A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, has been one of my favorite books for almost a decade now. Since that time, I have read it twice and recently commenced a third go-around in honor of the movie. I am enjoying it just as much this time as I did the first, and find myself experiencing the same five distinct emotional phases as I go:
Stage 1: Hilarity
Bill Bryson is a master of dry, deadpan, hapless humor. I cannot read this book in public except on days of high self-confidence, because my inevitable loud outbursts and beverage snorts are certain to draw attention. A few of my favorite lines:
“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally sh– 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 it would even give a merry toot – and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”
“Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters…”
“Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused…unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion…For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state.”
Stage 2: Ambition
“I could do that. I could walk the Appalachian Trail. The whole thing. In fact, I think I will. That’s it; I’m going next Spring…Mt. Katahdin or bust!!!” This is my train of thought every time I read the first two chapters. There’s something about the undiscovered (at least, by me) country, the open woods, the radical simplicity of being unplugged for so long…It calls to me, makes me feel like if I do this, I will be a real American, a real wilderness ally, a real woman.
I am not alone. The number of thru-hikers (those who complete 2000+ miles of the AT) has increased by 78% since the year 2000, and I cannot help but believe that Bill Bryson’s story – published in 1997 – is a major contributing factor to this growth. Attendance is only expected to grow in the wake of the movie’s debut, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has scrambled to create a program of awareness for protection of the trail amidst all of the new traffic.
(Please, if you find yourself so inspired, educate yourself, and include the ATC’s preservation techniques into your repertoire of preparation materials. If you don’t find yourself chanting “Leave no trace!” at least three times a day, you need more study time.)
Stage 3: Trepidation
Bryson spends most of chapters two through four recounting the perils and disasters associated with the AT. At first glance, his fears are purely amusing (the dissertation on bears alone leaves me gasping for breath), but after a while, I start to wonder. Wildlife, poisonous plants, diseases, the natural elements…How does one truly survive it all? And why?
That’s when the rationalizing begins. Maybe I’m not really cut out for this. What in the world makes me think I’m qualified to go traverse the wilderness? In fact, maybe no one should. Maybe it’s actually irresponsible and selfish to leave the world to fend for itself while I go out strolling along, not a care or commitment in the world.
What was I thinking?
Stage 4: Balance
But no. While slightly comforting at first, the notion of giving up completely leaves a gnawing hole in my gut. There is something in all of us that yearns to do great things, a divine spark that rallies and resists and begs to stand out. We are not satisfied to sit at home bingeing on food, media streaming, and gossip for a reason…there is more.
Everyone’s more is different. Some people will invent, some will create, some will build, and some will blister our feet to go witness and fall in love with this vast yet relatively small piece of the world as it was always meant to be. I don’t know yet whether the AT is a means or an end, but I know it burns in my heart and I must follow the flame.
With three daughters and a new business in progress, it would be absolutely devastating for me to go off the grid for six whole months or more… but I can start with something. Instead of dropping everything for an impulsive thru-hike, I will plan carefully and take the trail in small, attainable sections at a time. Ultimately, I will either cover the full 2,000 miles cumulatively, or build my strength to do it all at once at a later date.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Stage 5: Casting Katz
Rumors of an AWITW movie began to circulate not long after I read it for the first time, and of course I began to try and cast the characters. Stephen Katz, Bryson’s faithful if colorful trail companion, is a linchpin of many of the best scenes, so it was essential that they get him just right; when I learned of the pairing of Nick Nolte with Robert Redford, I knew it would be perfect. They did not disappoint.
Not long after the movie, I began thinking about the Katzes in my own life. I had one person in particular who was really on my nerves, and I couldn’t help equating our relationship to being on the trail with him – this lumbering, inappropriate trail mate who is supposed to help but instead doesn’t know what he’s doing and complains and slows everything down. Woe is me, right?
I was super gratified and self-righteous about this for about a minute…until I realized that maybe it was the opposite. Maybe I am actually someone else’s Katz. That’s a hard perspective to consider. Perhaps I would do better to watch my own steps instead of resenting the limits of the company.
There’s danger enough out here on the trail without us turning on each other.