A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two days later, Mary Ellen is still tagging along with Bryson and Katz, asking annoying, irrelevant questions about their star signs and dreams. They’ve hiked 22 miles in two days, but they feel listless. Each day is the same rhythm of hiking through trees, not seeing many views, sleeping, and doing the same all over again. Bryson and Katz concoct a secret plan to hike 14 miles to Dicks Creek Gap, where they want to sneak off for dinner and sleep in a motel. The promise of television and warm beds motivates them to move at an alarming pace. To their relief, they lose Mary Ellen, who falls behind.
Although Bryson tried being kind to Mary Ellen, she seems not to have picked up on the fact that hikers look out for one another on the Appalachian Trail. She’s blithely unaware of the negative impact that her obnoxious behavior has on others. Once again, Bryson discovers that the discomforts of the Trail don’t really make him appreciate nature all that much (especially as he can barely see any views). What they are teaching him is that simple, basic aspects of everyday life (like television) can be sources of immense joy.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz reach Highway 76 and try to hitch a ride to the nearest town. The cars seem unnervingly fast after days in the woods, and the experience is humbling. Then, miraculously, a baby blue car screeches to a halt, and a young couple (Darren and Donna) offer them a ride. Bryson thinks that this is “Trail Magic”—a phenomenon in which good fortune arrives just when all seems lost on the Trail. Bryson and Katz, thrilled, haul their packs into the trunk. The couple is drunk on bad liquor, but Bryson and Katz get in anyway. It turns out that Darren and Donna are getting married tomorrow. They swerve a lot, which terrifies Bryson and Katz. 
There’s a stark contrast between the isolation of the woods and the intimidating highway. This image highlights the fact that beyond the land sectioned off for hiking, the United States is predominantly characterized by highways, cars, and urban sprawl. Bryson finds the contrast between these two extremes quite jarring, and he’ll ruminate on this more as the memoir progresses. Bryson reminds the reader once more that it’s very difficult to walk in and out of natural environments in Appalachia. Despite the fact that getting into a car with a drunk driver is a terrible idea, Bryson and Katz are relieved to have a break from walking.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
 Darren and Donna drop Bryson and Katz off at the motel in Haiawassee and drive away, swerving at breakneck speed. Bryson and Katz are in Northern Georgia, which makes Bryson think about James Dickie’s novel Deliverance. In the book, four men on a canoe trip are hunted and tortured by demented rural men. Before this, they ask directions in a small town which could well be Haiawassee. The book—like many historical accounts of the area—gives a disparaging picture of rural people from Georgia. Bryson feels vaguely unsettled—he isn’t sure if he’s just not used to being in towns, or if the book is haunting him.
Bryson’s description of the creepy-looking town is meant to expose the towns in Appalachia further characterizes rural America as a place where human life and nature don’t mix easily. It seems that here in Georgia, Bryson can’t feel relaxed in the woods—but he doesn’t feel relaxed in the towns either. Neither environment seems particularly appealing at the moment.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Bryson asks the lady at the motel’s reception for two rooms, but she just grabs his hand and smiles without moving. Then, her son comes in and explains that she’s mute, makes her let go of Bryson’s hands, and shows Bryson and Katz to their rooms. Bryson’s dilapidated room is covered in cigarette burns and stains, but it seems “like heaven” to him. Bryson and Katz shower with joy and head over to the town’s bistro. The food is nothing to write home about, but it’s cheap and deeply satisfying. When the waitress brings Bryson a slab of unnaturally yellow and saccharine-sweet pie, he’s overjoyed. He’s been craving pie for days, even bad pie.
In normal circumstances, Bryson would probably turn his nose up at the rundown motel room and below-average food. But after the deprivation of the Trail, the prospect of any warm bed and any hot food fill him with delight, and the experience is heavenly. Bryson underscores once more that as time passes, it’s not nature he’s falling in love with, but the simple comforts everyday life—such as pie—which he never appreciated in this way before.
Themes
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
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Unexpectedly, Katz feels bad for ditching Mary Ellen. Bryson doesn’t, reasoning that Mary Ellen went into the woods of her own accord and that it’s not their responsibility to look after her. But as soon as he says it, he also starts feeling bad. He’s been so preoccupied with food and a real bed that he didn’t think about how terrified Mary Ellen might feel on her own in the woods. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Katz imagines Mary Ellen trudging in the woods scared and alone. Although he realizes that if she dies, it’ll be Bryson’s fault, not his, because Bryson made the plan to ditch Mary Ellen. Feeling relieved, Katz reaches over and grabs the rest of Bryson’s pie. 
Even though Katz despises Mary Ellen, he starts to feel guilty for ditching her—and soon enough, so does Bryson. It’s clear that the attitude of kindness on the Trail is starting to affect the way Bryson and Katz treat their fellow hikers, even people as unlikeable as Mary Ellen. Bryson slyly reminds the reader that Katz is no picnic either, as he’s just made Bryson feel horrible and then taken Bryson’s much-anticipated pie.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
The next morning, Bryson and Katz feast on fast food at Hardees and head back to the Trail, facing a steep climb. The first day back after a break is tough going for Bryson, especially with a full stomach. For Katz, however, it’s always tough going. They bump into a fit-looking, middle-aged man and immediately ask about Mary Ellen. It turns out that she camped with the man last night and spent most of the time complaining about how overweight and wimpy Bryson and Katz were. Katz wants to kill her. The man says that he’ll have no shortage of people who also feel the same, as he found her incredibly annoying himself. 
Bryson finds the first day back on the Trail after a break really taxing. He’ll soon learn that he often longs for civilization again after a few days back in the woods. It seems like Mary Ellen’s obnoxious behavior is starting to annoy other hikers on the Trail as well, meaning that it’ll be hard for her to make friends (which she’ll likely need as the Trail gets tougher).
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
The man warns Bryson and Katz that six to eight inches of snowfall are due shortly, and Bryson feels instantly disheartened. The man hikes on, and Bryson makes a face at Katz. Bryson warns Katz not to ruin a piece of pie for him ever again, and Katz sheepishly nods. Two days later, they learn that Mary Ellen dropped out and left the Trail after overzealously trying to hike 35 miles in two days and getting large blisters on her feet.  
As Bryson suspected, Mary Ellen’s impatient attitude got the better of her, and she wasn’t able to continue on the Trail. Bryson underscores here that patience and kindness are necessary to help people pull through such a punishing journey. Though Bryson hasn’t really thought of the weather as a threat to his safety the way he obsesses about wild animals, he’s soon going to learn that making bad decisions in bad weather are far more likely to endanger his life than any animal would.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon