They say don’t judge a book by its covers but sometimes something about that cover just grabs you. This is how I came to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And quite speedily, too. I was in the market for a “seriously funny book” as advertised by Sunday Times on the its cover. You may know this American journalist and author from A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003).
A Walk in the Woods is Bill Bryson’s stories about walking parts of the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym). Two, among two to three million a year, with a few hundreds who “thru-hike”. At more than 2,100 miles along the American east coast, the Appalachian Trail is known as the longest continuous footpath in the world. Calling it a footpath is an understatement, as it goes through remote wilderness where bears, bobcats, ticks, and maybe even mountain lions are rumoured to live. It runs through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, with over a quarter of the trail in Virginia. I suppose a footpath is accurate – as that is all it is – though we often think of that as a stroll through the park, which this is decidedly not.
The Appalachians themselves stretch into Canada and are extremely old. Ancient. Over 400 million years. According to the Landscape Evolution in the United States: An Introduction to the Geography, Geology, and Natural History, evidence of these mountain ranges can be found in the Venezuelan Andes, the Cordillera Oriental of Mexico, and the Caledonides of Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Greenland, for example.
Some years back, my husband and I spoke about hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, with our dog. This book, being first published in 1997, probably would have been on our reading list. We even discussed how much food we would have to lug around, including for our dog. As with Bill, we also considered the bears. Black and Grizzly. How do you tell them apart? Apparently with much difficulty, especially when faced with one, I would imagine. You can’t outrun them. You can’t outfight them. Just don’t come between cubs and mom. And yes, Bill does share some of the bear encounters that occurred over the years on the trail.
Sunday Times was right – this was a “seriously funny book”. Sometimes subtle. Sometimes not. And sometimes the sarcasm bordered on unkindness. It is also very educational, weaving in American history, geography, geology, ecology, disease, even information about the ice ages, and of course the history of the Appalachian Trail itself. He also brings in interesting stories about other hikers, to illustrate for example the dangers of hypothermia, run-ins with wildlife, and sadly, murders. So what is the fascination with books and adventures like this one? When essentially it is a journey of aloneness, danger, and uncertainty, “through high, forgotten hollows, along lonesome ridges with long view of more ridges, over grassy balls and down rocky, twisting, jarring descents, and through mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods.”
The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. 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. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetss, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was ‘grim and wild…savage and dreary’, fit only for ‘men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we’.
We admire those who can survive. I know, like my very domesticated dog, the chances of survival if I were to find myself in the middle of the woods, would be slim. Mine, slimmer. Much, much slimmer. Definitely slimmer still, compared to my kitten whose devastatingly impressive skills at hunting ankles and attacking hands could easily re-wild into actual survivalism. It is because most of us live a life separated from the wild, from nature. We have manicured cities, nature re-routed to beautify, rather than left as is.
Perhaps we envy those with the chance to disconnect from it all. To reduce their hectic schedule down to simply the most basic of all activities of survival. To remember in an obvious way that we are indeed alive.
That distance is rare in the urban environment. The silence, perhaps rarer still. To truly hear ourselves above the din of everyone’s voices and demands is a skill mostly forgotten and one that we negotiate all the time. This is inevitable out in the woods, putting one foot ahead of the other. There is no distraction, no hiding, from who we are, including any discomforts of being alone with our thoughts, feelings, desires, failures, dreams…
We forget that despite the United States being famous for its many amazing cities is still largely forest. The lower 48 states have over 700 million acres of trees. Even tiny Maine has 10 million uninhabited acres. Only a very small percentage of the US is actually “built up”.
Even if you have not heard of the Appalachian Trail, you would have likely heard of the Great Smokies Mountains, or at least Smokey the Bear. Indeed these mountains are known for the black bears. Less known is the salamander. It is actually the Salamander Capital of the world, with 24 species of these lungless amphibians, according to the US National Park Service. 300 types of freshwater mussels once existed in this national park, with names like monkeyface and pearly mussel. Because they filter water through the body, their populations are a good indicator of the environmental conditions. And as the forests have changed over the years, the mussels have also taken a hit. “While mussels are river bound, they rely on trees and bushes on land as their primary food source. Leaves fall into the rivers and decompose. Mussels eat this decomposing organic matter in the water.”1 According to Bill, the white-tail jackrabbit, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, flying squirrel, beaver, red fox, and spotted skunk, along with 30+ other mammals have become extinct in the American national parks.
You may wonder how long it would take to hike the AT, end to end. Earl V Shaffer (1918 – 2002) was the first to do so the summer of 1948, about 11 years after it was completed. 123 days, with an average of 17 miles a day. He would hike it again twice more, in 1965 and 1998 (aged 79). The speed of his first is even more impressive considering that the trail then was not as clear as it is today and he had to bushwhack over mountains, and often hiked many miles off course. While it may be more recognized and supported nowadays, when Earl hiked it, a store or a café could be found in most of the little hamlets, which are now lost to oblivion. These lost hamlets are something that Bill himself would enjoy, having experienced them hiking through Luxembourg. “We experienced the whole of Luxembourg, not just its trees.” His point is a valid one – “in America, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition – either you ruthless subjugate it…or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”
But the wilderness and our natural world are changing all the time. We encroach. We pollute. Or we hunt it into extinction. Bill delves into all the species that have been lost in the eastern forests, such as songbirds like the Carolina parakeet and the already-rare Bachman’s warbler and trees like the Chestnut. “These days the woods are a pretty quiet place.” It would likely sadden him to learn that the eastern cougar has just been declared extinct, with possibly the last one trapped by a hunter in the state of Maine some 80 years ago. Its cousin, the Florida Panther, remains on the endangered list.
After it was all and done, Bill added up his miles – 870.
“All that effort and sweat and disgusting grubbiness, all of those endless plodding days, the nights on hard ground – all that added up to just 39.5 per cent of the trail. Goodness knows how anyone ever completes the whole thing. I am filled with admiration and incredulity for those who see it through. These days, when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, knowing gaze, and eyes of chipped granite.”
Reading Bill’s stories takes you along the miles, his experiences condensed into composite stories and expanded by history, anecdotes, interesting tidbits, observations, and things you may not think to google about the US. Not everyone is inclined to spend months on a mountain trail, or even to walk to the store, though everyone can benefit from getting outside, in some form. Bill’s humour, which is likely to be mute while actually walking, helps to cut through a potentially dry account of such a topic. I was interested to read this book, in part to see how a walk through the woods could be called “entertaining and often illuminating” by the Sunday Telegraph (as seen on the back cover of my copy). I mostly wanted to live vicariously through Bill walking a trail that once was on my bucket list. Perhaps it will be again. Until then, I will stick to walking my dogs in the tropical heat and hiking on my getaways. I reckon if more of us got outside more, our environment would be more valued and cherished. Our connection would be more tangible and we would strive to protect it.
1The Perilous World of Mussels by Becky Johnson, Smoky Mountain News.
Photography of the North-to-Northwest view of Pleasant Valley in Monroe County from the Appalachian Trail, west of the Wind Gap by Nicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr.