A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Every 20 minutes on the Trail, Bryson and Katz walk more than the average American walks in a week. Bryson thinks it’s odd that Americans drive such short distances instead of walking them. He even knows a woman who drives to the gym to walk on a treadmill, instead of just walking outside. In many parts of the United States, there aren’t even pedestrian sidewalks. The duo refresh in Waynesboro, where most commercial life has spread to strip malls, leaving most of the downtown area kind of empty. Bryson is looking for insect repellant and asks for directions to a store. The man he asks is shocked that Bryson plans to walk the 1.5 miles to the store and back instead of driving.
Bryson uses his experiences in Waynesboro to criticize how much the way of life in the United States is centered around driving. He stresses that the car-friendly sprawl of highways and strip malls have drawn life away from the town, leaving it empty and listless. He also stresses how uncommon it is for Americans to walk short distances, which bothers him immensely. Bryson lived in pedestrian-friendly Europe prior to moving back to the U.S., so this aspect of his home country is a bit of a letdown in comparison.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Bryson feels light and springy walking without his heavy pack, though the route isn’t designed for pedestrians. He walks through parking lots, scrambles over concrete barriers, and inches along bridges to avoid cars. When Bryson finally gets to Kmart, there’s no insect repellant. Feeling frustrated, he scrambles back to town. Katz, meanwhile, is clean, showered, and relaxing on a chair. Katz teases Bryson for looking like such a mess. Katz is excited because he met a hefty woman named Beulah at the laundromat. He helped her untangle her panties from the washing machine drum, and they have a date tonight at Papa John’s Pizza. He’s even bought her a pair of jumbo size panties to replace the ones that the washing machine shredded. 
It's extremely difficult for Bryson to walk to a store in Waynesboro, even though the distances between stores are relatively short. The experience as a whole leaves Bryson feeling dejected that there seems to be no happy medium between the ugly spread of highways and malls and the remote, inaccessible Trail. Bryson thinks that Americans would be healthier and happier if these two disparate environments were blended together more seamlessly and were made more pedestrian-friendly. 
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Bryson goes out to eat by himself while Katz is on his date. It feels odd to eat with Katz around. Suddenly, Katz turns up, looking scared. Apparently, Beulah has an even larger husband, and he’s on the hunt for Katz. Bryson suggests making a run for the motel, and Katz is dismayed that Bryson doesn’t have a better plan. They make it back to the motel unscathed, and Katz locks himself in, pushing a heavy dresser against the door. He refuses to come out until it’s time to leave for the trail.
Bryson’s response to Katz’s situation is much warmer than the last time Katz flirted with a woman in a town by the Trail, showing that their relationship is evolving. Katz’s fear of Beulah’s husband is amusing to Bryson, but Katz is actually being smart. Human beings are the most fearsome creatures on the Trail, and an angry man is actually more likely to hurt Katz than a wild animal is, even though Bryson makes light of the situation. 
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz take a cab to Shenandoah National Park for their last stretch of hiking before a break to see family. The park is 101 miles long but only a mile or two wide, and Bryson is eager to see it. Shenandoah has even less funding than the Smokies. Many Trails are closed or deteriorating, and the remainder are maintained by volunteers. Many shelters and areas are closed for long stretches as well. The park rangers have all sorts of restrictions for hikers as well. Bryson bitterly reflects that they spend most of their money on park rangers to issue hikers with fines. The park is often overwhelmed with so many visitors that people have to form a line to get in.  
Once again, Bryson have to take a cab to reenter the wilderness, showing that it’s quite hard to walk into the woods and have a casual adventure. The restrictions on hiking activity and lack of shelters imply once again that the society is set up to discourage adventures in nature. In drawing attention to the crowds of visitors, Bryson reminds the reader that he disapproves of how Americans treat nature as a tourist attraction that’s separated from their everyday lives. 
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
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Pollution and acid rain have also caused the park considerable damage and reduced visibility over the years. The American chestnut and American Elm are already extinct, and Bryson thinks the dogwood tree is next. Despite this, the park is really lovely—it’s his favorite part of the Trail. They hike at a pleasant incline, and the weather is warming. Bryson sees owls and deer. Deer were almost hunted to extinction in this part of the country, but they were reintroduced into the park and now they thrive in the thousands. The park also has a lot of nocturnal animals like bobcats, foxes, and bears—and even rare accounts of mountain lions.
In Shenandoah, Bryson reflects bitterly on all the ways in which human beings have damaged the natural environment, including acid rain and pollution. Industry, it seems, is fast destroying the natural ecosystem—and hunting is also driving many animals to extinction. All this reminds the reader again that if there’s any real danger in Appalachia, it’s the human beings, not the wild animals (like bears) that Bryson obsesses over.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz don’t see anything too exotic, but they enjoy seeing signs of spring. Bryson even sees a wild turkey and her chicks. These are the woods he imagined, and they’re lovely. They camp in a small clearing and enjoy the evening. That night, Bryson hears something rustling in the bushes. He immediately thinks it’s a bear. He crawls out to his pack to get his knife and shines a flashlight around. In the distance, he sees two beady eyes looking at him.
Bryson is clearly terrified about running into a bear, despite the remote chance that such an encounter will actually be deadly. By the time he gets his flashlight out and shines it around, the animal—whatever it is—has already retreated to a safe distance. Although Bryson is terrified, it’s clear that he’s not in grave danger.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson throws a stick at the animal and yells at it to leave but it doesn’t move. Katz just makes fun of Bryson. Bryson moves his tent next to Katz and throws a stone at the animal, which growls. Bryson yells at Katz for not being more alarmed. Suddenly, he realizes there are two animals. At that precise moment, the battery dies and the flashlight goes out. Katz announces that he’s going to sleep as Bryson freaks out. He hears the animals drinking. Bryson stands in front of his tent holding a stick for hours. Eventually, he nods off.
Bryson is terrified by the animal encounter, but his description here is intended to be funny. Bryson’s use of humor in recounting the story underscores that he’s overreacting, and he’s not really in danger. Katz’s calm reaction further stresses that Bryson is being irrational. All this is meant to show that Bryson fears wild animals, yet really, they’re not much of a threat to him at all.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon