and heads first to Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, and then to Vermont’s Stratton Mountain, the so-called spiritual birthplace of the Appalachian Trail as it is where the trail’s creation was conceived. In addition to these two landmark mountains, Bryson also hikes Mt. Lafayette with a fellow hiker, as well as Mt. Washington, which is one of the Appalachian Trail’s largest tourist attractions (in New England).

As agreed, Bryson and Katz meet up again and begin their Maine hike in August. Like the beginning of their journey, however, they find the hike particularly strenuous, especially after months of easier hikes around New England. Katz has not been hiking at all, so finds the hike especially daunting. Several mishaps, including Katz wandering off the trail and getting lost for almost two days, as well as tough road and dangerous streams, force the pair to come to terms with the fact that they are not ready for this part of the trail. The two hitchhike out of the woods and find themselves in a Maine guesthouse on their last night in the state. While there, the owner informs them that, when they are indeed ready, the trail will still be there to welcome them back.

Bryson’s narrative is both comical and didactic in its approach. Bryson is able to use humor to show just how ill-prepared he and Katz are for their journey. Despite this ill-preparedness, they are still able to enjoy themselves eventually, and they endure based on hard work and perseverance. There is a theme of learning at play in Bryson’s narrative, especially learning as one goes, or on-the-go, which is vital to the overall narrative as a critique on life in general, and to the pair’s specific hiking experience found within the story.

At the same time, Bryson highlights the dangers of hiking, especially when ill-prepared. This didactic approach is highlighted in many examples, including Katz getting lost for almost two days near the end of their journey, as well as daunting rivers, lagoons, campsites, people, and animals. Though Bryson’s tale has a happy ending, the narrative still addresses the important fact that, ultimately, hikers are dealing with the vagaries of nature, and as such, it is a smart move to know when the road is too dangerous. Actually, this can be a matter of life and death for hikers, especially inexperienced hikers like Bryson and Katz. Indeed, as the guesthouse owner at the end of narrative suggests, one can always return to the trail at a later date. This suggests that one can always return to a journey with more experience, which is far better than being injured or worse due to hubris or sheer ignorance.