“That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back,” said Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, Bryson’s narrative of his and pal Stephen Katz’s hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Bryson was in a “state of mild distress” during the trek’s beginning. His comment foreshadowed excitement that lay ahead. In early spring of 1996, Bryson and Katz first set foot on the trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia. By the end of May they had walked through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. After a break they resumed in August at the start of Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, but gave up the quest. They had already walked some 500 miles. Bryson’s sense of humor, concern for the environment, especially the once mighty Appalachian forest, observations on America, encounters on the trail and relationship with Katz elevate his work from travelogue to not-to-be-forgotten memoir.
Bryson weaves his exuberant sense of humor through practically every reflection, anecdote and vignette. When buying “gear” for the trip, he sought advice from Dave Mengle, a salesman at the local outfitter. Mengle had walked large parts of the trail and was “something of an encyclopaedia of outdoor knowledge,” Bryson said,
I have never been so simultaneously impressed and bewildered… He [Mengle] would say things to me like: “Now this has a 70-denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here”— and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid tone, as if disclosing that he had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor— “the seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped… ” I think because I mentioned that I had done a bit of hiking in England, he assumed some measure of competence on my part. I didn’t wish to alarm or disappoint, so when he asked me questions like “What’s your view on carbon fiber stays?” I would shake my head with a rueful chuckle, in recognition of the famous variability of views on this perennially thorny issue, and say, you know, Dave, I’ve never been able to make up my mind on that one – what do you think?”
Bryson envisioned woods “full of peril” where “unimaginable things could happen.” Anything from
rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex
bears sharing tents for a few confused and lively moments; stories of people abruptly vaporized (“twaeren’t nothing left of him but a scorch mark”) by body-sized bolts of lightning when caught in sudden storms on high ridgelines; of tents crushed beneath falling trees, or eased off precipices on ballbearings of beaded rain and sent paragliding onto distant valley floors, or swept away by the watery wall of a flash flood; of hikers beyond counting whose last experience was a trembling earth and the befuddled thought “now what the – –?”
In fact, he did encounter a presumed predator in the Shenandoah Forest:
Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn’t see anything at all of its shape or size—only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.
He turned to Katz for help:
“Stephen,” I whispered at his tent, “did you pack a knife?”
“Have you get anything sharp at all?”
He thought for a moment. “Nail clippers.”
“I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I’m in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to do—give it a pedicure?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Katz said implacably.
Bryson’s observations on American society are equally funny, his rendition of the fate of the American chestnut tree heart breaking and his vivid descriptions of the AT striking, idyllic and memorable.
See Part II about Bryson’s concern for the ecology surrounding the trail.
Tucker Cox – Zeteo Contributing Writer