Bryson notices that distance takes on a whole new meaning when you traverse the world by foot. The planet’s vast scale is almost like a little secret among hikers. Life becomes simpler and oddly wonderful too: time doesn’t mean much except for sunrise (when you get up) and sunset (when you go to bed). You’re also free from obligations and commitments. The only thing you need is the motivation to keep walking—though there’s no need to hurry, because you’re not in a rush to get anywhere at any particular time. Walking becomes automatic and the woods start to feel like an endless, repetitive “singularity.” Bryson and Katz walk on through hills, ridges, fields, and endless trees.
The hiking experience isn’t much like Bryson imagined it would be—for example, he’s never hiked in an environment where the woods are so dense that he can’t see any views. He is, however, starting to appreciate certain aspects of life on the Trail. Nonetheless, the repetitive landscape is wearing on him, which he hints at when he describes the woods as a “singularity,” meaning they feel like something that’s endless but always the same.
Three days later, as Bryson and Katz approach Big Butt Mountain, it snows. At first, the snow is just a sprinkle—but before long, Bryson and Katz are battling a fierce blizzard. On a good day, the path around the mountain is difficult: it’s basically a high cliff-edge that’s barely a foot wide and obstructed with rocks, tree roots, and streams. Bryson and Katz stumble through with ice beneath their feet, blinding snow in their faces, while strong gusts of wind rattle through. The experience is “deeply unnerving.” When they reach the base of the summit, they can’t see anything except snow flying at them. They can’t go up, and they can’t go back—the wind is knocking them backward.
Although Bryson has spent a lot more time worrying about wild animals than about snow, he’s about to battle for his life. Despite the fact that he or Katz could slip and fall to their deaths any minute, he still underestimates the severity of the storm and the risks he’s taking by pressing on (he describing the experience as “unnerving” rather than terrifying or deadly). Soon, he’s led himself and Katz into a dangerous situation.
Bryson looks for a trail map to get his bearings, even though he knows they’re printed on such a large scale that they’re practically useless except for marking the odd mountain. The only thing Bryson can locate on the map is a Forest Service logging road that appears go nowhere. He guesses that perhaps they can follow the logging road to shelter, but he’s not optimistic. Katz looks up, longing for baked potatoes and Jacuzzis. They try the road and plod on through the merciless snow. They’re not even sure how far they’ve wandered from the trail. Eventually, they spot a sign for Big Spring Shelter and cheer in delight that they won’t die buried in snow.
Bryson shows that sheer human ineptitude—rather than a bear or any other wild animal—is often what leads hikers to their deaths, since he’s using a poorly marked map and has wandered off the trail, meaning that he and Katz could easily get lost in the snow and freeze to death. They find their way to a shelter by chance, but they could have easily died at this stage of their journey. Katz, meanwhile, just thinks about all the parts of civilization that he misses, highlighting his perpetual misery in nature.
The shelter is just a crude wooden structure open to the snow, but at least it’s something. When Bryson and Katz reach it, they meet a man named Jim and his teenage son named Heath. They’re just hiking for the weekend, and they’re prepared for bad weather. Katz enthusiastically helps Jim fasten a plastic sheet to the shelter to shield them from the snow. The wind pounds at it mercilessly, but they’re definitely snugger than they would be on the other side of the sheet. Everyone puts on all the clothes they own and share their food. To Bryson’s delight, Heath pulls out some chocolate cake. They settle in to a long night of howling wind and cold.
The fact that the shelter is so crude and open to the elements implies that it’s not much of a shelter at all. Once again, Bryson highlights how human ineptitude endangers hikers’ lives. The shelter was likely built with so few walls in order to save money. Luckily, Jim and Heath come to the rescue with characteristic kindness. They even share their food, highlighting how essential this kind of support is when people are isolated or stranded, as all four of them are now.
When Bryson awakes, the storm has passed and everything is eerily still and the snow is waist-deep around the shelter. Bryson is amazed by how stunning the woods are in their immense, snow-filled silence. The trail ahead is buried in snow, and Bryson knows it’s going to be a slog. Jim estimates that they’re seven miles away from the nearest campground. Bryson is intimidated, but he knows the snow won’t melt for days, so they have no option but to try for it. He’s terrified that another storm will blow in and bury them alive. After a hearty breakfast of coffee and oatmeal (which Heath generously shares with them), they all set off.
Even though Bryson and Katz survive the storm, it’s clear that the next phase of their journey is going to be extremely tough because of the heavy snowfall. Bryson emphasizes here how much more punishing the Trail is than he ever imagined. Once again, Jim and Heath embody the attitude of mutual support and concern that seems to inevitably arise on the Trail. They share their food and work as a team with Bryson and Katz to get them out of this life-threatening situation.
A couple hours later, Jim and Heath want to branch off to take a side-trail back to their car. Bryson pleads with them not to try a side-trail in the snow, but Jim is confident that he knows his way around. As he’s leaving, he brightly tells them that today is March 21st: the first day of spring. They part ways, and Bryson and Katz wade on through the snow. Soon—and to their utter delight—they hear a jeep coming toward them. Jim found his car and came to drive them the rest of the way to Rainbow Springs campground.
Bryson is clearly concerned for Jim and Heath despite barely knowing them. He indicates here how sharing difficult experiences on the Trail (like a life-threatening snow storm) fuels the ethos of care that many hikers share. Jim’s thoughtfulness in driving back to help Bryson and Katz underscores this idea further.
Upon entering the campground’s office, Bryson and Katz spot about 20 hikers sitting around a stove eating chili, some of whom they’ve crossed paths with already on their hike. They ask the campsite’s owners, Buddy and Jensine Crossman, for a room. At this, Jensine laughs out loud: the cabins went days ago, and people are sleeping in the bunkhouse or on the floor. Reluctantly, Bryson and Katz head to the bunkhouse. Inside, there are 12 wooden bunks stacked above each other in threes with stinking, threadbare mattresses. They meet their bunkmates, who watch, fixated, while Katz hauls himself with difficulty onto a top bunk. When he makes it, the board cracks and sags beneath him, scaring the man below.
Buddy and Jensine aren’t as kind as most other people Bryson and Katz meet, and it seems like they don’t really care about providing a welcoming environment for the stranded hikers. There’s a clear contrast between Jim and Heath’s kindness and Buddy and Jensine’s callousness. Even though Bryson is happy to be out of the snow, it’s clear that the dirty bunkhouse is a far cry from a warm country inn. The absence of villages, farms, and human life along the Trail seems to undermine the experience for Bryson.
Bryson takes an ice-cold shower in the communal shower room and heads back to the office to eat chili and hang out with the other hikers. Buddy and Jensine chain-smoke and complain about how awful and filthy the guests are, though they think Bryson is nice. When they’re out of earshot, a kid from Rutgers says that there were 15 of them in the bunkhouse last night, and they all got charged full price even though some of them were on the floor. Back at the bunkhouse, Katz is smoking cigarettes on his perch and making people pass things up to him.
Bryson reemphasizes how unwelcoming Buddy and Jensine are, and how much their negative attitude demoralizes the hikers. Once again, he underscores how the lack of amenities on the Trail undermines the experience. Katz, meanwhile, is settling in. His relaxed attitude reminds the reader that the simple pleasures of being indoors are proving more enjoyable than the Trail itself—even in such a dirty, run-down, and overcrowded place.
Bryson and Katz spend a rough night in the crowded room to a gloomy day, feeling low about facing a boring day at the campsite. Luckily, one of the bunkers offers everyone a ride to Franklin (the nearest town) and they pile in. There isn’t much there except for a lumberyard. Bryson hears about massive snowdrifts and starts to feel restless about getting stuck in Franklin. Katz, on the other hand, is thrilled. He pores over TV Guide, planning what he’s going to watch.
The town is little more than a glorified lumberyard, highlighting how lifeless Franklin feels. It’s a lumber town, which reminds the reader that human beings cause a lot of destruction along the Trail, especially through deforestation. Katz, as usual, reminds the reader that even something as banal as reading TV listings seems pleasurable after the deprivation of hiking in the woods.
After three days, Bryson finds himself studying the employees’ pictures in the town’s Burger King, and he decides he needs to get out of Franklin. Katz is disappointed and tries to dissuade Bryson, but it’s no use. The duo set off, and luckily, Bryson’s gamble pays off. The snow is deep but not insurmountable (for Bryson at least—Katz keeps falling). Eventually, the weather warms, and everything starts to thaw. Bryson can even hear birds. Katz is miserable, but Bryson is very happy to be walking again.
Bryson reminds the reader that many towns along the Trail are designed for cars rather than people. Franklin has little going on besides the lumberyard, gas station, and Burger King, which is quite a letdown for Bryson. He longs for something in between the isolation of the wilderness and the dullness of highways, gas stations, and fast food chains.