A Walk in the Woods documents author and narrator Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz in 1996. Bryson fantasizes about exploring the wilderness and getting reacquainted with his homeland after many years living abroad in Europe. Bryson imagines that the experience will be similar to hiking through Europe, where he walked through an easy mix of farms and fields and slept in charming villages along the way. But Bryson soon learns that the car-friendly United States is an entirely different beast: the more territory Bryson covers, the more he realizes that Appalachia’s forests are almost entirely surrounded by highways, strip malls, and abandoned industrial towns. Bryson ultimately decides that the culture of visiting nature by car and treating it like a tourist attraction that’s separate from everyday life underserves Americans. He finds more value in experiencing nature when it’s interwoven more organically into the fabric of everyday life—for example, alongside farmland and villages—than when it’s isolated as something separate and somewhat inaccessible.
Bryson is unsettled to learn that it’s quite difficult to have a spontaneous adventure on the Trail. Before his trip, Bryson imagines that he can “throw a loaf of bread in a sack, […] jump over the back fence,” and start exploring, just like 19th-century naturalist John Muir describes. However, he soon finds himself agonizing over all the camping gear he’ll need to carry, and he realizes that being in nature is going to be more like a daunting slog than a breezy adventure. Bryson fantasizes about finding “convivial inn[s]” along the Trail, where he can wind down after day’s hiking in a quaint village with a “hot bath, a hearty meal, and a soft bed.” But there are few alternatives to camping besides chain motels and fast food restaurants, which seem disappointingly cut off from the natural surroundings.
Bryon also grows frustrated by having to drive on endless highways to find an access point for the trail—something that undermines his fantasy of easy, spontaneous, and fun exploration. Bryson finds it bizarre that the government bulldozed many farms and villages alongside the Appalachian Trail to create a “corridor” separating nature from human society to make it feel more remote, thereby rendering it impossible to reach the Trail by foot. In Pennsylvania, Bryson drives around for hours but can’t actually find the Trail’s access point, eventually giving up, which leaves him baffled as to why it’s so hard to get access to the famous Trail and explore its rural environment. Bryson also imagines himself surveying magnificent views from mountaintops, but dense forest and bad weather plague his journey, and he spends most of his time disoriented in dense woodland that “chokes off views.” He’s disappointed that the Trail’s challenging terrain leaves him unable to enjoy much of the rural landscape at all.
By the end of his journey, Bryson concludes that Americans tend to treat nature as a remote, somewhat inaccessible curiosity to be visited, rather than an accessible part of everyday life. Bryson become discouraged by the “either/or proposition” of nature and commerce in the United States. He either has to carry heavy supplies with him and trek for days in unforgiving terrain, or visit nature by car, sleep in motels, and eat junk food in chain restaurants that just happen to have a nice view. At one point, Bryson traipses through a series of parking lots in search of a Kmart, which is supposedly the only place near the woods that sells insect repellant. As he walks, he reflects on how much he dislikes finding no happy medium between being in the woods (where towns and society seem utterly distant) and being in urban sprawl (where nature is, at best, an occasional scenic backdrop). Reflecting on his time in Europe, Bryson decides that hiking in Luxembourg—where natural spaces mix easily with pastoral environments like villages, inns, and farms—was far more palatable. Bryson also has fond memories of England, where hiking demands no more than a packed lunch, a map, and the promise of a warm dinner at a quaint country inn at the end of the day. It’s disappointing to Bryson that few environments like that exist along the Trail—he thinks that such settings entice people who don’t like camping (like himself) to enjoy rural environments. With this, Bryson observes that American society tends to treat nature as some remote, untouched curiosity that’s sectioned-off between highway systems and commercial sprawl—a setup that he believes does a disservice to the country’s beautiful landscape. He concludes that this structure makes rural adventures less accessible and less pleasant—and it ultimately renders the promised pleasures of a “walk in the woods” somewhat out of reach.
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl ThemeTracker
Wilderness vs. Urban Sprawl Quotes in A Walk in the Woods
Who could say the words “Great Smoky Mountains” or “Shenandoah Valley” and not feel an urge, as the naturalist John Muir once put it, to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence?”
Woods choke off views and leave you muddled without bearings.
The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core.
By 1987, Gatlinburg had sixty motels and 200 gift shops. Today it has 100 motels and 400 gift shops. And the remarkable thing is that there is nothing remotely remarkable about that.
“Jeez, it's ugly[.]”
We experienced the whole of Luxembourg. Not just its trees.
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.