On July 5, 1983, group of campers set up their tents by Lake Canimina in Quebec. They cooked hamburgers and suspended their food from a tree, out of reach from bears. That night, however, a bear came and ripped the bag down. A few hours later, the bear returned. Bryson imagines being in a tent, hearing growls and clatters outside, and suddenly realizing that he’s got candy in his tent, knowing the bear can smell it. That night, 12-year-old David Anderson was in his tent when a giant claw ripped through the fabric, grabbed onto him, and dragged him into the woods. By the time the group found David, he was dead.
Bryson’s fear of bears symbolizes humanity’s fear of the wilderness more generally—and the more Bryson reads about bear attacks, the more his fear of the wild starts to magnify. Bryson subtly indicates that his fear is inflated by pointing out that the bear didn’t come for David Anderson—it came for food, and Anderson was unluckily in the way. The attack also happened in Canada, where bears are far more populous. In obsessing about this one case, Bryson subtly shows that there’s a conflict between his fear and the actual facts of the risks he faces from wild animals.
Imagine, says Bryson, reading a book full of similar accounts right before you take a camping trip alone in the wild. Bryson spends many sleepless nights imagining all the small mistakes he could make that will attract a bear, such as using aromatic gel or forgetting a candy bar in his pocket. In truth, it’s highly unlikely to encounter a bear on the Appalachian Trail. The grizzly bear is more common in the western states, but it’s still terrifying—not even arrows or bullets will stop it. Bryson reads about a professional hunter named Alexei Pitka, who shot a grizzly down and approached the bear, at which point the bear sprang up and grabbed his head between its jaws. Luckily, Pitka survived.
After focusing on his deep fear of wild animals, and bears in particular, Bryson highlights more facts that suggest his fear is exaggerated, such as that the most dangerous bears (Grizzlies) aren’t even native to the East Coast, where he’ll be hiking. Bryson also uses humor to expose his fear of bears as inflated, for example by describing bears as bullet-proof. Thirdly, Bryson makes it clear that human error (such as sleeping with food on his person) will probably be the actual cause of a bear attack. Lastly, despite the terrifying nature of this attack, Pitka survives—further showing that Bryson’s fear is misplaced.
Bryson knows he’s far more likely to cross paths with a black bear, and they rarely attack—there were only 20 fatal attacks between 1900 and 1980. Most attacks just result in “light bites,” but this information alone is enough to terrify Bryson. In Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, author Stephen Herrero writes that upon encountering a grizzly, one should back away slowly and climb a tree, but never run. Bryson thinks that this is easy to say when you’re writing a book, but when you’re in the woods, chances are pretty high you’re going to panic and run. For black bears, the opposite advice applies: make a lot of noise and run toward it. Bryson can’t imagine himself ever running toward a bear either.
Bryson continues undermining his fear of bears with more facts, such as the claim that black bears (which are the most populous in the area he’ll be hiking) don’t usually attack humans—and when they do, those attacks are rarely fatal. With this, he implies that humanity’s fear of wild animals is largely misplaced.
Bryson thinks about other stories from Herrero’s book, and he realizes that bears are unpredictable, and “nobody can tell you what to do,” which doesn’t reassure him at all. For months he lays awake at night, imagining himself hearing one outside his tent. Bryson also imagines the dangers of being alone while something bad happens. His organs could burst. He might fall off a ledge. He might get a concussion or drown in a puddle. Thinking it wiser to have company, he invites lots of people to join him on his trip. Only one person responds: Stephen Katz, an old friend he hasn’t seen for years. Bryson is thrilled: he won’t have to be all alone in the wilderness.
Bryson revisits his list of ways in which he could die, which starts to grow longer and increasingly ridiculous. Many of the dangers that Bryson associates with the wild could happen anywhere, such as drowning in shallow water. Bryson’s list grows more comical as it gets longer—he uses humor once again to expose his fear of the wild as inflated. Meanwhile, at the first mention of Katz, it’s clear that Bryson and Katz barely know each other, meaning that they might not get along. Nonetheless, Bryson’s exaggerated fear of isolation pushes him to seek out a companion.
Bryson and Katz catch up over the phone and make plans to meet the next week. Bryson forgets to ask why Katz wants to come along, but he doesn’t care—he’s just happy to have company. Bryson’s wife is less enthused. She wonders why Bryson’s going on a long trip with someone who always got on his nerves. Bryson denies this, saying that they have lots in common, but Bryson’s wife thinks it’s going to be a disaster. Bryson sheepishly agrees.
Bryson’s wife is often the voice of reason in his memoir. As she questions Bryson about Katz, it becomes clear that they’re likely not going to travel well together, as Bryson doesn’t actually like Katz much. But Bryson is so afraid of the wild that he’s desperate for company—he’s not thinking about what it’s going to be like to spend months alone with somebody he doesn’t really like.
A week later, Katz arrives. Bryson tries to remember the last time they saw each other; he recalls that Katz was a bit of a party animal before becoming sober. Bryson notices that Katz is a lot larger than he remembers, and he’s limping and wheezing a little. Immediately, Katz says that he’s starving and explains that he gets seizures if he doesn’t eat every hour or so. A worried Bryson explains that there are no restaurants on the Trail, but Katz opens his bag to reveal that it’s full of candy bars.
As soon as Bryson sets eyes on Katz, he starts to regret his decision. It’s clear that Katz is unfit and ill-prepared for the trip, considering he can’t walk very well and needs to eat so regularly. Bryson uses this opportunity to remind the reader that the American hiking experience is strenuous: there are few amenities like restaurants or inns along the route.
Bryson and Katz stop by Dunkin Donuts on the way home; Katz scarfs down five donuts and goes to lie down. Bryson’s wife just gives Bryson a look. The next day, Bryson and Katz go shopping for camping supplies, but Katz mostly buys a lot of food until Bryson reminds him that he can’t carry that much. They go home to pack, but Katz just lays around listening to music. The next morning, Katz emerges, lugging his pack with things tied messily all over it. On the way to the airport, Katz eats lots of donuts. The man at the check-in desk warns them about wolves on the Trail, and Bryson wants to cry. Katz seems gloomy because he knows that they won’t serve food on the plane.
Bryson hasn’t even left his home yet, and Katz is already getting on his nerves. Katz’s lack of preparation, general procrastination, and hasty packing make it seem like he either isn’t taking the trip very seriously, or like he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Either way, it’s clear that Bryson is already starting to regret asking Katz along, as it seems like Katz is going to be more burdensome than supportive. Meanwhile, the desk clerk’s comment reveals that, like Bryson, other people tend to exaggerate the threat that wild animals pose to humans.