A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods book cover

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by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books (1998)

Okay, before you run for your walking sticks and take a vicarious, hilarious, and educational stroll up the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson, you should know that this rave has nothing to do with the fact that the author mentions me early in the second chapter.

Well, not by name but certainly by category.

That category being idiot!

You see, before Bryson makes this magnificent trek—with his hefty friend Katz puffing along at his heels—to prepare for the 2,100 mile hike (give a step or three) he grabs a few books just for reference, one being Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, wherein he learns that the black bear, that furry “friend” might feed on any passerby stupid enough to fail to realize that these Yogis and Smokeys aren’t cartoons but dangerous man-eating (under the right/wrong circumstances) animals.

Berries and leafy trees it would seem have, in hundreds of cases over the years in the U.S., just served as the sides for their human entrees.

Bryson, awaiting spring and his first step on the Appalachians Trail, refers here to that reference book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (the key word in my case being avoidance).

Bryson says, “If this is not the last word on the subject then I don’t really want to hear the last word. Through long winter nights, 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 as they sauntered unawares down leafy paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams.  People whose fatal mistake was to smooth their hair with a dab of aromatic gel, or eat juicy meat, or tuck Snickers in their shirt pocket for later.”

He goes on:  “Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you they can, and pretty much whenever they want.”

So, it was there on page 23, reading the above passage that I—hands now trembling along with Bryson’s—dropped A Walk in the Woods and scurried off to dig into my old files in search of the photo (see below) of me snuggling up to a wild black bear in North Carolina’s Pisgah Forest.

bear-cropShort version:  I was writing a TV spot with NC State’s Creative Services team for Don Herbert’s (of Mr. Wizard fame) syndicated series called How About.  The NC State video, Radio Telemetry and the Bears of the Pisgah, featured a university zoologist who trapped black bears in the NC Pisgah Forest, gently put them to sleep with a dart, performed a complete physical on the fuzzy omnivores, then placing a radio collar around their unsuspecting necks tracked them through the mountains to see where they were munching berries, and doing all those other things that bears are reputed to do in woods.

All in the name of science.

I guess our video guys thought it would be a cute photo op if I cuddled up with a sleeping bear, a beast  that I now learn, should she have come out of her snooze, could have earned me a page or two in the second edition of the bear scare book Bryson was referencing.

*Readers should note, having had quite a few berries since this 1990 snapshot that the young bear (NOT A CUB!) and I have, shall we say, put on a few.

Now that we’ve established the fact that I’m an idiot and had once done something that brought me even closer to A Walk in the Woods, let’s get back to Bryson’s pre-stroll point—this hiking the Appalachian Trail would NOT be a walk in the park, and along the way the challenging, grueling march from Georgia to Maine by our twosome would doubtlessly be shadowed by a great deal of danger.

People have died on this walk at the hands of murderers, at the claws of bears and by the bites of snakes. As Bryson does his pre-hike research he realizes that the freakin’ wooded trail he’s about to stagger into may just be a zoo without keepers. There have been documented sightings of all matter of wild four-legged creatures—bobcats, panthers, mountain lions, and coyotes.

Bryson ruminates, “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 die from a twisted ankle. I didn’t like the feel of this at all.”

And then there was the weather. Don’t get Bill started on hypothermia!

So how much fun could this be?

Well, curled up in the safety of my bed, reading by the warmth of my night light more fun than one can imagine. And all thanks to a brilliant writer with an eye and ear for everything that a walk of this proportion might afford, not the least of which includes ambushes from outlandish characters—there’s Mary Ellen an idiotic bore, Chicken John a lost soul who was always, well, lost.  It seems the woods were full of them—characters who managed to attach themselves to our perambulating heroes as they huffed and puffed along their “merry” way.

Speaking of characters, Katz plays Pancho to Bryson’s Cisco and frankly, although there are hundreds of times Bryson could have done without him, in the end he knows he couldn’t have done it without him.

It all starts with a casual note on Christmas cards to old friends with Bryson wondering if any of them might be interested in hiking the AT with him next summer and ends with one lone responder.  Here Bryson watches his old friend stagger off a commuter plane “prepared” for the hike. Bryson hasn’t seen Katz in years. In their early 40s now they had hiked in Europe after college and ended up despising each other.

Bryson: “I tried to remember the last time I had seen him. After our summer in Europe, Katz had gone back to Des Moines and had become, in effect, Iowa’s drug culture. He had partied for years, until there was no one left to party with, and then he had partied with himself, alone in small apartments, in T-shirt and boxer shorts, with a bottle and a Baggie of pot and a TV with rabbit ears.”

This ends badly with a drunken car wreck, the discovery of drugs in the Katz vehicle and an 18-month  vacation in a minimum security penitentiary where he (speaking of walks) took the 12 steps of AA and to Bryson’s knowledge has been clean ever since.

So that’s what he knows.  What he sees staggering off the plane isn’t exactly the offspring of Jack LaLanne. “I instantly saw now as he stooped out the door of the plane that Katz was arrestingly larger than when I’d last seen him.  He had always been kind of fleshy, but now he brought to mind Orson Welles after a very bad night. He was limping a little and breathing harder than one ought to after a walk of twenty yards,” Bryson says.

“Man, I’m hungry,” Katz said without preamble, suggesting they make a donut run.

If one is going to walk in the woods for a couple thousand miles, then the most important item said walker might pack in his old kit bag wouldn’t be trouble (which the WWI marching song suggests). Trouble rarely results in smiles, smiles, smiles.

Katz brings both trouble and smiles to the effort and again, in the end, is a welcome partner.

There are so many levels to the walk that do bring smiles—the purchasing of the equipment—from rucksacks to tents to the monotony of a daily diet of raisins, boiled noodles, Snickers, oh and (just for Katz) an occasional Little Debbie cupcake.

Rather than ruin the odyssey for you I’ll give you some guideposts/mile markers to look for along the way. Get set for beautiful descriptive passages of the AT and its history, poorly drawn maps that mislead our walkers, hysterical antics from Katz (the full figured gal with the XXL panties he “befriends” in a Virginia laundry mat is a classic), scary lost companions (Katz strays of course), grueling, taxing forced marches when neither of our hikers thinks they can go on. Then there are rodent infested shelters, musty (on rare occasions) motels and of course, the marvelous back-and-forths between Bryson and Katz and all those AT fools they suffer along the way.

Brilliant descriptive prose aside, what Bryson does equally well is take us off trail here and there for entertaining and informative classes—subjects that run from how the earth was formed and is currently being deformed by those of us who populate it to mini-courses in botany, ecology, zoology, entomology and American history.

Hell, I had no idea how many roads have been cut through our woodlands by the National Park Service—more through the forests than along what we think of our highways and byways. Bryson doesn’t have it in for the National Park Service employees, just the folks who have misspent government appropriated funds so poorly that they’ve managed—since the agency’s inception in 1927—to endanger the following species: the white tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, flying squirrel, beaver, red fox and spotted skunk.

On a lighter note I was equally surprised to learn how much water your average tree sucks out of the atmosphere and ground in a day and the fact that in 1934 Salvatore Paliuca, a meteorologist on Mount Washington, recorded a surface wind of 231 miles per hour, the greatest wind shear documented in the history of our country.

And frankly, I found all this trail talk not the least bit teachy just damned interesting.

So many are the beautifully written scenes between these pages that the temptation is to just copy the book or perhaps call anyone up who might be interested and read them passage after passage (as I did to my poor wife).

Doesn’t work for you? Okay, here’s a typical Bryson recollection:

“The wind walloped ferociously against the plastic and from time to time tore part of it loose, where it fluttered and snapped, with a retort like gunshot, until one of us leaped up and fought it back into place. The whole shelter was (there are shelters along the trail in various shapes), in any case, incredibly leaky of air—the plank walls and floors were full of cracks through which icy wind and occasional blasts of snow shot—but we were infinitely snugger than we would have been outside.”

Bryson continues:  “So we made a little home of it for ourselves, spread out our sleeping pads and bags, put on all the extra clothes we could find, and fixed dinner for a reclining position. Darkness fell quickly which made the wildness outside seem even more severe.

“When I awoke all was stillness—the sort of stillness that makes you sit up and take your bearings. The plastic sheet before me was peeled back a foot or so and weak light filled the space beyond. Snow was over the top of the platform and lying an inch deep over the foot of my sleeping bag. I shooed it off with a toss of my legs. Katz slumbered heavily on, an arm flung over his forehead; his mouth a great open hole. It was not quite six.

“I decided to go out to reconnoiter and see how stranded we might be. I hesitated at the platform’s edge, then jumped out into the drift—it came up over my waist and made my eyes fly open where it slipped under my clothes and found bare skin—and pushed through it into a clearing., where it was slightly (but only slightly) shallower.  Even in the sheltered areas, under an umbrella of conifers, the snow was nearly knee deep and tedious to churn through. But everywhere it was stunning. Every tree wore a thick cloak of white, every stump and boulder a jaunty snowy cap, and here was that perfect, immense stillness that you get nowhere else but in big woods after a heavy snowfall.  Here and there clumps of snow fell from the branches, but otherwise there was no sound or movement. I followed the side trail up and under heavily bowed limbs to where it rejoined the Appalachian Trail. The AT was a plumped blanket of snow, round and bluish, in long, dim tunnel of over bent rhododendrons. It looked deep and hard going. I walked a few yards as a test. It was deep and hard going.”

And in fact the entire trek was hard going, hard enough to make our hikers pack it in from time to time. But in the end—with us lazing along merely turning pages—they walk the Appalachian Trail.

When you’ve finally taken that final step with them, spent days and weeks lugging a heavy back pack, putting one foot after another, climbing mountains, fording streams, swatting black flies, eating Snickers, raisins, and noodles, well, just before passing out to sleep the sleep of the just I’d like to make a suggestion. Lay the book on your night table, roll over and say a little prayer of thanks to your trail mate and guide, Bill Bryson.

“Oh dear Bill, thanks for taking me along. But not along along, if you know what I mean!”

For a copy of A Walk in the Woods, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1998 odyssey for less than Katz, when he fell off the wagon, tried to borrow from Bryson for that six-pack of Budweiser. To order simply click on the book’s cover.