Bryson and Katz never make it to Katahdin. They just bounce along in the back of the pickup truck next to a mess of chain saws and get off the truck in Milo, the nearest town. It’s disorienting. A few minutes ago, they were in the wilderness, a two-day hike from civilization—and now they’re at a gas station. It feels weird knowing that they’re back for good. From now on, they’ll always have soda, beds, and showers. There’s no motel in Milo, but there’s a boarding house there. A sweet old lady named Joan Bishop welcomes them in warmly, and they smell baking pastry as they enter.
Although Bryson and Katz are happy to be out of the woods for good, it’s oddly jarring to be back in civilization. Once again, Bryson emphasizes that there’s no happy medium between nature and highways in this environment, which still bothers him. Nonetheless, he’s utterly relieved to be out of the woods and is already focusing on how much more he enjoys the smell of pastry in the oven.
Katz, who’s covered in blood, can’t wait to shower, and he accidentally calls the old lady “mom” on his way upstairs. Bryson and Katz each emerge from their showers feeling utterly refreshed. Bryson assumes that a lot of hikers come through here, having abandoned the Hundred Mile Wilderness, but they’re the first ones Joan has seen. She says most people make it through fine but gently tells Bryson and Katz that it’ll still be there if they want to try to tackle it again another time.
Katz and Bryson relish the simple comforts of having a roof over their head and a nice old lady around. It’s clear that if the wilderness showed Bryson anything, it showed him how to appreciate simple things he didn’t notice before. Katz, too, seems to be taking a newfound appreciation in the comforts he’s enjoying after his harrowing night in the woods.
Bryson and Katz dine in town. Katz asks Bryson if he feels bad for giving up. Bryson pauses, feeling conflicted. He’s tired of the Trail but still fascinated by it. He enjoys the break from civilization but also longs for it when he’s in the woods. Reflecting on all this, he replies, “Yes and no.” Katz agrees before deciding they still did hike the Appalachian Trail—it doesn’t matter that they never made it to Katahdin, since all mountains look kind of the same. Bryson objects that they missed a lot of it, but Katz dismisses Bryson, telling him not to quibble about details. After a pause, Bryson agrees.
Reflecting on his perception of the Trail, Bryson realizes that he has, in fact, developed more of an appreciation for nature. He wouldn’t say he enjoys being in the wilderness, but he definitely has a much healthier respect for the woods than he did before. Ultimately, the more time Bryson spent in the woods, the more he realized he belonged in civilization. It’s clear that Katz thought this all along, though he probably appreciates the comforts of his life more than he did before.
Back at the gas station, Katz decides to get them some cream soda to celebrate the end of their trip. Bryson grins and hands over some money (Katz has none of his own). Katz looks happy knowing he can watch TV tonight. They mark the end of their hike by cracking open the six-pack in Milo, instead of at the summit of Katahdin.
Fittingly, the duo calls the trip quits over a ceremonial six-pack of cream soda in a town rather than in a forest. This symbolizes their realization that they appreciate civilization far more than the taxing and terrifying forests in Maine.
Katz returns to Iowa. He calls sometimes, saying one day he’ll come back out and tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness again—but Bryson doubts that Katz will ever go back there. Bryson hikes on and off through the end of summer and into the fall. He decides that his final hike will be Mount Killington in Vermont. The weather is crisp and clear, and the view is stunning. For once, Bryson can enjoy it. From the summit, he can see many of the other mountains he climbed. He thinks that this is a good time to officially end his hiking adventure. One afternoon, Bryson sits down and calculates that he covered 870 miles of the 2,200-mile-long journey. He has no idea how people manage to hike the whole thing.
Bryson’s final hikes in Vermont give him a taste of what he’d longed for all along—nice weather and good views—so he decides to part ways with the Trail here. Looking back on all the discomforts he endured in the wilderness, Bryson can’t fathom that all of that amounts to under half of the Trail’s total mileage. It’s clear to Bryson that he’s much more suited to towns than to the wilderness, but he’s fine with that, now that he knows how fearsome the wilderness can be.
Bryson still goes on little hikes now and again, especially when he’s stuck on something he’s writing. He decides that he doesn’t need to hike up mountains or sleep in blizzards to get the most out of hiking. He has some regrets, though: he wishes he’d made it to Katahdin. He even regrets having never seen a bear. He wishes that he’d had a more impressive brush with death to boast about. Still, he’s learned a lot. He respects the forest and discovered an America that he knew little about. He decides that Katz was right and that he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks—he hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Bryson eventually finds his happy medium in little hikes that don’t stray too far from civilization. His romantic visions of the wilderness seem to have pushed him farther into it than he needed to go. But despite the challenges Bryson experienced, he’s happy to have learned about nature, the United States, and the way human beings interact with nature. Bryson concludes that the experience ended up being highly instructive. It taught him to enjoy things he didn’t really appreciate before (good food, showers, his friendship with Katz), so he’s proud of himself for tackling the Appalachian Trail.