When Bill Bryson moves to New Hampshire after several years abroad, he notices a path leading into the woods that’s signposted as part of the Appalachian Trail (known as “AT”). The AT is 2,100 miles long, and it runs from Maine all the way down to Georgia, through several mountain ranges with enticing names like the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies. The idea of walking the AT fascinates Bryson—he reasons that it’ll help him get into shape, reconnect with his homeland, and learn how to survive in nature. He even jokes that it will make him feel manly. Bryson also knows that global warming might soon destroy this natural wonderland, and he wants to see it before it’s gone.
From the outset, Bryson is motivated to learn how to survive in the wilderness, imagining that it will make him seem tougher and manlier. At this stage, however, he has no idea that he’s vastly underestimating how grueling the Appalachian Trail is going to be, and how hard it actually is to survive in the woods. Bryson is also acutely aware of the damage that humans cause to nature, and his nod to global warming here foreshadows his emphasis on ecological destruction throughout the book.
Bryson talks to a few people who’ve hiked the Trail and realizes that he’s in over his head. He thinks about all the dangers he might face, including rattlesnakes, coyotes, wolves, drunk hillbillies with guns, and skunks with rabies. Bryson even hears about a man who got up in the middle of the night to pee and wound up scalped by a short-sighted owl. Bryson imagines himself meeting his demise surrounded by wolves, fire ants, or even mosquitos. He thinks about all the diseases he could get and the strange and painful ways he could die. Then he starts thinking about murderers—at least nine hikers have been murdered since 1974. He wonders what he got himself into.
As Bryson starts preparing for his trip, he soon realizes that he’s severely underestimated the task ahead. Bryson uses humor here to show that his fear of animals in the wild is somewhat irrational. He could die from a disease-bearing mosquito bite in his own garden just as easily as he could in the woods, so his fear is clearly inflated. Bryson also mentions the dangers that human beings pose to one another. He’ll spend a lot of the book weighing up the risk that animals pose to human beings versus the risk that human beings pose to Appalachia’s ecosystem.
Attempting to avoid bad weather, Bryson decides to begin his hike in Georgia in March so that he can arrive home in New England by October, before the winter storms set in. Estimates of the AT’s length vary but tend to hover around 2,150 miles long. The large mountain ranges make it a tough slog as well. Bryson calculates that it would take about five months and five million steps to walk the whole Trail. He’d imagined having a nice daily stroll and sleeping in country inns—but he soon realizes that he’s going to have to camp, carry his own food, and hike with a heavy load on his back.
Bryson fancifully imagines that hiking in the United States will be as easy and accessible as staying in rural inns and going for a leisurely walks in the woods). Yet given the well-known difficulty of completing the Appalachian Trail, Bryson will soon realize that the Trail is far more remote and challenging that anything he’s tackled before.
Bryson goes to buy camping equipment and finds himself “impressed and bewildered.” The salesman, Dave Mengle, is an avid hiker—and it shows. Dave talks about technical differences between products, discussing air-flow channels, webbing loops, and ratios. Bryson quickly learns that minimizing the weight of a hiker’s load is important, and that hiking gear is really expensive. He finds it bizarre that he has to buy the straps for his backpack separately and cracks a joke about whether he needs to buy the pack’s bottom too—though Dave doesn’t laugh. Bryson ends up with an expedition-worthy collection of sacks, knives, waterproof matches, long underwear, and more. Then he goes next door and buys a pile of books about hiking and bear attacks.
As Bryson chats with Dave, he begins to realize how much of a commitment it’s going to be to hike in the United States. He needs to prepare for total isolation and have all the survival tools he needs with him. It’s already becoming clear that what he’s signed up for is going to be nothing like any hiking he’s done before. His purchase of the book on bear attacks foreshadows Bryson’s developing fixation on bears, which represent his—and, more generally, humanity’s—inflated fear of the wild.
Bryson sets up all his gear in his basement, trying to imagine himself like that in the wilderness, but he can’t—he hasn’t been in a tent since he was nine years old, and that was in his living room. Bryson notices the odd smell of the gear and starts to feel a bit claustrophobic in his tent. He tells himself it’s not going to be so bad, but deep down he knows he’s wrong.
Bryson reveals that he’s never actually camped in the wilderness. It’s becoming obvious to Bryson that his upcoming hike might not be as fun as he initially imagined, when he thought about himself leisurely exploring rural America. Even before he’s embarked for his journey, Bryson’s exaggerated fear of the wild is bleeding into his experience.