A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on A Walk in the Woods can help.

A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the morning, Katz is surprisingly nice—until he cracks a joke about carrying toenail clippers just in case another bear comes by. In the 1930s, Avery and MacKaye had an argument over a road that was being built through this part of the park. They never spoke again. Many people hate Skyline Drive, the road that runs through the park, but Bryson quite likes walking on it. The change is nice. They soon come upon some hemlock conifer trees, which are native to the region. They’re all being killed by a foreign aphid, and a sign nearby says the National Park Service can’t afford to treat them. Bryson wonders why they won’t at least treat some of the trees.
Katz’s joke about toenail clippers highlights once more that Bryson’s fear of bears is deeply irrational. It’s clear that human beings threaten the natural environment far more than it threatens us. We’ve damaged the landscape by building a giant road through it. We’ve also introduced threats that aren’t native to the ecosystem (like the aphid) with our international travel lifestyles, and we don’t allocate funds to preservation like we should.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In the 1930s, this stretch of land was mostly farmland. Poor, illiterate people struggled to farm on the unforgiving mountainous land. The government moved those people down into the valley to make way for Skyline Drive, along with restaurants and mini-golf spots along the way. The Great Depression halted the commercial plans, so the government built picnic grounds instead. Bryson thinks the result is quite charming—even the shelters along the Trail have a rustic charm to them.
Bryson stresses that many of the rural communities in Appalachia were displaced because of commerce and industry. This emphasizes that the threats they faced came from human beings, not animals. It saddens Bryson that the government doesn’t seem to care about preserving rural environments where nature and people can mix more organically.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson insists on sleeping in shelters following the animal encounter, though Katz thinks that Bryson is being ridiculous. Three nights later, they run into a group of Boy Scouts who comically struggle to erect their tents. Katz thinks that watching them is more entertaining than television. They also meet a few other hikers and enjoy sitting around the picnic table chatting with them. The hikers talk about how crowded the Trail has become over the years. Bryson is surprised, as he thinks that the Trail feels quite empty. Although four million hikers descend on the Trail annually, most cluster around various hotspots like the Smokies and Shenandoah National Park. Many of them only hike for a few hundred meters before driving off.
Bryson uses humor once again to highlight how irrational his fear of wild animals is. The deprivation of the Trail makes Katz appreciate things he wouldn’t even notice before, like the comical hubbub unfolding before him. The friendly way the hikers chat with each other reminds the reader that this kind of camaraderie is common between hikers in Appalachia. Meanwhile, it saddens Bryson that many Americans treat the nature in Shenandoah National Park as a tourist attraction—it’s like a curious novelty that they briefly visit before driving off.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
It seems to Bryson that the real issue isn’t the Trail, but the shelters, because there are too few of them. Shenandoah has only eight shelters. Over the whole Trail, there’s a shelter every 10 miles or so. They can accommodate about 2,500 hikers in total (which is a tiny portion from the four million people who visit the Appalachian Trail). Bryson finds it odd that the hikers want some of those shelters removed to discourage others from hiking.
Once again, Bryson emphasizes that there are few amenities for people who really want to explore the woods, which makes them seem less accessible to people who might otherwise enjoy being in nature.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Get the entire A Walk in the Woods LitChart as a printable PDF.
A Walk in the Woods PDF
One of Bryson’s favorite things about Shenandoah is the fact that it’s easy to get cheeseburgers and cola throughout the park. Bryson, Katz, and Connolly (one of the hikers they’ve met) arrive at one spot where there’s a lodge, restaurant, and store. They emerge from the restaurant happy and full. Two tourists gawk at Bryson and Katz’s packs—they can’t believe that people can hike 16 miles in a day and carry their food with them. This makes Katz feels proud. Bryson goes to the restroom, and when he comes back, Katz has drawn in a small crowd and is describing their adventures, looking very happy.
Despite the lack of resources for tourists, and despite his disdain for commercial sprawl, Bryson appreciates being able to easily have access to things that make him happy, like restaurants with burgers and a lodge to sleep in. At the same time, Bryson finds it odd that so many Americans he meets gawk at the idea of walking in nature, rather than driving to it. To Bryson, it really seems like they’re missing out, though he understands that not everybody wants to go hiking in the woods for days on end.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Taking stock of the food options in the store, Bryson notices that it’s mostly stocked with microwave food. This is fine for people in camper vans, but it’s no good to hikers. Bryson and Connolly are both sick of eating noodles on the Trail, so they buy hot dogs, cookies, and soda instead. That night, they sleep in a beautiful shelter called Rock Spring Hut. The shelter even has a swing, and some volunteers have left canned food out for the hikers, which delights Bryson. They meet a hiker traveling south, who joins them for a feast of hot dogs and canned carrots.
Bryson is frustrated that many of the food options in the park are designed for people who drive there, as this makes life harder for people who want to explore the woods on foot. Once again, Bryson stresses his disappointment in the U.S.’s tendency to accommodate drivers over hikers or pedestrians. On the Trail, he’s revived by the kind gestures of people leaving food out for hikers. 
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
The next day, Bryson realizes that he’s hiked quite far ahead of Katz and Connolly, so he stops to wait in a glade that feels enchanted. A month later, two young women, Lollie Winans and Julianne William are found murdered in this spot. Bryson has no knowledge of this yet, of course, so he just thinks about how beautiful the glade is. Bryson and Katz have lunch with Connolly, and then Connolly leaves them to hike back to his car.
So far, Bryson has emphasized how much of a threat human beings are to the natural environment. Now, he stresses that we’re actually a much bigger threat to one another than any wild animals are. After all, in only a few short weeks, a murderer will brutally kill two people in the exact spot where he’s sitting right now.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
On their penultimate day on this stretch of the Trail, Bryson and Katz get caught in a ferocious thunderstorm, but they calmly hike through it. Bryson’s pack gets soaked, and he realizes that he’s misplaced his walking stick, a gift from his wife that he’s grown quite fond of. Katz eagerly volunteers to go back and look for it. Bryson is touched, but he decides to let the stick go. They stop at a hut to wait out the rain, and six obnoxious people in designer gear stop by, annoyed that they have to share the shelter with Bryson and Katz. They push Bryson and Katz’s stuff out of the way to make room for their own gear.
Katz’s sweet and selfless gesture of volunteering to look for the walking stick show that he’s looking out for Bryson. Katz clearly struggles in nature, but he doesn’t hesitate to offer to traverse the woods to make Bryson feel better. In contrast, the six obnoxious hikers display the exact opposite ethos—they’re selfish and rude. Bryson’s juxtaposition here reminds the reader that hikers manage on the Trail through the kindness of others.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Half an hour later, Katz decides they should camp in a clearing to get away from the group. He announces this very loudly and jumps out into the rain. Bryson and Katz camp in the rain while the group gets obnoxiously drunk and grills food, offering none of it to Bryson and Katz. In the morning, still soggy, the pair set off. Katz confesses to Bryson that he stole all of the group’s shoelaces from their boots while they were sleeping.
Bryson stresses the group’s selfish behavior: they push Katz and Bryson out into the rain and don’t share any of their food. These weekend hikers represent the exact opposite behavior to the kindness, encouragement, and mutual support that help hikers cope in the wilderness.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon