A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
New York: Broadway Books, 1998
No, watching the movie did not make me read this book. I read this book a number of years ago, when I was on a search for books of humor. It wasn’t the laugh until you cried book I was seeking, however it was amusing as well as insightful, informational and charming.
Yes, I do reread books. It is like visiting with an old friend. This year, I choose to reread this book on my vacation as we were going hike a small portion of the Appalachian Trail. This trail is approximately 2,100 miles long and travels through 14 states. It begins at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. You can access the trail at any number of places along the way. We accessed the trail at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is based there and we started our trip at their office. The staff there is very helpful. Jim and I wanted to hike a small (very small) part of this trail. We consulted with the staff on the best direction to head out from the office to hike a representational part of the trail. South was recommended to us as north took you through Harper’s Ferry and along a railroad canal for much of the distance we would be hiking.
South we headed and made for the Loudoun Heights Trails section. To reach the trail, we walked across the Shenandoah River Bridge. The river here was wide and fast flowing. It was magnificent. Over the river and under the bridge, we began our climb. We had planned to hike to the ridgeline and back about a 5 mile round trip. As I said, we planned to hike only a small piece of the trail. The trail at this point was breathtaking. It was lushly green with towering trees. There were small brooks, tiny water falls, elegant flowers and wild raspberries.
Here’s one of the first sights that greeted us as we began our climb, boots on the trail. We stopped and marveled. Were they a joke? Did they fall off someone’s pack? Did someone jettison them? We shook our heads. We definitely would not want to be without boots on this trail.
We continued our climb. As we did, it reminded me of this section from the book. It comes from the first days of Bill Bryson’s walk.
“The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill… Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before…” (p. 35)
The trail was a challenging climb for us. We clambered upward. Sometimes, it makes you wonder why you choose to take up trials. I wonder about the author’s decision to walk this trail as a vague idea of getting fit. Before I hiked this trail, I would haven shake my head in dismay at that thought. You don’t hike this trail to get fit. To be a “thru” or even a “section” hiker, you need to be fit. Jim and I were carrying our camera backpacks. With my hydration bladder full of water, my camera backpack weighs between 15-20 pounds. Jim’s weighs more. I can’t imagine hiking this trail with a full pack as described in the book.
We hiked on July 5th, 2016. The day was a bright, hot, muggy, and still. While the trail was shaded, there was not a breath of wind to help cool us. We are not used to hiking in this kind of weather. We are used hiking where it is 100º with 0% humidity, not 95º with 95% humidity. Alas we were defeated and had to turn back. We hiked about 2 miles from the Conservancy office about 1/2 mile short of our goal. We needed enough energy to hike back to the office and meet our ride.
We hiked back to the Conservancy Office. Hiking down is not always easier than going up. Good thing we reserved a little strength. Again we passed those lonely, abandoned boots. I wondered about their hiker. Was he like Bill’s friend, Katz? Did he throw them down in a fit of anger and despair at the trail? I will wonder, but never know.
The hike was hot, hard and exhilarating! We didn’t make our goal, but we hiked the trail. We made it back and entered gratefully into the air-conditioned coolness of the AT Conservancy office. They have a room in the back for hikers. It has a place to rest, a fridge full of low cost drinks and a restroom. The most amusing sight was the sign with the phone underneath it. The phone provided free long distance service for hikers. In large friendly letters the sign above the phone said, “Call your Mom and Dad!” Underneath that printed in smaller letters, it said, ” Call your kids!”
All kinds of people hike the Appalachian Trail, young and old. While we were in the office, we say some young men who were “thru” hikers. They stopped to rest, pick up mail and check in. There was another woman, recently retired, talking to the staff about the possibility of “thru” hiking. There were also sightseers from the town, section hikers just starting or finishing and other day hikers, like Jim and I. It was fascinating to listen to their stories. I only got a small glimpse of the trail and while Bill Bryson didn’t hike all of it, he did hike over 800 miles. His book, while it is a tale of a walk in the woods, it was also a commentary on the parts of American he hiked. Our country is so beautiful and we are fortunate enough to travel freely within it. If you are not up for a hike on the AT, find a piece of America that is new to you and visit it. Appreciate it. Bryson came away with a new appreciation of America, the wilderness, nature, and mountains. Here’s one of his final reflections: “Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite.” (p. 274). You will need to read the book to find out what prompts this specific appreciation.
Here’s how Bill Bryson ends his book.
“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.” (p. 274)
Jim and I never intended to try that hike for a number of reasons. We did hike the trail as we intended. I can now say, “Been there, done that and have the t-shirt to prove it.”
On a side note, last night I watched the movie, A Walk in the Woods. It was an amusing movie. While not nearly as comprehensive as the book, it provided most of the humorous bits from the story and some of the glorious scenery from this wonder of the world.
If you want to read more about the Appalachian trail visit the Appalachian Conservancy’s website: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/explore-the-trail
If you want to read more about Bill Bryson, try these websites.