A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The first part of Bryson and Katz’s hike is almost over. They’re separating for the summer and plan to reunite in August to hike part of the Trail in Maine. They’ve hiked 500 miles in total, and they’re both really proud of their achievement. They hike their last 18 miles straight through and crash, exhausted, in a run-down motel in Front Royal. In the morning, Bryson buys each of them a new outfit from Kmart. Katz is thrilled to receive the present. They spend the day walking along the railroad tracks and chatting in the sunshine. Bryson thinks that it’s the perfect way to end the first part of their adventure.
Bryson highlights the uncomfortable juxtaposition between remote wilderness and ugly strip malls, once again implying that he’s disappointed by the lack of a middle ground where nature and human society can intermingle more organically. At the same time, he takes great pleasure in the new outfit, as does Katz, exposing that his time nature is teaching him how to enjoy things he previously took for granted.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
In the morning, Bryson is excited to see his family, who are coming to pick him up. He’s missed them desperately. They drive Katz to the airport and say a hasty goodbye. Bryson feels bad for the abrupt send-off, but he’s too happy to see his family to mind too much. At the beginning of June, Bryson hits the Trail again, just for a five-mile walk. He’s home by lunchtime, and it feels weird. The next day, he drives 50 miles to Mount Moosilauke near Dartmouth College. He hikes the mountain and drives home. Again, it doesn’t feel right to hike the Trail and then go home and cut the grass.
Bryson begins exploring the Trail as most tourists would, by driving to it and visiting it for a few hours. He finds the experience disappointingly lackluster. Once again, Bryson stresses how strange he finds this car-centric approach to accessing natural environments in the United States.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Bryson sits with a map and wonders if he can make up the parts of the Trail he missed, but he realizes it won’t be possible to complete the Trail in one season. In the summer, hikers have to worry about lightning storms, bears, ticks, rattlesnakes. Now that he’s heard about the murder in Shenandoah, he’s also trepidatious about murderers. He feels discouraged and guilty about people seeing him around town when he should be hiking the Trail. Bryson decides to tackle part of the Trail by driving back to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, parking, hiking a stretch, and then hiking back to his car. He does this for a week in June.
Bryson fixates on improbable death scenarios once more, this time pulling snake bites and lightning storms into the forefront of his imagination. It’s clear, however, that he really should be worried about the danger from other human beings, especially as the murders have now taken place. Bryson’s attempt to tackle part of the Trail by car proves somewhat disappointing. He struggles to connect with nature when he pops in and out of it like this.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Harper’s Ferry is quite pretty—it’s more polished than the other towns Bryson’s passed through, so there are no Pizza Huts or Kmarts. But it doesn’t feel quite real. Abolitionist John Brown attempted to seize the town, free all the slaves, and secede from the United States in 1859. His rebellion lasted three days before he was caught, though he effectively kick-started the American Civil War. When Bryson visits Harper’s Ferry, the townspeople are cleaning up following a bad flood. Bryson notices that the park rangers carry guns here. Everything in town is closed because of the flood. The Appalachian Trail noticeboard is full of requests for information about the murder that just took place.
Harper’s Ferry provides a welcome respite from the chain-restaurant-filled strip malls that typically line the Trail. Bryson exposes how much more easily he resonates with the rural environment when he can connect it to historical events. For example, he imagines all the Civil War soldiers traipsing through the Trail. The noticeboard also makes Bryson’s focus on the murders, reminding him of the dangers that human beings pose to one another in the wilderness.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
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Bryson thinks about how—if the timing was different—the two women could well be standing at the noticeboard looking at pictures of himself and Katz. As Bryson continues along the Trail, he befriends a park ranger named David Fox. They talk about preservation and lack of funding. Harper’s Ferry is also the headquarters location of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the organization that oversees the Trail. At the headquarters, Bryson spots a scale model of the Trail that’s 15 feet long. He meets Laurie Potteiger, who explains that last year, 1,500 thru-hikers started the Trail. Sixty of them completed the whole Trail, which is more than usual.
The murders are at the forefront of Bryson’s mind, and he’s starting to realize that his riskiest moments on the Trail so far have arisen because of human activity—for example, getting lost in the woods because of a poorly marked map. Laurie Potteiger’s statistics remind the reader that the Trail is a punishing and inhospitable environment, as so few people make it to the end. 
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson asks Potteiger about the dangers on the Trail. She says that she’s only heard of two snakebites and one person struck by lightning. She’s upset about the murders though, especially as she thru-hiked the Trail herself in 1987, and she knows how hikers depend on one another. She acknowledges that there have been nine murders in total on the Trail since its creation, which is about the same as a small town would expect. Bryson buys a book about the Trail’s murders and thinks about Lollie Winans and Julianne William.
Potteiger confirms, as the reader will likely suspect by now, that snakes and lightning storms aren’t much of a threat to hikers at all. More people have been killed on the Trail by other human beings than by animals. Her facts reinforce the idea that human beings are the most dangerous creatures on the Trail—whether we’re hunting animals, plants, or one another.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
It’s raining when Bryson emerges from the building. He thinks about the battle of Harper’s Ferry, in which Stonewall Jackson captured 12,500 Union troops. Jackson was a quirky fellow: he was a hypochondriac and was known for falling asleep mid-meal. He frequently marched troops back and forth across the Shenandoah Valley without telling anyone why it was necessary.  Jackson’s victory at Harper’s Ferry was the largest win for the South in the American Civil War. Bryson follows the Trail, noting where Jackson used to camp (it’s marked on the noticeboards) and trying to imagine the battles. Eventually, he goes back to his car.
Bryson imagines Stonewall Jackson hiking and camping in the Trail, stressing once more that he has an easier time connecting with the Trail when he can associate the natural environment with events in human history, such as the Civil War. When Bryson returns to his car, he feels disconnected from the rural environment once more. This underscores how dissatisfying it is to have to drive around in order to enter and leave the wilderness.
Themes
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