Earl V. Shaffer first hiked the whole Appalachian Trail in 1948 over 123 days, even though experts like Myron Avery thought this wasn’t possible. Shaffer later published an account of his hike in Walking with Spring. What’s more, many parts of the Trail were overgrown, unmarked, or wiped out by loggers. Back then, he saw small farms and cabins along the route, none of which remain today (they were since purchased and replanted as woodlands). Shaffer’s journey revived interest in both hiking and the Trail. Even so, many parts of the Trail were subsequently rerouted to make way for commerce and private property.
Building on his argument from the previous chapter, Bryson stresses how strange he finds attitudes to rural environments in the United States. It seems like there were once plenty of farms and villages lining the Trail, but they were removed. This implies that Americans tend to think of nature as something to be sealed off and isolated from human society, rather than something that intertwines with human life more easily. Bryson is deeply dissatisfied with this picture.
In 1968, a government official named Stuart Udall passed the Trails System Act, protecting the AT by turning it into a national park. Since Shaffer, over 4,000 people have completed the hike—some in one go (thru-hikers), and others by tackling a bit at a time (section hikers). One person completed it in sections over 46 years. Leonard Ward completed it in 60 days in the 1980s, and runner David Horton beat Ward’s record in 1991. A blind man named Bill Irwin even completed it with the help of his seeing-eye dog. Bryson’s favorite hiker is Woodrow Murphy, who weighed 350 pounds. He hiked the Trail to lose weight, and emerged 50 pounds lighter when he was done.
Despite Bryson’s growing dissatisfaction with the lack of easy rural environments where nature and human life mix easily, it seems that some Americans—in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life—seem to be able to complete the Trail. In contrast, Bryson and Katz are realizing that life on the Trail is too uncomfortable for the both of them, and they’d rather be spending time in a less punishing rural environment.
It’s curious to Bryson that some people complete the Trail, turn around, and keep walking. Bill Irwin also famously said that he didn’t enjoy the hiking at all, he just felt compelled—as if it wasn’t his choice. Horton said that he cried most of the way, and Shaffer ended up living as a recluse afterwards. Bryson wonders why people feel compelled to hike the Trail if the experience isn’t pleasant. Bryson and Katz head to Virginia, passing back into urban life—with endless strip malls full of Wal-Marts, Kmarts, and Dunkin Donuts. The difference shocks Bryson. He’s gotten used to the woods. Even Katz notices how ugly it all looks.
Bryson’s anecdotes about other hikers underscores the fact that people don’t enjoy engaging with nature when the environment is so grueling. At the same time, the alternative of highways and strip malls is equally unpleasant. Once again, Bryson emphasizes that the juxtaposition between car-friendly commercial sprawl and remote wilderness leaves little room in between for people like him, who want to spend time in nature in a more relaxing, comfortable way.