A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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Bears Symbol Icon

Bill Bryson’s shifting attitude toward bears—from terror to sympathy—represents humanity’s misconceptions about the wilderness. From the start, Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail is marred by his irrational fear of wild animals, notably bears. He devotes large portions of his account to describing all the terrible ways in which bears have killed humans, and he stays up for hours each night, terrified of being mauled by one. As the story progresses, however, it grows increasingly obvious to Bryson that animal attacks are extremely rare on the Trail. In contrast, human attacks—on the landscape, plants, animals, and other humans—are far more frequent. Similarly, most hikers who die in the attempt do so because of human ineptitude: they struggle with bad maps and get lost in the woods, or they make poor decisions like failing to carry the proper gear for bad weather. It’s only in the final few days of his trip that Bryson is able to direct his fear towards the actual threats he faces, rather than the perceived threats he imagines in his mind. Bears thus symbolize the irrational and somewhat misplaced fear of the wild (and its perceived dangers) that many human beings have.

Our fear of the wild often prompts us to do terrible things to other creatures, such as hunting those we perceive to be a threat. Most large mammals native to the Appalachian Trail—including bears—were, in fact, hunted to extinction or near extinction in the 20th century. Despite our misgivings about the threats that we face in the wilderness, we are actually the biggest dangers in the wild: we cut down trees, hunt wild animals, kill each other, and make silly mistakes that endanger our lives. Moreover, our fear of the wilderness often prompts our desire to conquer it, thus amplifying the threat we pose to other living creatures in nature. Bryson thus uses his shift in attitude about bears to imply that the wilderness would be a lot better off if human beings focused on changing our own behavior—rather than changing our environment to assuage our often-misplaced fear.

Bears Quotes in A Walk in the Woods

The A Walk in the Woods quotes below all refer to the symbol of Bears. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Anchor edition of A Walk in the Woods published in 2006.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Through long winter nights in New Hampshire, while snow piled up outdoors and my wife slumbered peacefully beside me, I lay saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags, plucked whimpering from trees, even noiselessly stalked (I didn't know this happened!) as they sauntered unawares down leafy paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams.

Related Characters: Bill Bryson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Bears
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

These are, in short, seriously inadequate maps. In normal circumstances, this is merely irksome. Now, in a blizzard, it seemed closer to negligence.

Related Characters: Bill Bryson (speaker), Stephen Katz
Related Symbols: Bears
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

“Well you know what I’ve got in here, just in case? […] Toenail clippers—because you never know when danger might arise.”

Related Characters: Stephen Katz (speaker), Bill Bryson
Related Symbols: Bears
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:
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A Walk in the Woods PDF

Bears Symbol Timeline in A Walk in the Woods

The timeline below shows where the symbol Bears appears in A Walk in the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...more. Then he goes next door and buys a pile of books about hiking and bear attacks.   (full context)
Chapter 2
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...Quebec. They cooked hamburgers and suspended their food from a tree, out of reach from bears. That night, however, a bear came and ripped the bag down. A few hours later,... (full context)
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...many sleepless nights imagining all the small mistakes he could make that will attract a bear, such as using aromatic gel or forgetting a candy bar in his pocket. In truth,... (full context)
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson knows he’s far more likely to cross paths with a black bear, and they rarely attack—there were only 20 fatal attacks between 1900 and 1980. Most attacks... (full context)
Chapter 4
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
To Bryson, the woods feel sinister. It’s hard to get your bearings, and it feels like you’re being watched. You think about bears and serial killers, and... (full context)
Chapter 7
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
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... (full context)
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 10
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Bryson wonders how botanists managed the perils of the wilderness, such as bears, snakes and panthers. A bear even charged from a tree and mauled one of them—nearly... (full context)
Chapter 11
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...the thousands. The park also has a lot of nocturnal animals like bobcats, foxes, and bears—and even rare accounts of mountain lions. (full context)
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...evening. That night, Bryson hears something rustling in the bushes. He immediately thinks it’s a bear. He crawls out to his pack to get his knife and shines a flashlight around.... (full context)
Chapter 12
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...is surprisingly nice—until he cracks a joke about carrying toenail clippers just in case another bear comes by. In the 1930s, Avery and MacKaye had an argument over a road that... (full context)
Chapter 13
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...the Trail in one season. In the summer, hikers have to worry about lightning storms, bears, ticks, rattlesnakes. Now that he’s heard about the murder in Shenandoah, he’s also trepidatious about... (full context)
Chapter 14
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
At the park, there’s a large dumpster in the picnic area that’s been mauled by bears. The summit of Piney Mountain is the Trail’s midpoint, exactly 1,080 miles in from either... (full context)
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
...dense, green foliage with little visibility. Bryson knows he’d be helpless if he saw a bear. Bryson reaches the summit of Piney Mountain, and the moment is anticlimactic—it feels pointless to... (full context)
Chapter 21
Isolation, Companionship, and Kindness Theme Icon
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Theme Icon
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Theme Icon
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Theme Icon
...though: he wishes he’d made it to Katahdin. He even regrets having never seen a bear. He wishes that he’d had a more impressive brush with death to boast about. Still,... (full context)