A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, Bryson drives 30 miles north to Pennsylvania. None of the hiker’s he’s met enjoy the stretch of Trail in Pennsylvania. The landscape, a remnant from the last ice age, is jagged and difficult to traverse; it’s also where the meanest rattlesnakes are. The maps for this section of the Trail are awful too—Bryson’s is so badly printed that he can’t even read it. He feels like he should at least take a stab at a short walk in this part of the Trail, even though he’s heard it's tough going. He walks for about an hour in the woods, but can’t find the Trail. Giving up, Bryson drives on to Pine Grove Furnace State Park.
Bryson’s illegible map stresses once more that human ineptitude—such as a badly marked map that could get a hiker lost in the woods—are a much bigger threat to his safety than rattlesnakes, though he still obsesses over dangerous wildlife. His inability to find the Trail shows once more how inaccessible the natural environment is to people like him who want to experience it, which leaves him disappointed.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
At the park, there’s a large dumpster in the picnic area that’s been mauled by bears. The summit of Piney Mountain is the Trail’s midpoint, exactly 1,080 miles in from either direction. Bryson can’t imagine what it’s like to hike this far and then realize you’re only halfway through. He reads about a murder that took place here in 1988: a disturbed man shot Rebecca Wight and her partner Claudia Brenner eight times while they made love in the woods. Wight was killed, but Brenner survived. The year after, a drifter killed two people at a shelter nearby. Bryson has also heard about a couple that was killed in Maine by a deranged axe-murderer, but there’s no record of their deaths in his book.
Once again, Bryson worries about bears, which symbolize his irrational fear of wild animals. Despite his fear, it’s clear that human beings (like the murderer) hurt one another much more frequently than animals hurt us. In fact, the number of murders on the Trail far outnumbers the number of deaths caused by animal attacks. It’s clear that Bryson’s fear of bears is misdirected—he should be far more worried about murderers, and he’s finally starting to realize that.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson hikes the area where the killings took place. He’s not spooked by the murders, but he feels uneasy and misses Katz’s complaining. The woods are covered in dense, green foliage with little visibility. Bryson knows he’d be helpless if he saw a bear. Bryson reaches the summit of Piney Mountain, and the moment is anticlimactic—it feels pointless to hike the Trail piecemeal like this. At that moment, he hears something rustling in the distance. He stops, alarmed. The noise gets closer and he bolts, sprinting away. Looking back, he realizes it was just a deer. Bryson feels disconnected from the Trail and hits a low point, returning dispiritedly to his car.
Despite finding Katz annoying, Bryson misses his companionship. The isolation of hiking alone is both more tedious and more terrifying. Bears continue to symbolize Bryson’s misplaced fear of wild animals, even though he knows better by now. Bryson struggles to enjoy the natural environment when he dips in and out of it by car, the way most Americans do. Bryson hints here that the absence of rural life along the Trail does Americans a disservice. He thinks that people would enjoy nature much more if they didn’t have to drive to it for a few hours or hike through it for days.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
The next day, Bryson presses on driving through Pennsylvania, through sad-looking half-abandoned mining towns. Pennsylvania’s anthracite belt used to be a hubbub of mining activity in the 1800s; Pennsylvanians also discovered oil in the region. A retired railway conductor named Col. Edwin Drake drilled 69 feet down and discovered the first oil gusher in the region. The oil industry made many people in Pennsylvania rich, although it also claimed many lives. Between 1870 and 1911, 50,000 people died in mines. Bryson also passes through Centralia, where in 1962 the anthracite the town sat on was set alight and kept burning underground for decades. In 1981, the ground started spontaneously caving in. Eventually, the government evacuated the town and bulldozed it.
Bryson’s drive through Pennsylvania shows how much destruction human activity has caused alongside the Trail. Oil and zinc mining have been responsible for tens of thousands of human deaths, and even more animal and plant deaths. The reckless way in which human beings abuse the natural landscape and endanger one another bothers Bryson immensely. It’s becoming more apparent to him that we are the worst creatures to set foot in nature—far more dangerous to one another than wild animals could ever be.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
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 When Bryson pokes around Centralia, it appears to be abandoned. There’s smoke rising up from the ground. He comes across a vast cavity emitting giant plumes of smoke and the ground feels warm. Along the abandoned Highway 61, he sees a deep, jagged gash in the ground. He walks along it, and a gust of wind almost makes him lose his footing. Suddenly, he realizes that walking around in a town that’s on fire underneath the ground isn’t too smart. It’s weird to Bryson that the town isn’t surrounded with barriers. Stranger still, there are still a few houses where people appear to live. He knocks on some of the doors, but nobody answers.
Bryson carelessly puts himself in danger by exploring a town that’s essentially on fire beneath the ground. His recklessness shows that he’s as much at risk in the urban environment as he is in the woods. Once again, the threats that human beings regularly pose to one another with mining activity is made palpable. This reckless approach to the natural environment is a big part of why there are so few farms and villages along the Trail, implying that our own predatory activity stands in the way of our ability to integrate more seamlessly with natural environments.
Themes
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Bryson drives five miles north to a bustling, old-fashioned town called Mt. Carmel. He pops into the town’s library to look at their files on Centralia. He looks at old photographs and newspaper clippings, trying to imagine Centralia as a bustling town but he can’t. Bryson reads a newspaper article saying that there’s enough coal under Centralia to keep it burning for 1,000 years.
Bryson appeals to statistics once more to reinforce the idea that human beings are a tremendous danger to one another and to the natural environment. The damage we’ve caused in Centralia alone far outstrips any damage a bear could cause.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Near Centralia, there’s a mountainside that’s been destroyed by zinc mining. Bryson drives through Palmerton, which is full of abandoned factories. Eventually, he spots the bald mountainside, stripped of all vegetation. A man in a uniform, Luther, yells at Bryson for trespassing on private property, even though there are no signs. Bryson tries to talk with the man about the mountainside, but the man is suspicious. They get into an argument, and Bryson tries to drive off, but the man blocks his path. Another man approaches and pulls Luther out of Bryson’s way. Bryson says that he just stopped to ask for directions to the Appalachian Trail and drives off, watching the two men argue in the rearview mirror.
Having highlighted the damage caused by reckless mining to the towns and villages that used to line the Trail, Bryson now stresses that the same mining activity has decimated the local landscape—it’s even stripped mountains bare of all vegetation. It seems like Luther’s job is to stop other people from finding out about how much damage the mining industry has caused to the mountains. This seems like a shame, since Luther’s time could be better used trying to restore or improve the mountainside, rather than keeping the damage a secret.
Themes
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Bryson drives to Little Gap and goes for a hike along a ridge across a vast expanse of barren terrain that’s been decimated by mining. It looks like the remnants of a battlefield. As Bryson is getting into his walking stride, he comes across Lehigh Gap—it’s 1,000 feet to the bottom of the valley. He doesn’t want to hike all that way just to hike back up, so he abandons his walk, deciding that that it’s really unsatisfying to dip in and out of the Trail like this. He vows to never try and hike the Trail with a car again.
The damage to Appalachia caused by mining remains at the forefront of Bryson’s mind as he explores this barren landscape. It’s clear that no other creature has caused damage on this scale to the region’s mountains. Bryson concludes that he doesn’t want to dip in and out of the natural environment by car since he can’t get entrenched in it this way. Once again, Bryson hints that he wishes there was a middle ground between driving around and looking at nature and trekking for days in it. Neither approach seems to satisfy him.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon