Bill Bryson (author and narrator of A Walk in the Woods) imagines conquering the wilderness and becoming a “mountain man” when he undertakes a mammoth hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail—but he quickly learns that the hike is a punishing exercise in self-deprivation. The trek is arduous, and he has to cope without comforts that he often takes for granted (such as warm food, pleasant company, or a comfortable bed). Although Bryson gets used to discomfort, he never fully warms to living this way, leading him to abandon the Trail before he’s made it to the end. Despite this failure, Bryson does acquire a newfound satisfaction in simple pleasures like soda, showers, and something to read—which he might have previously found mundane. The discomfort and deprivation that Bryson experiences on the Trail thus aren’t completely wasted. Although Bryson gains a healthy respect for the woods, he also develops a newfound ability to enjoy simple comforts that most people take for granted in their day-to-day lives.
Bryson believes hiking the Appalachian Trail will teach him how to survive in the wild like a “mountain man.” However, the discomfort and deprivation Bryson experiences eventually make him abandon his goal. Before his trip, Bryson fantasizes about how good it will feel to know that he can “fend for [himself] in the wilderness.” He imagines himself proudly feeling like he can hold his own around hunters who boast about “fearsome things done out-of-doors”—he, too, will be able to proudly say that he’s survived in the woods. On the trip however, Bryson finds “every step […] a struggle” and quickly grows dispirited by the Trail’s relentless slog of uphill climbs. Spending time in the wild is much harder than Bryson initially thought—no matter how much time he spends hiking, it’s undeniable that “a central feature of life on the Trail is deprivation.” The unsatisfying meals of noodles, the misery of walking for hours in bad weather, and the aches and pains from sleeping on hard ground only make Bryson more aware of his discomfort. Bryson thus realizes that his fantasies of becoming a tough “mountain man” are overshadowed by his desire to return to civilization.
Bryson does eventually learn to respect the vast and intimidating natural surroundings—yet the biggest lesson he learns is the capacity to feel profound gratitude for simple, seemingly banal comforts of everyday life. For instance, when Bryson comes across amenities like a grocery store or an inn with a shower during their trip, he feels “utterly captivated” and ecstatic at the simple pleasures on offer. Bryson’s sobering realization that the wilderness is harsh and unforgiving enables him to find immense joy in things like a can of soda or a shower—things that he previously would have taken for granted in day-to-day life. At one point, Bryson finds himself unexpectedly “thrilled, sublimely gratified” to discover an abandoned Graham Greene novel at a trail shelter. From this chance discovery, he concludes that “if there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low level ecstasy—something we could all do with our lives.” Again, the brutality of life on the Trail makes it so that a simple comfort like a book inspires extreme gratitude and even “ecstasy”—something that Bryson suggests everyone should cultivate in their lives. When Bryson and his travel companion, Stephen Katz, finally abandon their trip partway through the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, Bryson admits that “we were never going to become mountain men.” He does, however, learn a profound appreciation for the “world of comfort and choice.” Fittingly, the duo opts to mark the end of their journey with a much-anticipated six-pack of cream soda in a town called Milo, instead of atop the summit of Katahdin as originally planned. Despite failing to conquer the wilderness in the way he initially imagined, Bryson emerges from his journey with a newfound capacity to enjoy life’s simple pleasures after realizing how desperately he’s ached for the comforts of home.
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude ThemeTracker
Deprivation, Comfort, and Gratitude Quotes in A Walk in the Woods
Woods choke off views and leave you muddled without bearings.
You become part of an informal clump, a loose and sympathetic affiliation of people from different age groups and walks of life but all experiencing the same weather, same discomforts, same landscapes, same eccentric impulse to hike to Maine.
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.
We slopped up to the summit of Clingman’s Dome—a high point of the trip, by all accounts, with views in clear weather to make the heart take wing-and saw nothing, nothing whatever but the dim shapes of dying trees in a sea of swirling fog.