In 1921, a U.S. Labor Department worker named Benton MacKaye envisions the Appalachian Trail. He sees it as a way for urban workers to reconnect with nature and feel refreshed. MacKaye also proposes building villages along the route, subsisting on non-industrialized activities like farming and crafts, away from the pressures of “profit.” In 1925, several hiking clubs join forces to plan constructing the 1,200-mile-long Trail, traversing the two highest mountain peaks in the Eastern United States. In 1930, a lawyer and hiker named Myron Avery takes over the project and begins constructing the AT, but he falls out with MacKaye’s “quasi-mystical” vision. MacKaye then extends the Trail to 2,000 miles long and quietly completes it using entirely voluntary labor by 1937.
In looking at the history of the Appalachian Trail’s construction, Bryson realizes that even before it’s been built, there’s a divide between urban life and wilderness emerging in the United States. The reader also learns that MacKaye actually envisioned the Appalachian Trail as a pastoral rural environment with farms and villages for people to enjoy along the way. However, it’s already clear (from Bryson’s claims that there are few such settings along the route) that MacKaye’s vision was never fully realized.
The trail that MacKaye and Avery build has few historical roots—it doesn’t follow any Native American trails or Colonial routes. MacKaye’s proposed villages are never built along the route either. Today, volunteers maintain the Trail. To Bryson, the AT remains “gloriously free of commercialism.” Parts of the Trail are often rerouted to make way for construction and logging. When Bryson and Katz arrive in Georgia, they don’t know exactly how to get onto the Trail. They pay a man named Wes Wisson $60 to drive them to Springer Mountain so that they can get started. Approximately 2,000 people begin at Springer Mountain each year in the spring, though only 80 percent last past the first week, and only 10 percent actually finish the Trail in Maine.
Bryson continues unfolding the history of the Appalachian Trail’s construction, making it explicit that many of the villages planned alongside the route were never constructed. This is an important detail, as Bryson will soon argue that the absence of such amenities makes the wilderness much less accessible and more difficult to enjoy. It bothers Bryson that he has to use a car to get to the wilderness—it implies that nature is something that people visit as a novelty, rather than something they experience as an integral part of their lives. Bryson also starts to expose some of the many ways in which humans damage the wilderness, notably logging. Meanwhile, the fact that only 10 percent of hikers who tackle the Appalachian Trail actually finish it reinforces the idea that the hiking experience is far less pleasant than many of them imagine.
Wisson tells Bryson and Katz about a man he drove to Springer Mountain who called at the first payphone after three days (only 21 miles into the Trail) to give up, saying that it wasn’t what he expected. A week earlier, Wisson drove three Californian women to Springer Mountain, and they gave up after 4 hours (1.5 miles into the Trail). They also said that it wasn’t what they expected—Wisson wonders if they expected escalators instead of hills and rocks. Six weeks ago, Wisson says, a man who completed the Trail in Springer after eight months cried all the way to the airport. Bryson wonders if he’ll manage to complete the journey. Wisson doesn’t sound confident about that.
Bryson builds further on the idea that in the United States, a lot of people want to engage with natural environments, but the infrastructure tends to work against them. It seems the natural terrain that’s set aside for people to experience is so punishing that it’s almost prohibitive. In mentioning all the people who abandon the Trail, Bryson starts to clue the reader into the fact that he and Katz aren’t going to enjoy the trip very much at all—soon enough, they’re going to be longing for the comforts of everyday life.
Bryson and Katz arrive at a comfortable lodge and agree to begin hiking in the morning. Bryson wakes early and is shocked by the cold. It’s 11°F, the coldest ever recorded for this time of year in Georgia. Despite this, he’s got a pep in his step and is surprisingly eager to get started. Katz also looks perky. He’s eating pancakes and syrup and flirting with a heavy-set waitress named Rayette. Katz pleads with Bryson to stay at the lodge another night because it’s cold out, but Bryson says they should get on with it. Bryson hauls his heavy pack onto his back, staggering from the weight before heading for the woods with Katz lagging behind.
As the duo approach the Trail, the bitterly cold weather shows them that what they’ve signed up for isn’t an easy, relaxed walk in the woods. Still, Bryson’s optimism prevails, although he loses patience with Katz before he’s even gotten going, and swiftly outpaces him. The punishing environment will necessitate them bonding and working together—but so far, Bryson just finds Katz annoying, somebody that’s going to slow him down. Bryson’s lack of concern about the cold weather is also misguided—even though he spends a lot of time worrying about wild animals, his own foolishness about the weather will actually pose the biggest threat to his life on the journey ahead.
Bryson and Katz hike up a steep incline into dense woods. It’s sunny, but everything is brown and frozen in the cold. Katz is already panting and Bryson feels horribly out of shape. The experience is hell. He keeps thinking the hill will flatten but every time he reaches a clearing, he realizes the summit is still impossibly far away. When he finally reaches high ground, Bryson falls to the ground, exhausted. When he stands up again, he realizes the view is majestic—but intimidating. Next, they have to hike through a staggeringly steep gorge and up another even steeper hill. That takes them 1.7 miles into the Trail. Bryson realizes that his plan to hike over 25 miles a day was woefully ambitious.
Bryson and Katz have barely embarked on the journey, and already the experience is miserable. The trials and discomforts of the Trail will feature heavily in the remainder of Bryson’s account. Eventually, they’ll teach Bryson to appreciate many of life’s simple pleasures (like a warm bed) but at the moment, he just feels miserable.
At first, Bryson waits for Katz to catch up as they hike—but Katz is painfully slow, and stopping every few steps to wipe his brow and swear. Within the first couple hours, Bryson loses track of Katz. It’s seven miles to the summit, which doesn’t seem so far, but it’s hard work with a heavy pack. Bryson muses that it’s like hiking with two children—or a large box of textbooks—strapped to your back on a steep incline that climbs over 4,500 feet high. Bryson wonders why he’s doing this voluntarily. He keeps thinking that he must have walked seven miles by now, but the hike seems endless. Eight hours after setting off, Bryson reaches the summit of Springer Mountain. He’s completely spent.
Bryson stresses how impatient he is with Katz at the start of the journey. It’s clear that at this stage, they’re not really working together yet, and this makes the journey more of a struggle. Bryson’s disdain for the heavy pack he has to carry underscore that hiking in the wilderness in the United States isn’t the leisurely pastime he envisioned. In fact, the journey is so miserable that Bryson can’t even enjoy the view when he reaches the summit.
At the summit, there’s a notebook where hikers write encouraging notes. Bryson waits about 45 minutes for Katz before going to look for him. He walks downhill—through miles of Trail that he’ll have to hike again—and eventually spots Katz, who’s hysterical. He’s been shedding food to lighten his pack, and he looks really mad about it. Bryson takes Katz’s pack, and together they hike to the summit, where the campsite is buzzing with activity. Katz doesn’t know how to put up his tent, so an exasperated Bryson does it for him, and Katz crawls in and passes out. Too tired to cook, Bryson does the same.
The notebook with encouraging notes indicates that there’s a community ethos on the Appalachian Trail, in which people look out for and support one another. Katz and Bryson don’t embody this yet, but the fact that Bryson goes back to look for Katz shows that he’s starting to think of them as a team. Nonetheless, Bryson is still impatient with Katz, utterly annoyed by his lack of survival skills.
Bryson wakes up to find that his water bottle has frozen solid. Katz is moving around sheepishly outside, feeling bad for the way he acted yesterday. He makes Bryson some coffee to make up for it, and he promises to be better today. Bryson notices that Katz is filtering the coffee with toilet paper because he threw the filters out on the Trail, and Bryson can’t help but laugh. They drink coffee mixed with toilet paper and discuss what to eat for breakfast. It turns out that Katz shed most of their food on the way, so they make do with a Snickers bar.
Bryson emphasizes the punishingly cold weather, though he doesn’t quite realize yet that his lack of concern for the weather will be the biggest danger he’ll face on his journey. Katz’s ineptitude is almost comical, though he is trying to be helpful and supportive. The duo will need to lean on each other to get through the difficult journey, and they’re both starting to realize that.