A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, the mood between Bryson and Katz is tense, and they barely talk. They stand in awkward silence as they wait for Keith to drive them to the Trail. They enter the woods by a sign that marks the beginning of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. The sign has a long warning that hikers shouldn’t enter unless they have at least ten days’ food supplies with them. The woods here feel “ominous, brooding […] darker, [and] more shadowy.” Disney’s Bambi was set in Maine, but this forest looks nothing like a Disney cartoon. Bryson thinks about snakes, wolves, and unknown beady, glowing eyes. The foliage is impossibly dense. Looking back, Bryson thinks “it was hell.”
As usual, Bryson and Katz can’t walk into the woods—they have to be driven there. Even in Maine, where there are fewer signs of commercial industry, the wilderness seems somewhat cut off from everyday life. The warning signs fill Bryson with a sense of foreboding, which he expresses in his description of the tall, dark, and “shadowy” trees. Once again, it seems like the reality of the woods is much more intimidating than Bryson imagined. In retrospect, Bryson admits that the experience was awful. He refers to hiking as “hell” here, just as he did at the start of his journey. His discomfort in nature hasn’t eased, despite the amount of time he’s already spent in the woods.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Within the first hour, Bryson and Katz approach a giant rock across the trial, about 400 feet high. They crawl up it, struggling in the oppressive heat. Bryson feels faint, and he has to stop every 10 feet or so from exhaustion. This is the first of many climbs like this. In between, there are bald patches of granite with sweeping views of endless forest. The views are stunning, but the heat is too oppressive for them to stop and enjoy them. The day is a tough slog, and there are no streams to refill their water—Katz runs out, so Bryson shares his. The energy between them still feels off.
Bryson reinforces the misery of the duo’s experience in Maine by emphasizing the heat and the unforgiving granite terrain. It’s not only unpleasant here—it’s downright dangerous, especially as they are inexperienced in this territory. Once again, the difficult environment prevents them from enjoying the view or anything else about the woods. Despite their argument, Bryson and Katz are looking out for each other, having learned that they need to be considerate to survive in such taxing terrain.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz set up camp near the first river they see, and they eat in sullen silence. Bryson can’t believe they have 85 more miles of this before they reach Katahdin. There’re nothing—no stores, phones, lodges, or roads—for miles around. Bryson looks around listlessly, knowing that it’s going to be 10 days before he sees civilization again.
The forest is so intimidating that Bryson is quickly growing dejected. The tension between himself and Katz is also souring the mood. Bryson has barely entered the wilderness, yet he’s already fantasizing about comforts of civilization like stores and roads.
Themes
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
The next day, Bryson and Katz cross the river in silence. They soon run out of water, and it takes them hours to make it a mere four miles. Bryson makes it to the next clearing before Katz. Bryson gives Katz some water and encourages him to drink, knowing that Katz has none left. In return, Katz gives Bryson half of his candy bar. Katz cracks a bad joke to clear the air, and Bryson laughs. Katz apologizes for drinking, and Bryson apologizes for being difficult about it. Katz explains that staying sober is hard—he’s lonely a lot, and he misses drinking. Bryson nods uncomfortably. Katz explains he went out with colleagues one night, caved into peer pressure, and started drinking again.
Bryson and Katz act kindly toward each other, sharing their food and water, which eases the tension between them. The deep conversation they share about Katz’s drinking troubles shows that their relationship is evolving into a much closer friendship. Katz is deeply lonely, which explains why he’d be willing to trek in the woods with Bryson despite his clear disdain for being in nature.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
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Katz continues, saying that he’s aware he shouldn’t be drinking—he knows that he can’t just have a couple beers like other people. He really, really loves being drunk, and he missed it all these years. Somehow, the future seems low and empty without drinking to look forward to. Bryson reaches over and gives Katz an affectionate fist bump. Katz smiles ruefully and says that as much as he hates TV dinners, he’d kill for one right now. Bryson understands. He looks around, wondering what they’re doing here.
Katz’s heartfelt admission of his troubles with alcohol and Bryson’s gesture of affection clear the air. It’s becoming clear to both of them that as boring as everyday life can be, it’s still infinitely desirable to being in the woods. Both of them are starting to lose their desire to continue on the Trail because the experience is so unpleasant.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
It’s a mile to the next watering hole. Bryson decides to hike ahead so that he can filter the water by the time Katz arrives. Cloud Pond, where Bryson’s headed, is about a quarter mile off the Trail. Bryson leaves his pack at the spot where he veers off the Trail, as a marker for Katz. Bryson returns to the pack about 40 minutes later with water, but there’s no sign of Katz. Bryson waits about an hour, and then he goes looking for Katz. Bryson climbs to the next summit, but he beings to worry when there’s no sign of Katz. Maybe Katz fell and hurt himself. Bryson remembers a story about a hiker who fainted in the heat and fell, before baking to death in the heat.
Bryson and Katz continue to look out for each other, knowing that they need each other to survive in this terrain. Bryson doesn’t hesitate to search for Katz when Katz doesn’t show up. It’s clear to Bryson now that his ruminations about wild animals were foolish—they’re the biggest danger to themselves as inexperienced hikers in this environment.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson shouts into the forest, hoping to hear a response, but he only hears the lonely echo of his own voice. He thinks of Katz wandering, lost and without water, and he starts to get really worried. Bryson leaves his pack on the Trail with a note for Katz, and he heads into the thicket calling Katz’s name. He searches for hours, but sees no sign of Katz. Bryson wonders if Katz got confused and went to a different pond. There’s another one two miles away, but the undergrowth is so thick that it’s easy to become lost and disoriented. You could easily die out there and never be found.
Bryson grows more frantic and afraid as more time passes. His fear is entirely rational here—Katz could very well disappear into the woods and never be found, especially in the dense, suffocating underbrush. The experience is growing more miserable, dangerous, and isolating by the minute. Now, separated from each other, Bryson and Katz’s desire to become “mountain men” seems altogether reckless.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson hikes back to his pack, and tries another direction, circling back to the pack every now and then. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, he leaves another note for Katz and then hikes back to Cloud Pond, where there’s a shelter. It’s a beautiful shelter, but Bryson is too worried to really enjoy it. He wants to go for a swim, but he doesn’t have the heart for it without Katz. He tries not to think about Katz feeling disoriented and scared in the woods. Feeling dejected, Bryson watches the sunset and just waits.
Bryson is so worried about Katz that he can’t enjoy the one patch of beauty in the terrifying forest. It’s clear to Bryson by now that he’s not cut out for the isolation of the woods, and neither is Katz. In fact, their desire to tackle the wilderness might well end up causing Katz’s death. The thought leaves Bryson utterly demoralized.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson watches a group of migrating birds for hours, but he can’t really enjoy it because he’s so worried about Katz. Loons, the birds Bryson is watching, are disappearing because their habitats are being destroyed by acid rain. By morning, Katz still hasn’t shown up, and Bryson doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to venture farther into the wilderness in case Katz is nearby, but he also knows that Katz might have hiked ahead. He could go back to Monson to get help, or hike ahead to Chairback Gap (a couple hours north) and see if there’s another hiker there. He decides to try for Chairback Gap and presses on, feeling nervous.
Despite Bryson’s worries, he pauses to reflect on the disappearing bird habitats, stressing once more how much of a threat human activity is to Appalachia’s natural ecosystem. Meanwhile, Bryson has to rely on his wits to find Katz. The isolation starts to feel oppressive, but he’s more concerned about Katz than about himself, showing how far the two have come in their relationship over the course of this journey.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson hikes ahead for four miles and sees a trickling stream. There’s an empty cigarette pack pierced on a branch nearby, which Bryson recognizes as a sign from Katz. He starts to feel better, knowing that Katz is still on the Trail. Four hours later, Bryson spots Katz, sitting on the ground and looking disheveled. Katz breathes a sigh of relief when he sees Bryson. He explains that he was thirsty and disoriented, so he stuck to the Trail. He’s extremely proud of himself for leaving the cigarette pack as a marker—he stole the idea from a TV show.
Bryson is relieved to find signs of Katz’s presence and to finally be reunited with him. Although Katz says that he stuck to the Trail, his disheveled appearance suggests otherwise. It’s clear that Katz is the biggest danger to himself in this environment because he’s so inexperienced in the woods. Nonetheless, that his survival skills have improved—the cigarette pack marker certainly helped to reunite the pair.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Katz explains that he stopped to camp near water, and he’s been waiting there ever since. He knows that Bryson would never leave him behind, but sometimes Bryson daydreams and doesn’t realize how far he goes without Katz. Bryson asks Katz why he’s bleeding, and Katz sheepishly admits that before he decided to stick to the Trail, he wandered off it and got lost. He’d spotted a lake in the distance and tried to head for it before getting utterly lost. He thought he could find his way back, but the woods all look the same. He’d tried to retrace his steps but couldn’t find the Trail no matter which way he went.
Even though the duo were separated, they were both thinking as a team and anticipating the other’s moves. The situation proves to them that teamwork is essential for survival in the wilderness. Katz’s foolish decision to veer of the Trail could well have killed him, as the woods are dense and disorienting, and he quickly got himself lost.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
It turns out that Katz only found himself back on the Trail by chance, at the stream where he left the cigarette pack. Katz has been worried about Bryson too, and he’s never been happier to see anyone in his life. Bryson pauses and looks at Katz, before asking Katz if he wants to go home. Katz thinks for a minute, and then he says, “Yeah. I do.” Bryson agrees. They decide to stop pretending they’re “mountain men” and get out of there, hiking four miles to the nearest logging road. They don’t know where it goes, but they follow it anyway, knowing it’ll lead to other people. Soon enough, a pickup truck comes trundling along. Luckily, it stops. The driver asks Bryson where the duo is headed, and Bryson replies, “anywhere.”  
As the duo reflect on their harrowing night, it becomes clear to them that the discomforts and dangers of the Trail trump any desire they have to remain on it. They wisely abandon the effort, deciding that they’re not “mountain men” after all. If anything, their brief excursion in Maine taught them that they just want to get back to civilization as soon as possible—they don’t even care where. Bryson realizes that as much as he despises urban sprawl, he’d rather be in it than out of it.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
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