In 1996, Bill Bryson moves to New Hampshire after living in Europe for the last several years. Motivated by a desire to explore his homeland and grow more acquainted with the United States, he decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. As soon as he starts reading about the American wilderness, however, he realizes that he’s in over his head. He assumed that hiking in the United States would be similar to hiking in Europe, where people mostly walk in the countryside and then retire in a rural village inn. However, he soon learns that he’s going to have to camp and be prepared to fend for himself in the wilderness. After buying lots of camping gear, Bryson reads voraciously about the threats of the wild and stays up for hours each night imagining himself being mauled to death by bears. Terrified of being in the woods alone, Bryson reaches out to his network for a travel companion—and Stephen Katz, an old high school friend he hasn’t seen in years, agrees to join him. Bryson’s wife is skeptical, as she remembers Bryson finding Katz irritating on their last trip together many years ago.
Surely enough, when Katz shows up, he’s heavily overweight and addicted to junk food. He immediately informs Bryson that he needs to eat every hour or he has seizures, and he insists on stopping by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to Bryson’s place. Despite Bryson’s trepidation, they fly to Georgia in March, where they’ll enter the Trail near Springer Mountain and hike northward to Maine through the summer. The taxi driver who takes them to Springer warns the duo that most people quit the hike within the first week, and some even quit within a few hours of hiking.
The next morning, Bryson and Katz set off. Both of them have heavy packs, which make the hike difficult. Bryson soon outpaces Katz, who lags behind, struggling under the weight of his pack. After arriving at the summit of Springer Mountain, Bryson is too exhausted to enjoy the view. He also has to go back, find Katz, and carry Katz’s pack for him, which irritates him to no end. They struggle in the grueling terrain, which is a series of relentless uphill climbs and steep gorges. Along the way, Bryson reflects on the history of the Trail’s construction, the logging industry (signs of which are evident throughout their hike), and the sinister feeling of being so isolated in the woods. On their fourth day, a woman named Mary Ellen latches onto them, though they find her bragging, selfishness, and patronizing comments infuriating. The trio soon arrive at the Walasi-Yi Inn, and Bryson is shocked to realize how mesmerized he is by products like canned cheese and cold soda after a few days in the wilderness. After a couple days hiking with the insufferable Mary Ellen, Bryson and Katz ditch her and hitchhike to Haiawassee for a night in a motel and a welcome break from the Trail.
Their first day back on the Trail after a night in a real bed is tough on both men. They bump into a man who tells them that Mary Ellen dropped out of her hike and that snow is expected. Three days later, Bryson and Katz reach Big Butt Mountain just as it starts snowing. They try to ascend the mountain but find themselves caught in a fierce blizzard. Their poorly marked maps also lead them astray, but they manage to find their way back to the Trail and hole up in a shelter with another pair of campers named Jim and Heath, who generously share their food. Bryson and Katz spend a few boring days in a near-empty logging town called Franklin, before Bryson forces Katz to get back on the Trail. After a few days, they cross over into Tennessee and reach the Smoky Mountains. Bryson reflects on the diverse ecosystem of the Smoky Mountains and laments the inept preservation efforts of the National Park Service, which seems to do more damage than good to the area. He also worries about bears, though their only animal encounter is with an army of rodents in one of the shelters.
Bryson and Katz continue their hike through several punishing, rain-filled days; when they reach the summit of Clingman’s Dome, they can’t see the view because the weather is so bad. The pair hitch a ride to Gatlinburg, where they spend the night. Bryson dislikes the tourist hubbub in Gatlinburg, which seems like more like hillbilly-themed mall complex than a town. Bryson spots a scale map of the whole trail in a shoe store and realizes that their tough days of slogging through the woods have only taken them through a tiny increment of the Trail. They admit that they’re never going to hike the whole thing, but the thought is oddly liberating. The duo decides to skip a portion of the Trail and travel to Virginia, resuming the hike in Shenandoah National Park.
On the way to Virginia, Bryson reflects on some of the Trail’s early hikers. He’s bemused that few people enjoy hiking the Trail, though many feel compelled to do so. Bryson also notices that the Trail is almost completely surrounded by urban sprawl, and he finds the endless highways, chain restaurants, and strip malls ugly. Bryson thinks that the landscape must have changed a lot in the last century. He discusses the history of botany in Appalachia, noting that many of its rare plants and flowers have gone extinct since Europeans colonized the Americas.
Bryson feels fitter and healthier as he hikes through Shenandoah. He thinks it’s odd that Americans seem peculiarly unaccustomed to walking—the country’s infrastructure seems to be primarily set up for drivers. In Shenandoah, Bryson thinks about the damage that pollution has caused to the nation’s forests. One night, Bryson is terrified to hear rustling outside his tent. He realizes an animal is prowling around nearby and is too terrified to go to sleep, though the animal already retreated to the forest. The pair hike on, and a couple days later, Bryson stops to rest in a beautiful glade. They don’t know that in a few weeks, two women will be murdered there. They also bump into an obnoxious group of campers who selfishly take over their shelter and push Bryson and Katz out into the rain. The next day, Bryson and Katz part ways for a break. They’ve hiked 500 miles so far, and they’ll reunite to tackle Maine in August.
Bryson explores a stretch of the Trail between Virginia and New England by car over the course of June and July. He visits Harper’s Ferry and enjoys imagining the American Civil War soldiers hiking and camping on the Trail. He visits the Appalachian Trail Conference’s headquarters and talks with a woman named Laurie Potteiger about the dangers of the Trail. Bryson is still worried about wild animals, though he learns of no fatal attacks on the Trail. He does, however, learn about nine murders on the Trail since the 1970s, including the two hikers who were recently murdered in the glade he passed through a few weeks ago.
Bryson attempts to reenter the Trail in Pennsylvania, where the landscape has been decimated by mining activity. He drives around for ages and can’t find the Trail’s access route, though he explores an abandoned mining town called Centralia and trespasses near a mountain that has been completely destroyed by zinc miners. Bryson also learns that there were once many farms and villages lining the Trail in Delaware, but many of them were bulldozed to make way for industrial activity, which deeply saddens Bryson. He thinks nostalgically about his pleasant hiking experiences in Luxembourg, where he could walk along trails and retire in quaint little country inns at the end of each day. He wishes things were more like that in the United States.
Bryson drives and day-hikes along the Trail in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. He struggles to connect with the Trail while dipping in and out of it like this, and he hits a low point. Bryson enjoys hiking near Mount Greylock, where many historical writers set their stories. In New Hampshire, Bryson hikes with his friend Bill Abdu. After forgetting his waterproof raincoat in the car, Bryson gets hypothermia, but he makes it to a lodge in time to warm up. Bryson thinks about all the people who die from hypothermia while attempting to explore the area’s natural terrain.
Two weeks later, Bryson and Katz reunite to tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine. It’s the most remote and taxing stretch of the Trail, culminating at the summit of Katahdin. They struggle to readjust to hiking with heavy packs, and within a few hours, Katz has foolishly discarded most of his clothes, food, and drinking water to lighten his load. The heat, humidity, and dense forest in Maine are intimidating, and Bryson and Katz soon realize that they’re out of their depth in this terrain. The duo soon approaches a rotting lagoon. When attempting to cross it, they both fall in and nearly drown. Two more experienced hikers deftly cross the lagoon by lifting their packs above their heads, and they warn Bryson and Katz that the terrain is going to get a lot tougher.
Bryson and Katz spend the night in Monson and enjoy a hearty meal of hot food. The next day, the pair has an argument: Bryson is upset because Katz has started drinking again after being sober for years. Despite the tense mood, the pair forge on. The forest grows darker and more ominous, and the Trail features a series of impossibly large rock faces and fast flowing rivers. Katz falls in and nearly drowns again. They’ve only made it 15 miles into the Hundred Mile Wilderness and are quickly growing dejected. Katz and Bryson have a heart to heart, and Katz explains that he started drinking again because he finds it hard to socialize and is often lonely. The pair clears the air, and Bryson offers to hike ahead and get water for them from Cloud Pond as a gesture of goodwill. When Bryson returns to the meeting point, Katz is nowhere to be found. Bryson searches frantically for hours in the woods but sees no sign of Katz. He spends the night at Cloud Pond worrying about Katz getting lost in the dense underbrush and disappearing forever.
The next morning, Bryson searches for Katz again. After a couple hours, he finds Katz sitting by the Trail, looking disheveled and covered in blood. Katz had apparently grown delirious with thirst and gotten lost; he only found the Trail again by chance. The pair decides that they’d rather be anywhere other than where they are, and they abandon the Trail, opting to mark the end of their journey in a town called Milo, instead of atop the summit of Katahdin like they’d planned. Katz still thinks that they made a commendable effort, even though they didn’t complete the journey. Bryson completes a number of day hikes over the next month, and he eventually parts ways with the Trail on Mount Killington in Vermont. All in all, he’s hiked 850 miles of the 2,100-mile-long Trail. He didn’t become a “mountain man” as he envisioned, but he learned a lot about the United States. He still hiked the Appalachian Trail, at least in part, which is something to be proud of.