A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
To Bryson, the woods feel sinister. It’s hard to get your bearings, and it feels like you’re being watched. You think about bears and serial killers, and every sound makes you jumpy. Even Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the values of nature, found the Appalachians savage and terrifying. Bryson and Katz are hiking through the Chattahoochee Forest. When the first Europeans arrived in the Americas, the dense forest spread northward into Canada and westward to the Missouri River. Most of the forest is now gone, but what’s left is still a foreboding 6,000 square miles large. Bryson and Katz walk on and on through seemingly endless ridges, valleys, and hills of dense, cold forest.
The isolation of the wilderness is clearly intimidating. Once again, Bryson emphasizes his fear of wildlife, which he symbolizes with bears. He mentions serial killers as well, though he doesn’t know that they’re a much bigger threat to him than bears are. In mentioning that most of the forests are gone, Bryson subtly implies that humans pose a far greater threat to the wild than the wild does to us. He’ll revisit this idea several times throughout the memoir.
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The United States has a lot of woodland; the forests in Maine alone are larger than Belgium. A wilderness so large sounds refreshingly serene, but in reality, the land is also used for mining and logging. The Forest Service—an institution designed to capitalize on the nation’s forests—allocates a third of the nation’s woodland for logging. It primarily builds roads to provide logging access for private timber companies. In fact, the roads in the nation’s forests are eight times longer than the entire interstate highway system. Logging, in turn, washes away soil and disrupts ecosystems. By the late 1980s, the Forest Service was cutting down trees faster than it replaced them, even though 80 percent of its deals lost money. Bryson finds this utterly deplorable.
Bryson expands on the idea that humans cause a lot more damage to the wild than any other creature on Earth. Even the Forest Service, which oversees the nation’s forests, is designed for the purpose of making money out of the forests through logging, rather than preserving the natural habitat for the creatures that call it home. Bryson emphasizes how much damage the Forest Service has done to the forests in the United States in order to emphasize how big of a threat to the environment human beings are.
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In 1890, a railroad man named Henry C. Bagley all but leveled the forest that Bryson and Katz are hiking through for timber. By 1920, foresters in the South were logging 15.4 billion feet of timber a year before preservation action began in the 1930s. To Bryson, the forest seems like a “strange frozen violence.” Downed trees lie in craters every 50 yards, and others lean ominously as if they’re about to topple over. The woods are also creepily quiet in winter. Normally in March, the woods would be filled with flowers, insects, and life—but not this year. Everything is still frozen.
Bryson drops in more facts and statistics that emphasize the deplorably fast rate at which industry damages the Appalachian Trail’s ecosystem. It’s clear that a great deal of damage was done before preservation efforts even crossed anyone’s mind.  Meanwhile, Bryson’s description of the forest as a creepy sort of “frozen violence” emphasizes how uncomfortable and out of place he is this remote environment.
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Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz fall into a simple routine: they wake at first light, make coffee, pack up their tents, eat some raisins, and hike about nine hours a day. Bryson is much faster, but he waits for Katz every so often. Sometimes, other hikers give him updates on Katz’s progress. There are about two dozen or so hikers, young and old, trekking northward in the same area. Bryson bumps into three or four of them a day, often in the wooden shelters along the route. He feels like he’s part of an informal crew of people from all walks of life who share both the motivation and the discomfort of hiking the Trail.
As Bryson and Katz spend more time on the Trail, they start to notice the way people look out for one another. They’re even looking out for Bryson and Katz, as evidenced by the updates that various hikers give Bryson about Katz’s progress. Bryson starts to embrace this practice of kindness, knowing that as annoying as he finds Katz, they’re in the same boat. Bryson thus starts to display more patience with Katz’s slower pace. Even at this early stage of the journey, Bryson is realizing that the experience is marked by discomfort.
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Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
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Even though there are people around now and then, the woods provide Bryson with a profound feeling of solitude. Bryson leaves markers on the route for Katz and occasionally hikes back to find him. They sort of look out for each other, and it feels nice. Around four p.m. each day, they set up camp and boil noodles. Around six p.m., they crawl wearily into their tents. Katz always falls asleep instantly, but Bryson often reads by lamplight for an hour and hears sounds in the forest until he falls asleep. Each day they wake, shivering in the cold, and repeat the same ritual.
As the first week of the journey passes, Bryson and Katz fall into more of a rhythm and start watching out for each other. Bryson starts offering Katz more kind gestures—for example, backtracking on his progress and adding extra hours to his already-long days of hiking, just to make sure Katz is alright. The shared misery of the experience makes them empathize with each other, and they start working together to help each other through the journey.
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On their fourth night, Bryson and Katz befriend a woman named Mary Ellen from Florida who talks incessantly. She monologues about how they overpaid for their gear and exaggerates how far she hiked that day. Even though she’s quite plump herself, Mary Ellen tells Katz he’s too fat to hike and he might have a heart attack. Katz gets up to pee and swears under his breath. The next morning, Katz and Bryson eat raisins while Mary Ellen stuffs herself with oatmeal, chocolate, and pop tarts. When they head off, she tags along. Despite Mary Ellen’s bravado, she’s nervous in the wilderness. Bryson finds her oddly amusing, so he doesn’t mind. Mostly she just rattles off redundant facts, like what time it is.
Mary Ellen embodies the exact opposite attitude to the camaraderie among hikers tackling the Trail. Bryson highlights Mary Ellen’s negative comments, patronizing attitude, and selfishness in refusing to share her food to illustrate the kind of behavior that demoralizes people and makes their journey harder. Although Katz despises Mary Ellen, Bryson is still keen to show her some kindness, as he doesn’t want her to be alone and scared. Unfortunately, this grace doesn’t seem to rub off on her the way other that hikers’ kind behavior did on Bryson and Katz.
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Bryson, Katz, and Mary Ellen hike laboriously over Blood Mountain (which is 4,461 feet high) and head toward Neels Gap, eager to reach the Walasi-Yi Inn, the first store along the Trail. They’re utterly captivated by the sandwiches, juice, and cheese inside. Bryson starts thinking that the Trail’s appeal is depriving you of things, so that something as simple as canned cheese can fill you with wonder. To Bryson, it makes all the discomfort worth it. Bryson and Katz feast on sandwiches, stock up on food, call home, and shower. Looking back, Bryson thinks he’s never enjoyed a shower so much as when he washed a week’s worth of grime off his body.
Bryson and Katz’s first experience with civilization fills Bryson with a sort of mesmerized, wonderful joy. His fanciful descriptions of relatively ordinary activities— like showering and having access to soda—show that he’s developing appreciation for life’s ordinary pleasures in a way that he never did before he deprived himself of all these things. In fact, it seems like Bryson is learning to appreciate such simple comforts the way he thought he would appreciate nature.
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Bryson and Katz chat with Justin and Peggy, the Walasi-Yi Inn’s owners. Peggy is very encouraging and often tries to dissuade people from quitting the Trail. Indeed, Bryson feels refreshed and is eager to keep going. He’s also starting to feel fitter. Even Katz looks happy. They learn than Mary Ellen already left them behind, and they feel like the day is just getting better and better. Bryson and Katz hike to a meadow to set up camp, and Bryson pulls out a pack of Hostess cupcakes as a surprise for a delighted Katz. They lie against a log feeling relaxed and happy. Suddenly, Katz groans: Mary Ellen is walking toward them.
Peggy’s encouraging demeanor exemplifies the ethos of kindness and support that hikers embody to help each other with the journey. Mary Ellen’s selfish behavior (hiking ahead without saying goodbye) throws Peggy’s kindness into relief. Even though Bryson despises junk food, he uses the Hostess cupcakes to motivate and encourage Katz. It’s clear that they are starting to treat each other with more kindness, and their warmer behavior toward each other is making the trip much more tolerable. 
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