In A Walk in the Woods, author and narrator Bill Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail in 1996. As he prepares for his journey into the woods, he reads about countless potential dangers and grows increasingly terrified of deadly encounters with snakes, poisonous plants, falling trees, and worst of all, bears. Despite his worries, Bryson learns that he—and everything else in the Trail’s ecosystem—is actually far more likely to die at the hands of a human being. Bryson discovers that many animals in the wilderness are being driven to extinction by human activity, as are the Trail’s quickly diminishing forests. In exposing these facts as his journey unfolds, Bryson ultimately stresses that that although humanity fears the dangers of the wild, we are the most dangerous creatures in Appalachia.
Bryson has a deep-seated though somewhat irrational fear of the wilderness. In retrospect, he highlights how inflated his fear is using humorous anecdotes. Bryson begins his story with a comically expanding list of ways he could die, ranging from rattlesnakes to poison sumac. As Bryson’s list grows longer, it becomes increasingly outlandish—he ends up terrified that he might drown in a puddle. Bryson illustrates just how inflated and unrealistic his fear of the wilderness is when he starts including death scenarios that have nothing to do with being the woods—they could happen anywhere, even in his own backyard. And even after Bryson grows more accustomed to camping the woods, he lies awake for hours each night imagining bears mauling him to death, despite knowing his fear is vastly exaggerated. One night, when Bryson hears some rustling noises outside his tent, he panics, pulls his tent closer to his friend Stephen Katz’s, and stands guard in his underwear with a stick all night—even though the animal has long since fled into the forest. The experience was clearly terrifying for Bryson at the time, yet the audience is meant to find his account funny. By making light of his fears, Bryson suggests that it’s foolish to view every minor brush with an animal in the woods as a death sentence.
Although Bryson is terrified of going into the woods, he infuses his story with facts, statistics, and anecdotes that underscore how little of a threat the forest’s ecosystem actually is to him. In fact, he finds out that people pose a greater threat to one another than the wilderness does. Bryson admits that the chances of being attacked by a bear in the Appalachians “is remote,” since Grizzly bears (which Bryson comically describes as bullet-proof) aren’t native to the east coast where he’s hiking, and “black bears rarely attack.” In fact, there’s only been one fatal bear attack in New Hampshire since 1784, and none ever in Vermont, implying that Bryson faces a very small chance of being eaten by one (or any other animal, for that matter). A woman named Laurie Potteiger, who works at the Appalachian Trail Conference, similarly informs Bryson that she’s only heard of two non-fatal snakebites and one person who was struck by lightning in almost a decade, showing that Bryson’s worries about the Trail’s worst threats are somewhat misplaced. Bryson gradually learns that the greatest threats on the Trail are actually other people. For instance, two people are brutally murdered in a glade just a few weeks after Bryson rests in the same spot himself, exposing how easily Bryson could have been the murderer’s victim. It turns out at that least nine people have been murdered while hiking the Appalachian Trail since the 1970s, revealing that Bryson’s chances of meeting a murderer are far higher than facing off with a bear. Bryson and Katz’s closest brush with death actually happens when poorly marked Trail signs lead them astray in a blizzard, implying that human ineptitude is a far greater threat to their survival than wild animals are.
Bryson also learns that human activity is driving Appalachia’s living ecosystem to extinction at alarming rates, proving that we pose a greater threat to the Trail than the Trail does to us. Bryson bitterly reflects that most large mammals found in the Appalachians—including the prairie dog and pronghorn antelope—were driven to extinction in the 1900s by “varmint campaigns” offering hefty bounties for hunting animals deemed a nuisance to farmers, like mountain lions. While human deaths on the Appalachian Trail are rare and largely coincidental, the extinction of many animal species was a calculated mass effort on humanity’s part. Bryson is similarly saddened to discover vast stretches of tree stumps on his journey, knowing that Appalachia’s forests used to contain 20-story-high trees before loggers descended on the area in the 1800s. It’s sobering for Bryson to learn that the Forest Service, which oversees the nation's woodlands, was actually designed to function “as a kind of woodland bank, a permanent repository of American timber.” Its job is to make sure that some timber—rather than preserved forest—remains for future generations’ logging and mining needs. It disappoints Bryson that the organizations looking after the nation’s forests play such an active role in the destruction of its wildlife, posing a grave threat to the Appalachian Trail and the many species that call it home.
It grows increasingly obvious to Bryson that despite fixating on the forest’s more improbable perils, human beings are singularly responsible for the most deaths along the Appalachian Trail—whether we’re killing animals, plants, or one another. Bryson thus eventually acknowledges that he should be most worried about human activity in the woods. When it comes down to the data, human beings are the greatest danger in the Appalachian ecosystem.
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction ThemeTracker
Fear, Danger, and Human Destruction Quotes in A Walk in the Woods
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.
I still have my appendix, and any number of other organs that might burst or sputter in the empty wilds. What would I do then? What if I fell from a ledge and broke my back? What if I lost the trail in blizzard or fog, or was nipped by a venomous snake, or lost my footing on moss-slickened rocks crossing a stream and cracked my head a concussive blow? You could drown in three inches of water on your own. You could die from a twisted ankle. No, I didn't like the feel of this at all.
These are, in short, seriously inadequate maps. In normal circumstances, this is merely irksome. Now, in a blizzard, it seemed closer to negligence.
In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, along the Appalachian Trail.