A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the 1980s and 1990s, people started reporting mountain lion sightings—in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire—for the first time in almost a century, even though people had assumed they were already extinct. Bryson is walking in the same area now. He wants to hike as much of New England as he can before Katz rejoins him in seven weeks to tackle Maine. Three days into his hike through the Berkshires, Bryson recalls a newspaper article about a mysterious mountain lion that stalks and kills hikers. There’s a lot of woodland around for them to wander in undetected, so they might still exist; he imagines himself being mauled by one. 
Though Bryson is afraid of being attacked by a mountain lion, he acknowledges that his fear is misplaced. Human beings are the ones hunting mountain lions, and not vice versa. In fact, for many years we thought we hunted them to extinction. Once again, it appears that we are the most dangerous mammals in the Appalachian wilderness.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
The Eastern United States tried to wipe out many large mammals (including the mountain lion) in the 1940s, deeming them a nuisance to society. Pennsylvania even offered hefty rewards for hunting owls and hawks to protect crops. The timberwolf and woodland caribou were wiped out around 1900, and the bear population neared extinction. Many songbirds have also gone extinct, including the Carolina parrot, which was considered a pest because it ate fruit crops. In 1939, hunters killed the last Bachman’s warbler. Between 1940 and 1950, songbird populations dwindled by 50 percent, and they keep falling. Bryson thinks sadly about how much quieter the woods are these days.
Bryson informs the reader that human beings actually tried to drive many animals to extinction, because we considered them a nuisance to local farmers. It’s clear that animal attacks on humans are nowhere near as calculated or cruel. Bryson laments all the native species that have gone extinct in Appalachia within the last century. All this reinforces the idea that human beings are by far the biggest threat to living creatures in Appalachia. With all of this in mind, Bryson hints that we should be doing a lot more to preserve the natural environment.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
In the afternoon, Bryson wanders across a disused logging road and bumps into a famous thru-hiker who goes by the name Chicken John. Bryson is really excited to meet him; he recalls hikers who garner fame for peculiar reasons (like a kid who supposedly had a self-erecting tent). Bryson wonders why people call this man Chicken John—but even Chicken John himself has no idea why. It turns out he’s been hiking since January, and it's taking him so long because he keeps getting lost. Bryson recalls another famous hiker, Grandma Gatewood, who also spent much of her hiking time lost.  Chicken John isn’t sure how he keeps getting lost, but he’s met lots of nice people along the way.
Bryson’s run-in with Chicken John reminds the reader that beyond our outright exploitation of the natural environment, even well-meaning people often endanger their own safety. It’s quite dangerous to wander off the trails in the woods, so it’s surprising that Chicken John’s made it this far. It seems that the kindness of other people along the Trail has helped Chicken John a lot. Bryson suggests here that humans are paradoxical creatures—we have kind impulses alongside destructive ones.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
The next day, after a night in a motel, Bryson hikes on to Cheshire. It’s only nine miles, but the blackflies viciously torment him by flying into his ears, mouth, and nose. He’s relieved when he gets out of the woods and arrives in Cheshire: a friendly town with a free hostel for hikers. Bryson doesn’t feel like sleeping in a bunkhouse, so he hikes on to Adams, where there’s a motel. He spends a pleasant afternoon idling in Adams’s thrift stores. Tomorrow, he’s hiking Mount Greylock, and he’s excited for the trek. 
As Bryson approaches wilder and more remote territory, he starts to struggle in woods that are inhospitable and full of flies. He’s reminded of how uncomfortable it is to live on the Trail, even though he’s only day-hiking. Meanwhile, the pleasant environment in Adams shows that other towns surrounding the Trail could have been equally as charming, had they not been bulldozed to make way for miners or dams that never got built.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
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Mount Greylock has something of a literary pedigree—for instance, Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick while gazing out into Mount Greylock from his window. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton also set many of their stories at Mount Greylock. By 1920, Mount Greylock’s landscape was all but destroyed for logging. The landscape recovered by 1960, when state officials decided to build a ski resort there. Luckily, that plan didn’t materialize. Bryson thinks that Mount Greylock is stunning. It’s a steep climb, but he enjoys it in the sun. Oddly,  there’s a lighthouse at the summit, though there’s no coast nearby.
Bryson enjoys his visit to Mount Greylock immensely, partly because he can connect it with little snippets of cultural history. Once again, Bryson suggests that people might enjoy natural environments more if they didn’t tend to think of nature as this remote curiosity that has nothing to do with human society. He’s relieved that the plans to build a ski resort fell through, as this part of the Trail could have easily become overrun by ugly commercia activity. As usual, Bryson thinks that this would have made exploring this part of the Trail far less pleasant.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
After lunch, Bryson hikes along a ridge connecting Greylock and Mount Williams. The views of rolling hills are amazing, but it’s stiflingly hot. When Bryson reaches Williamstown, he realizes that he’s been hiking in 97°F heat. He heads into Burger King, where he enjoys the cool wash of air conditioning and orders a Coke, feeling very happy with himself. He’s hiked 17 miles today.
As much as Bryson deplores the rapid spread of highways and strip malls along the Trail, he’s soon reminded that a punishing day in the woods makes him long for their comforts—he’s likely never appreciated air conditioning more. Once again, even a brief excursion in nature reminds him of how much he appreciates simple aspects of civilization, like air conditioning.
Themes
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Around 1850, 70 percent of New England was forests—now, only 30 percent is. Farming used to be very popular in the area, until railroads and the invention of the mechanical reaper (which was too large for the New England landscape) drove the farming industry into the Midwest. Bryson walks up Stratton Mountain in Vermont, which used to be covered in orchards but was abandoned to nature. This is where Benton MacKaye formulated his vision for the Appalachian Trail. This part of the route also coincides with the Long Trail, which leads to Canada. The summit is underwhelming in the dull weather, and everything looks flat.
Bryson reveals more facts that explain why pastoral environments—in which villages and farms blend more easily with nature—have disappeared along the Trail. Once again, the culprit is industry, notably the development of railways and industrial farming equipment. Bryson also highlights once more that bad weather often impedes his ability to enjoy nature by obscuring the views, which leaves him deflated.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson spots another hiker who proudly shows off an expensive device that measures all sorts of weather readings. Unimpressed, Bryson asks if it bakes cookies as well. The man cautions Bryson that a device like this could save his life. Bryson notices the man has no waterproof gear and no pack, meaning that if the weather turns, he’d be in trouble. Bryson hates technology on the Trail. He recalls a newspaper article about one man who hiked to the summit of Katahdin and then called the National Guard for a helicopter because he was too tired to hike back down. Another hiker did the same because he was late for a business meeting.
Bryson discusses people who increasingly rely on technology to survive in nature, and he bemoans people who treat the Trail like a mere tourist attraction. Once again, Bryson reveals that people often endanger their own lives far more frequently than other creatures endanger them—for example, when they go hiking without proper survival gear.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson hikes across Vermont with packed lunches and his car. He remembers how many times he and Katz would have killed for proper food on their hikes. He hikes through several summits, past the for er location of Happy Hill shelter, the oldest and prettiest shelter on the Trail until it was torn down by officials. Bryson recalls Alden Partridge, who was born in Norwich in 1755. He set up a military academy, coined the term “physical education,” and he would take his students on hikes through Vermont. He’d regularly hike 100 miles in a few days. Bryson wishes there was a plaque commemorating him to inspire hikers on the Trail, but there isn’t one. 
As Bryson makes his way across Vermont, he recalls how many times he and Katz would have appreciated the simple comforts of food when they hiked through the southern part of the Trail. Bryson reminds the reader that he finds the environment more approachable when he can connect it with the history of human activity—which is harder to do when the only things to look at are trees or strip malls. Bryson continues lamenting the way Americans tear down historical environments that he thinks we should be preserving.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Norwich and Hanover, which are a mile apart, used to be connected by a beautiful leafy backroad, but highway officials replaced it with an ugly six-lane wide freeway. Of course, this entailed clearing a lot of woodland. Bryson estimates it saves people about 8 seconds of time on their drives. Bryson walks along it, imagining it was the leafy road it used to be.
Bryson is disappointed by the tendency to build highways in the United States, even where they don’t seem to be necessary, such as here on the short stretch of land connecting Norwich and Hanover. He thinks that this sort of human activity damages the natural environment.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon