Bryson recalls Asher Brown Durand’s 1849 painting Kindred Spirits, which depicts two men staring into the majestic wilderness. Bryson wishes he could step into the untamed wilderness that the painting portrays. Nothing looks like that now—but perhaps it never looked like that. Artists wouldn’t want to paint boring or ordinary landscapes. Still, Bryson thinks that if the Appalachians looked only a bit like that before industrialization, they would have been quite a sight to see.
Bryson acknowledges that his fantasies of exploring the wilderness are fueled in part by the romanticized imagery of 19th-century painters like Durand. The natural landscape has been dramatically altered by human industry, emphasizing once more that human beings have done a lot more destroying than preserving since the Americas were colonized by Europeans. This further implies that human beings are the greatest danger to the Trail.
Apart from Native Americans, botanists were the first people to venture westward upon arriving in the Americas, because exotic plants were a valuable commodity. The first was John Bartram (born in 1699), who started sending cuttings to London, discovering over 200 new species. By the end of the 1700s, so many botanists descended on the area that it’s hard to tell who discovered what. John Bartram’s son William even spent five years in the woods before reemerging to discover that the Revolutionary War was going on. Collectively, these botanists discovered species like the Fraser fir, poison sumac, and several now-extinct species, like the rare Franklinia ahamaha camelia.
Bryson offers more anecdotes, this time about botanists, to stress how people tend to take from the natural environment rather than contributing to it. By naming plant species that have gone extinct as a result of human activity, Bryson exposes how much of a menace human beings have been to Appalachia’s ecosystem since the 1700s, implying again that we’re a much bigger threat to the wilderness than anything in the wilderness is to us.
Bryson wonders how botanists managed the perils of the wilderness, such as bears, snakes and panthers. A bear even charged from a tree and mauled one of them—nearly all these botanists’ journals describe violent bear attacks. They also faced hostility from Native Americans and risked diseases like yellow fever. The payoff was that they became extremely wealthy from their cuttings. Others did it for the excitement of finding new species. Thomas Nuttall was an uneducated traveler from Liverpool who self-funded two expeditions in the 1800s, donating all his cuttings to the Liverpool Botanic Gardens. He wrote that the most definitive botanical encyclopedia of American plants at the time and went on to become the curator of the botanical garden at Harvard University.
Despite the damage that human beings have caused to the natural environment in Appalachia, Bryson still fixates on wild animals. This conflict between his fear of bears and the clear evidence of human destruction reinforces the idea that we are a far greater threat to the ecosystem’s living creatures than any of them are to us. Thomas Nuttall stands out as a rare exception to the many human beings who try to capitalize off of destroying the natural environment. It’s clear to Bryson that our activity in nature is often reckless, and he wants the reader to take pause and think about this.
In Nuttall’s time, many species were already nearing extinction and many first growth trees were felled for industrial purposes. Bryson thinks there was a reckless belief that the forests were inexhaustible. Back then, trees stood 20 stories high; most of that wilderness is gone now. Many diseases were also introduced to the Americas from trade, such as an Asian fungus that made American chestnut trees go extinct. Bryson notes that large trees lift hundreds of gallons of water from the ground into the atmosphere each day. They also produce cellulose, sugars, sap, gum, and various oils. All this activity happens in a thin layer under the bark, which makes trees particularly vulnerable to threats like fungi.
Bryson uses the imagery of trees that stood 20 stories high to show much we’ve damaged the natural environment. It could take centuries for trees to regrow to that height. Alongside this, we’ve brought diseases into this ecosystem from our global trade routes (such as the Asian fungus mentioned here), which have further endangered Appalachia’s wildlife. Once again, it seems like human beings are the biggest danger in Appalachia.
To resist threats like fungi, trees secrete tannins to make their leaves taste worse. Oak trees even secrete chemicals warning other oak trees of a threat in the area. Despite such resilience, trees have been dying at an alarming rate. The forest that Bryson and Katz walk through is nothing like the forest of their ancestors—but at least it's a forest. As they trek northward in North Carolina, they notice that spring is kicking into gear, and it’s delightful. In Virginia, each peak reveals beautiful views of sunny farms, woods, and winding roads.
Although many plants have natural defenses to threats like fungi, the rate at which human beings introduce threats to the forest far outpaces the defense mechanisms that plants have. Bryson implies here that human activity is throwing the ecosystem out of balance, once again reinforcing the idea that the most dangerous creatures in Appalachia are human beings. The beautiful views of farmland in Virginia are a rare treat for Bryson, and he wishes there were more environments like this along the Trail.
After a week of walking, Bryson and Katz meet a section-hiker who’s been hiking the Trail piecemeal for 25 years. For two weeks each year, he drives a stretch of Trail, leaves a bike at the end, drives back and hikes that section before biking back to his car. He's always 50 or so yards ahead of Bryson and Katz, just edging out of view. Bryson and Katz don’t see anyone else, and each night it’s just the two of them sleeping in shelters. The shelters here are new, with picnic tables. One night, Bryson even spots a book that another hiker left behind, which thrills him. Bryson thinks that the Trail teaches people the value of simple pleasures like this.
Bryson introduces the idea of hikers who tackle the Trail by car, as he’ll shortly explore what it’s like to engage with nature the way most Americans do—by driving to it. Meanwhile, Bryson’s sheer delight at finding a book to read by chance shows that the Trail is teaching him how to deeply appreciate the simple pleasures that he used to take for granted.
Bryson and Katz hike about 15 miles a day, and Bryson enjoys feeling trimmer and fitter—his belly all but disappears. He’s still exhausted at the end of each day, but he’s gotten used to the aches and blisters and barely notices them now. He doesn’t feel anywhere near as hungry as he normally is either. Nonetheless, Bryson is mesmerized when, after a week of nature, they spot a town in the distance. He can almost smell the aroma of grilled steaks. Without much of a discussion, they decide to hike to town and refresh. They don’t need to talk much these days, having fallen into an easy, united rhythm.
Even though Bryson is adjusting to life on the Trail, it’s still tremendously uncomfortable. Even in his fitter state of health, he still longs for civilization after a few days in the woods. Bryson underscores that his experiences on the uncomfortable Trail aren’t really giving him any profound epiphanies about the beauty of nature. Instead, they’re teaching him to appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life—like the smell of cooking meat.