A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Katz is sullen for two days. The only time he talks to Bryson is to tell him that he has cream soda and he’s not sharing because he could be watching the X-Files right now. The next morning, however, Katz seems to have settled down. Katz never quite gets into hiking—he seems hopeful that he’ll have an epiphany about its value, but he never does. Not even the views interest him much. Bryson, on the other hand, is in a walking groove. He just wants to keep pushing forward, which Katz finds really annoying.
Katz’s behavior reminds the reader that many people glorify the wilderness as a profound or pleasurable experience of sorts—but in reality, the remoteness and isolation of the Trail is far more punishing and unpleasant. Katz and Bryson’s bickering reminds the reader that they don’t actually like each other much: they’ve just been helping each other out because they’re stuck in this situation together. Sometimes they still slip into old habits, as Katz does when he acts petulant about being back on the Trail.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
One morning, Bryson is waiting for Katz to catch up when Katz emerges covered in twigs and some dried blood, swearing about getting around a fallen tree. To Katz’s disbelief, Bryson didn’t even notice the tree when he crossed it. A couple hours later, the trees part to reveal a majestic sight: they’ve reached the Great Smoky Mountains. Down below, in the valley, there’s a colossal hydroelectric dam. They hasten toward it, anticipating a visitor’s center—which means bathrooms and vending machines—but it’s closed. Exasperated, they press on. They have 71 miles of steep climbing ahead before they reach another store. Bryson spares Katz from knowing that they’re about to climb 6,000 feet to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Trail.
The reader learns that Katz finds Bryson’s absentminded attitude as annoying as Bryson finds Katz’s obsession with TV and junk food. By now, however, they’ve learned that they need to support each other to get through the journey, as Bryson does by periodically waiting for Katz. Yet despite getting into a groove on the Trail, Bryson still finds himself yearning for simple pleasures like bathrooms. The sparse access to amenities along the Trail is starting to wear on them both. Once again, Bryson subtly hints that he'd prefer to be hiking somewhere with a bit more life going on, as he’d enjoy the experience much more if there were pleasant stops along the way. 
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Bryson is excited, as they’ve reached their third state: Tennessee. He’s excited about new and different terrain ahead, and it feels like spring is coming. To Bryson, the Smokies are “a natural Eden.” The lush landscape is incredibly biodiverse and the atmosphere has a bluish tinge, after which the Smokies are named. The mountain range’s north-south orientation made it fodder for many plant species (having traveled south on glaciers during the last ice age) that aren’t found elsewhere in the world. The abundance of plants means that there are lots of animals too—especially bears. The bears have learned that where there are people, there are picnics, which means food.
Bryson emphasizes how rare and precious the landscape in Appalachia is. There’s also an incredible abundance of rare plants and animals. It’s clear that so far, human activity in the region has focused on logging, which emphasizes how much of a threat human activity is to this biodiverse ecosystem. Nonetheless, Bryson still obsesses about bears, even though it’s clear that human activity is far more destructive than any animals are in this environment. 
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson imagines bears thinking of people as silly, fat creatures in baseball caps who leave food everywhere and then run away. Sometimes, people like to film the bears and try to engage them. One woman even smeared honey on her toddler’s hand so the bear would lick it, and the bear ate the toddler’s hand. When this sort of thing happens, the park rangers shoot the bear with tranquilizer guns, carry it far away, and let it loose in the backwoods—which is where Bryson and Katz are. Bryson has heard many stories about hikers getting mugged by bears on the trail. He sticks close by Katz, who’s bemused by Bryson’s fear.
Bryson uses anecdotes and facts about bear attacks to show that often, humans behave carelessly around bears, and that’s really why bear attacks happen. The woman who smears honey on her toddler’s hand clearly illustrates this point. The conflict between Bryson’s fearful feelings about bears and the unlikeliness of a bear attack exposes his fear as wildly inflated. Katz also finds Bryson’s fear funny, which similarly confirms that it’s irrational.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
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There are over 25 species of salamander in the Smokies, the largest of which grow up to two feet long. A third of the world’s mussel varieties also live in the Smokies, and almost a half of those species are endangered. Bryson thinks that the National Park Service doesn’t help—it has a history of driving species to extinction. Since its formation in 1923, seven mammal species have gone extinct. Bizarrely, it also allocates areas of the park for species that aren’t native to those ecosystems. When its biologists tried to reclaim Abrams Creek for rainbow trout in the 1950s, they did it by dumping poison into the creek to kill the other fish, wiping out 31 species.
Bryson again highlights how diverse the ecosystem of the Smokies is. At the same time, he exposes human beings as the greatest threat to all this wildlife—even the National Park Service, which is supposed to preserve wildlife, is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to killing animals. In highlighting the Park Service’s ineptitude at preservation, Bryson once again shows that human beings are a greater threat to the Trail’s ecosystem than wild animals are to human beings.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson thinks that today, the National Park Service’s biggest crime is neglect. Only three percent of their budget is allocated for research, meaning there’s little documentation of the species that are rapidly going extinct. 90 percent of the Smokies’s Fraser firs are dying, but park officials just say they’re watching the situation. To Bryson, it looks like they’re just watching the trees die. There are also many meadows nestled between the trees that are unique to the Smokies. They house 29 percent of the Smokies’s flora in the mere 0.015 percent of land they occupy. Within 20 years, there may be none of these meadows left.
Bryson reinforces his implication that humans are the biggest dangers on the Trail by showing how many plants are going extinct under our watch, even though we have at least some resources that we could be using for preservation. This seems doubly negligent because the wildlife in the Smokies is so rare—many plants exist in the meadows that may not be found anywhere else in the world.
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Though it seems like Bryson has little admiration for the Park Service, the rangers he meets are cheerful and engaged (though most of them have been laid off). The Park Service is also chronically underfunded. Its budget is $200 million a year, but it has a repair backlog of $6 billion. Despite this, in 1991, it threw a $500,000 anniversary party. Bryson thinks that this is as moronic as dumping poison into a creek. In fact, he thinks that if the Park Service gets more money, it’ll probably spend that on paving the meadows for parking lots.
Bryson emphasizes that the people who run the Park Service are really the most negligent ones, because they prioritize fundraisers and parking lots over responsible preservation. These facts reinforce the idea that the Park Service’s ineptitude is more of an active threat to the ecosystem than might initially seem the case. It’s clear to Bryson that no other creature is responsible for as much destruction to the natural environment of the Trail. 
Themes
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson and Katz reach Birch Spring Gap Shelter at dusk. The stone (rather than wood) shelters look snug and inviting in the bluish atmosphere. Up close, however, they’re dark, damp, and muddy; they still have one wall open to the elements. Bryson checks the shelter log where hikers leave notes for one another. Some notes mention bear-like sounds, but most warn about the rats. Bryson and Katz soon witness this themselves: at night, their sleeping bags are surrounded by rodents. A hysterical Katz flails around, trying to kill them.
Bryon is terrified of bear attacks despite having seen no wild animals yet. Yet the greatest animal threat he faces, in fact, comes from the rats who run rampant in the shelter—and they’re at best a nuisance. Once again, Bryson emphasizes how irrational his fear of bears is. Additionally, the unforgiving shelters are a constant reminder of the absence of rural life in this area.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
The next day is foggy and rainy. Bryson hates walking the rain—it’s impossible to stay dry. They walk 9.7 miles to Spence Field Shelter, arriving wet and chilled to the bone. The clothes in Bryson’s pack are also wet, and Katz’s matches are too wet to light the stove. The Park Service enforces rules requiring trail hikers to keep moving and sleep in shelters, meaning that Bryson and Katz will have to spend the night crowded in with other people. Several other drenched campers arrive, and the small shelter soon feels overcrowded. Bryson fantasizes about MacKaye’s vision of pastoral hostels along the route, imagining the well-kept hostels housing dinner tables and serving peach cobbler. His daydream is interrupted by a camper named Bob, who asks about his gear. Bryson hates talking about equipment.
Bryon draws attention to the sheer misery of hiking in the rain. The strict shelter rules mean that Katz and Bryson have to walk in this weather, risking hypothermia. Once again, it seems like human beings (here, the Park Service’s bizarre rules) are posing a far greater threat to hikers than any animals on the Trail are. Bryson emphasizes how much more he’d enjoy the experience of being in nature if it was interwoven more seamlessly into human society. It seems he either has to be remote or urban, and it bothers him that there’s no happy medium in between.
Themes
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bob launches into a monologue about the virtues of see-through bags. To Bryson’s delight, Katz interjects, wondering why a hiker wouldn’t have time to unzip a regular bag and just look inside. As Bryson and Katz continue on, they spend several rain-filled days and cramped shelter nights hiking on. The repetitive sound of rain on plastic raincoats irritates Bryson. He doesn’t see any bears or salamanders—or much of anything except rain droplets on his glasses. When Katz and Bryson finally reach the peak of Clingman’s Dome, they can’t see anything but rain and fog. Feeling soaked and filthy, they head to Gatlinburg, the next town.
Even though Katz and Bryson still annoy each other, they’ve started to embody a chummy camaraderie. Katz immediately senses that Bob is irritating Bryson, and his cutting comment shoos Bob away. Bryson has read a lot about the views in the Smokies, but he can’t see any—the rain obscures the entire surrounding area. Once again, the promise of exploration and adventure falls short, and the experience fails to hit the mark for Bryson.
Themes
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
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