A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two weeks later, Katz travels to Maine to tackle the last stretch of the Trail with Bryson. Katz is dreading hiking with a heavy pack, so he’s decided to try using a newspaper delivery bag instead—he even has one for Bryson. Bryson thinks that Katz is being idiotic. Katz continues that they should tackle this stretch without tents and food and do it like real “mountain men.” Bryson tries to reason with Katz, pointing out that the bag is already chafing at Katz’s neck. Katz sheepishly gives up on the idea, but he insists that they pack light this time.
Although Bryson has missed Katz on his hikes through New England, he remembers almost immediately that Katz’s dimwitted ideas about hiking are a bit of a burden. Bryson and Katz want to think of themselves like “mountain men” who can survive in nature. But it’s clear that Katz has few survival skills, given that his bag is already chafing at his neck before they’ve started hiking.
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Bryson insists that they take sleeping bags and tents, but he agrees to leave behind the stove, pots, and pans. They’re going to get by on candy, raisins, and beef jerky. Katz is thrilled to lose the extra weight. The next day, Bryson’s wife drives them to Maine, which contains one of the most intimidating forests in the United States. In pictures, it looks tranquil and pleasant—but in reality, it’s one of the toughest stretches of the Trail, partly because it’s so remote. Katz and Bryson are planning to cross it in two weeks. They have three days of hiking, one break to get supplies, and then the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which is completely isolated from civilization.
Maine is notoriously remote, and the forest that’s been set aside for Americans to enjoy is almost impenetrable. Although Bryson didn’t like visiting the Trail by car, he’s about to remember that he finds hiking in the wilderness equally unpleasant. The land is difficult to hike through, and there are few resources available to Bryson and Katz if anything goes wrong.
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Wearing a pack for the first time in four months is brutal for Bryson. It’s even harder for Katz, who ate a lot of pancakes for breakfast. He’s out of breath and moving slowly right from the get-go. Within the first 45 minutes, Katz is covered in sweat and looking desperate. They hear children playing in a pond nearby, but they can’t see anything through the trees. If they hadn’t heard the children, they wouldn’t have even known there was a pond nearby—it’s a “joyless” experience in the heat. Soon, Katz falls far behind.
Bryson emphasizes the discomfort of hiking almost immediately: his pack is heavy, and he can’t see anything through the claustrophobic trees. It’s a swift reminder than being traversing the woods is not as easy as Bryson thinks. In fact, the experience is so unpleasant that it’s entirely “joyless.” Bryson also uses his descriptions of the stifling heat and Katz’s painstakingly slow progress to reinforce how uncomfortable long hikes can be.
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Bryson sets up camp near Baker Stream. He waits for Katz for a while, but Katz doesn’t turn up. Feeling a bit worried, Bryson goes looking for Katz. When Bryson finds him an hour later, Katz’s eyes have glazed over, and his pack looks half-empty. Bryson shoulders the pack and asks what happened. Katz tells him that he threw out nearly all of his clothes and most of the food, thinking that they can restock in Monson. Bryson dejectedly tells Katz that he has no idea if they’ll even have food supplies in Monson. It turns out that Katz threw away their drinking water too. 
Even though the landscape is punishing, Bryson doesn’t hesitate to search for Katz. He knows they’re going to have to look after each other to get through this. As before, Katz has made a foolish decision by throwing out nearly everything the duo needs to survive in the woods, including their drinking water. Nonetheless, Bryson remains cordial, knowing that it won’t help the situation to berate Katz.
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Bryson puts up Katz’s tent and goes to filter some water from the pond in Baker Stream, a nearby river. Suddenly, he feels something looking at him. He turns around to realize there’s a moose in the foliage, about 15 feet away. Apparently, it’s also after water. Bryson finds it strange to be so close to such a large wild animal. They just stare at each other, and Bryson feels as if they’re acknowledging each other’s presence in a primal way. It saddens Bryson that people are hunting moose these days—Moose hunting is so popular in Maine that they have a lottery for permits.
Bryson’s response to the moose is markedly calmer than his last encounter with a wild animal in the woods. It seems that everything he’s learned about the damage that humans have caused to animals is starting to affect his disposition, and his fear of animals is starting to dissipate. Instead of being afraid of the moose, Bryson focuses on how much hunting endanger wild animals.
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Hunters describe moose as “ferocious,” but to Bryson, a moose is just like a cumbersomely large cow with awkward legs. They’re not too bright, either—they’re actually known for running out of the woods and into traffic when they hear cars. It’s an ancient creature, though, having out-survived mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and even camels, which were once native to North America. Moose numbers dwindled to near-extinction in the 1900s but then multiplied again, which is why officials encourage moose hunting. Bryson thinks that this is a dumb idea because nobody knows exactly how many they are, and they’re being slaughtered in high numbers.
Bryson recognizes that human beings often demonize animals like moose as dangerous (captured in the description of moose as “ferocious”). But by now, it’s clear to Bryson that human beings are more of a menace to animals than they are to us. It saddens Bryson that such menacing attitudes toward animals persist—he realizes that thinking of animals as fearsome only contributes to their endangerment.
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Bryson creeps off quietly to get Katz. When they return, the moose has moved upstream and is drinking water. Katz and Bryson are thrilled—now they really feel like they’re in the wilderness. That night, they eat dried salami and raisins before jumping swiftly into their tents, as the mosquitos are attacking them. Katz remarks that he’s forgotten how hard this hiking business is. Bryson agrees, though he thinks that tomorrow will be better—but it turns out he’s wrong. They wake on a hot day, and the hike is stifling. It almost feels like the woods are steaming. 
Bryson is keen to share his moose encounter with Katz, and his eagerness to do so indicates that their relationship is far closer than when the memoir began. Meanwhile, the mosquitos and the stifling heat remind Bryson that hiking in the woods can be really unpleasant. It’s only their first day back in the wilderness, and already, both of them are missing the comforts of civilization.
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Two hours into their hike, they reach a murky lagoon full of rotting logs, and there’s no way around it. They wonder if they’ve gotten lost. They retrace their steps, check their maps, realize the forest is too dense for them to go any other way, and they’re going to have to wade across the lagoon. There’s a marker for the Trail on the other side, about 80 feet away. They cross gingerly on moss-covered logs. Suddenly, Katz trips and falls into the murky water. The pack is dragging him down, and it looks like he might drown. Bryson leaps toward Katz, but suddenly, Katz’s hand comes up out of the water and grabs hold of a log.
Bryson and Katz’s inexperience in this terrain proves to be the biggest risk to their safety once again. Bryson isn’t hiking ahead any more—he’s hiking alongside Katz, because he realizes that they have to work as a team to get through this punishing forest. With each passing hour in the wilderness, the experience gets worse, which reminds Bryson and Katz that perhaps they aren’t really cut out for the wilderness after all.
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Just as Katz stands up, Bryson falls in. Bryson frantically reaches up as his pack drags him down but he can’t get hold of anything. Suddenly, Katz is on top of him and pulling him out of the water. Bryson gasps out a thank you, and they reach the other side, covered in rotting vegetation. Bryson doesn’t remember hiking being this bad anywhere on the Trail so far. Two experienced hikers emerge, lift their packs above their heads, and deftly cross the lagoon. They warn Katz and Bryson that they’re going to get a lot wetter up ahead. Katz sighs and tells Bryson that he’s not trying to be negative, but he really doesn’t think he’s cut out for this. Bryson agrees but doesn’t say anything.
Like Katz, Bryson’s inexperience with murky, boggy terrain is a threat to his own safety—far more so than any animal could be. Luckily, they work as a team and help each other through the lagoon. The more experienced hikers expose how dangerous it was to attempt crossing water with heavy packs on their backs, since it’s easy for a hiker to drown like that. The discomfort of the woods making them both feel like they’re out of their depth in this environment.
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Looking back, Bryson thinks the Appalachian Trail is the most difficult thing he’s ever done, and Maine is the hardest part of it by far. The heat and claustrophobic foliage are stifling; no matter how much water Bryson and Katz drink, they’re always thirsty. They drink sparingly because they don’t have much water left after Katz dumped half their supply. Katz somehow forces himself to get through it. The next day, they have to cross several rivers, the first of which is Bald Mountain Stream. It’s full of boulders and has a fast current. Bryson decides not to tell Katz that Maine’s streams can be dangerous to cross.
Bryson emphasizes how uncomfortable Maine’s woods are by writing about the heat, the dense foliage, and his unquenchable thirst. Katz’s foolish decision to dump half their drinking water once again endangers them more than any animal could, but Bryson doesn’t lose patience with Katz. In fact, it seems like he’s looking out for Katz more than usual. Katz, similarly, isn’t complaining. This kind of consideration for each other helps the duo handle the unforgiving forest.
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They wade into the icy water, over sharp but slippery moss-covered stones. Bryson immediately falls three times, swearing viciously. The experienced hikers pass by again, carrying their packs over their heads, and Bryson swears again. Bryson goes back to shore and tries crossing again with his shoes on this time, which is a little easier. In the meantime, Katz makes it across over several boulders but gets stuck by a nasty patch of current. As he tries to cross it, he falls in. The current carries him swiftly downstream before he emerges, coughing and spluttering. It’s been two days, and Katz has nearly drowned twice.
Bryson and Katz struggle again when they have to cross water. The juxtaposition between their own ineptitude and the deftness of the more experienced hikers exposes their behavior as a danger to their own safety. Bryson continues to stress that being in this forest is incredibly uncomfortable, unpleasant, and difficult. He’s longing for civilization already, and it’s only been two days.
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On the third day, they find their first road and happily tumble out of the woods to walk along it toward Monson. They arrive at Shaw’s Guesthouse, the last stop before the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and decide to stay the night and refresh before tackling the next stretch. Bryson showers, does laundry, and feels blissfully happy as the smell of sizzling food floats out to the lawn. Keith Shaw, the owner, comes out to sit with Bryson. Keith warns Bryson not to pet the dog—it goes for the balls and doesn’t let go.
The forest is so punishing that Bryson and Katz leave for a break the first chance they get. Bryson’s brief encounter with Maine’s forests does nothing to make him like nature more, but it does make him appreciate things that he wouldn’t otherwise pay much attention to—such as laundry, showers, and the smell of food cooking. 
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Dinner is a generous affair involving platters of meat, mashed potatoes, and lots of butter. Katz looks extremely happy for the first time in days. The food is amazing. Bryson meets a pair of thru-hikers, and he’s astounded that they’ve made it this far. He asks them if they ever felt like giving up, and the girl says that they had some low moments, but Jesus helped them through it. Bryson immediately gets uncomfortable, so Katz cheerily steps in, thanking Allah for the mashed potatoes.
Bryson and Katz enjoy their dinner immensely, savoring the experience after being deprived of proper food in the woods. They also seem to be thriving in their camaraderie: Katz steps in to ward off people that Bryson doesn’t like talking to, his comment about Allah scaring the couple who seem to put more stock in Jesus.
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After dinner, Bryson and Katz head to the grocery store to pick up supplies for the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Katz is acting strangely and suggests getting a six-pack, even though he’s been sober for years. Bryson tells Katz to stop it, but Katz just grabs more beer. Katz asks Bryson for money to buy the beer, and Bryson gets worried; he realizes that Katz has been drinking. Bryson warns Katz that he shouldn’t be drinking, but Katz just grins, telling Bryson to calm down. Bryson is furious at Katz and feels betrayed. He refuses to pay for the beer. Katz swears at Bryson and walks out. 
When Bryson notices that Katz is drinking again, he steps in to intervene. It’s clear that Bryson thinks of Katz as a friend by now, and he’s worried about Katz’s welfare. The kindness and consideration they’ve shown each other on the Trail is evolving into a deeper concern for each other. Unfortunately, Bryson’s concern triggers an argument, which doesn’t bode well for the duo.
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