Hypothermia is one of the most “catastrophic deaths” a hiker can meet on the Trail. David Quammen writes about them in his book Natural Acts. In 1982, four canoeists died after taking a dip in the water at Banff National Park. People tend to associate hypothermia with frigid weather, but it can happen anywhere. A spot of cold rain, inadequate equipment, or getting lost in the woods for too long can easily trigger hypothermia. Richard Salinas, an experienced hiker, died from it in 1990 when he wandered off the Trail in search of a shortcut.
Bryson discusses hypothermia to show that human beings are often responsible for their own deaths on the Trail. Hypothermia is one of the biggest risks to hikers, which Bryson emphasizes by using the word “catastrophic.” Despite this, he hasn’t actually thought about it much at all. He’s been far more worried about bear attacks, even though hypothermia is responsible for more deaths than bears are.
Hypothermia takes hold gradually; you get more disoriented as your body temperature drops, often making irrational decisions (as Salinas did). The night Salinas died, it wasn’t even that cold. If he’d kept his jacket on and stayed out of the water, he would have been fine. The first symptoms are shivering, followed by a warped sense of time and distance, confusion, hallucinations. Then, a person will feel too warm, which often makes them foolishly shed their clothing, just as Salinas did.
When people get hypothermia, they often act in ways that endanger our their lives. Salinas, for example, took off his jacket even though his body temperature was dropping. That Bryson is describing these symptoms foreshadows his own imminent experience with hypothermia. Through this upcoming anecdote, Bryson will show that one of his riskiest encounters on the Trail has nothing to do with wild animals.
Bryson is now in New Hampshire. He finds Vermont’s antique stores, rolling hills, and dairy farms much quainter and more pleasant. New Hampshire is much more rural—over 85 percent of it is forests—and it’s full of hunters. It’s tough territory for hikers to traverse. Bryson feels uneasy tackling it solo. He’s relived when his friend Bill Abdu, who’s an experienced hiker and a surgeon, offers to join him on some day hikes. They tackle the White Mountains together, which are steep, and nearly all granite. They have to climb 2,000 feet in just two miles. The weather is lovely, although the weather in this area is notoriously unpredictable.
Vermont approximates the rural environment that Bryson enjoys spending time in much more closely than New Hampshire does. There’s more natural wilderness in New Hampshire, and it blends less easily with the urban environment, which is full of hunters who drive around in pickup trucks. The challenging landscape—comprised of slippery granite and changeable weather—reminds Bryson that hiking in the United States is harder than he anticipated.
When Bryson and Abdu approach the summit of Little Haystack Mountain, it suddenly turns damp and gusty. Bryson quickly looks for his waterproofs, but he’s forgotten them. Bryson decides to press on instead of hiking back to the car, and the weather gets chillier as they ascend onto higher ground. Soon, he’s soaked through. He’s also wearing blue jeans, which are a disaster in bad weather. He’s basically inviting death. The wind grows so strong that it pushes them backward. Fog rolls in, and they can’t see the edges of the ridge. Just half an hour ago, it was warm and sunny. Now, Bryson is shivering and feeling lightheaded.
Bryson realizes that he’s ill-prepared for the environment. He’s forgotten his waterproofs, and he’s wearing jeans, which protect him from ticks but not from the weather. As Bryson gets colder and wetter, he starts to feel unwell. Once again, Bryson puts himself at risk because of his own bad decisions—he’s more of a danger to himself than wild animals are.
Bryson feels like he’s on top of things, but he’s quickly getting confused. He feels like time is passing too slowly. He’s too embarrassed to tell Abdu—who’s hiking a bit farther ahead—that he’s feeling weird. It feels like 100 years pass, and Bryson barely notices the summit when they pass through it. As they descend down the other side, the weather grows eerily calm. Luckily, Bryson starts to feel better as they approach Greenleaf Hut, an old stone lodge. It’s beautiful but expensive. Bryson is happy to be able to warm up there.
As Bryson’s hypothermia sets in, he starts to lose his sense of time passing. He also makes the situation worse by not communicating that he’s in trouble; Bryson effectively endangers his own life with his foolish behavior. This situation reminds the reader that human ineptitude tends to be the biggest threat to hikers on the Trail. Luckily, the weather improves, and Bryson makes it to the Greenleaf Hut before he gets seriously ill.
Taking a look around the lodge, Bryson realizes that the bunks are austere and military-like. He thinks that if MacKaye had been able to realize his vision, the Trail would be lined with lodges like this. Until now, Bryson had imagined the Trail being lined with cozy, comfortable inns—not bootcamp-style barracks. As Bryson and Abdu set off down the mountain, the weather warms up. Bryson is almost dry by the time they reach the car.
Bryson thinks the lodge is beautiful from the outside, but inside, it’s unpleasantly bare. Until now, Bryson assumed that the Trail is curiously inhospitable because MacKaye didn’t get to build all the amenities that he wanted to make the Trail more accessible. Now, he realizes that even with lodges along the way, the experience might be more like army training than a pleasant adventure in the woods.