Reading Reflection: A Walk in the Woods

One of the better known books from a hiker who tackled the roughly 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail is A Walk in the Woods, written by Bill Bryson. I finished it in just over a week, and the content should be easily understandable even for readers completely unfamiliar with hiking or the region. Overall, my enjoyment was limited by not sharing the same sense of humor as the author, but I found the middle section appealing for its blend of facts and description of the actual Appalachian Trail hiking experience. Published in 1998, the technological aspects of the trail have doubtless changed, but there are a few insights I’d like to pull out and examine.

I won’t belabor the point, but I was disappointed by how often the author added “humor” by mocking or demeaning other people. Some of the jokes are outright microaggressions against minorities (or, really, anyone with less privilege than the author). Although I didn’t grow up near Virginia Tech, I know the school is involved in many studies and projects to help rural Appalachian people, so the fact that the author frequently speaks ill of this demographic is a big sticking point for me. Wholeheartedly agreeing with the premise of Deliverance and often mentioning a fear of being murdered by “hill people” isn’t humorous.

So rather than summarize and respond to main plot points (which would amount to more of the above paragraph), I’m going to be pulling out relevant themes and then responding to some specific interesting points or statements that caught my attention while reading.

Technology on the Trail

While technology was hardly the focus of the book, there was plenty to examine about the tension between humans (both our technology and our presence) and nature. Consider the passage in chapter 7 describing the Smoky Mountain balds. These patches of grassy mountainside inexplicably without tree cover are a sight to behold, and they house an impressive diversity of species which live nowhere else in the park. However, it’s unclear whether these features are natural or manmade. When the book was written, as a result of no grazing or other maintenance of the balds, forest species were encroaching on the area. Should humans intervene and keep the balds in a semi natural state that preserves its unique species, or should the “wilderness” be left completely to its own devices?

This dynamic between “true” wilderness and human-touched nature remains an undertone to the discussion of hiking and trails. Bryson captured the extremes well at the end of chapter 15 while contrasting the Appalachian Trail’s “protected corridor” of “wilderness” with a trail he hiked in Luxembourg which included not only scenic woodland but also historic castles, villages, and river valleys. He goes on to say

“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 is as holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”

Particularly, he mentions several places where American architecture more or less plops concrete and asphalt down as needed and considers the area aesthetically ruined rather than making any attempt to have architecture complement natural beauty. I would like to think architecture and design have embraced more hybrid human and nature constructs over the last two decades, but we still have a way to go in breaking down that black and white either/or dynamic. Seeing a single car drive down a dirt road doesn’t completely destroy the beauty of the forest around it. Neither does seeing a human holding a cell phone while hiking.

Seeing other people on the trail is an issue in and of itself. Bryson remarks in many places that some of the parks and managing organizations of the trail seem to want to reduce the visitor count to the trails. The article on Baxter State Park linked once above explicitly mentions park policy wanting to cap the growth of visitor counts to the park. I read a paper a little while ago about an asocial hiking app meant to help you avoid seeing other people on the trail. Indeed, many people go hiking to escape society. I personally dislike crowds and busy public places. But why exactly are we trying to limit how many people get to experience the beauty of a state park? Who exactly should be prevented from entering? In the middle of chapter 16, Bryson remarks

“In 1996 the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid article on the nuisance of satellite navigation devices, cell phones, and other such appliances in the wilderness. All this high-tech equipment, it appears, is drawing up into the mountains people who perhaps shouldn’t be there.”

There’s a lot of subtle elitism and gatekeeping to unpack from that viewpoint, which is certainly not unique to Bryson, and I don’t doubt it will be relevant to many areas of technology on the trail research.

Other Interesting Points

First, at a few points, the “rules” of the Appalachian Trail are brought up. In chapter 7, Bryson writes

“The Park Service (why does this seem so inevitable?) imposes a host of petty, inflexible, exasperating rules on AT hikers, among them that you must move smartly forward at all times, never stray from the trail, and camp each night at a shelter. It means effectively not only that you must walk a prescribed distance each day but then spend the night penned up with strangers.”

The rules may have changed in the two decades since his hike, but a bit of searching turns up no lack of rules these days. USA Today describes some broad policies across the trail, but a long distance hiker will have to worry about how the rules vary from state to state and park to park. For example, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy details what permits you might have to worry about along the entire trail. Baxter State Park, known for its strict rules, drew media attention when fining and publicly reprimanding a recent thru-hiker for breaking several rules upon his arrival on Mount Katahdin, the very end of the Appalachian Trial.

Obviously, some rules are necessary. Particularly when protecting nature from humans (like forest fires) and vice versa (like getting lost in miles of wilderness). However, there’s a balance to be had between overly limiting responsible hikers, especially thru-hikers who will face a variety of regulations in different states, and preventing irresponsible visitors from doing damage.

Of note, I also enjoyed Bryson’s brief account in chapter 10 in which some of the shelters in a stretch of Virginia had brooms.

“Several [shelters] were even provisioned with a broom – a cozy, domestic touch. Moreover, the brooms were used (we used them, and whistled while we did it), proving that if you give an AT hiker an appliance of comfort he will use it responsibly.”

Especially with officials worried about increased park attendance and decreased park funding, allowing hikers and visitors to pitch in some general maintenance could go a long way.

Speaking of trail maintenance, Bryson mentions the quality of the maps he uses at various points, and upon entering the New York and northward parks which provided extremely detailed maps, he remarks in chapter 15 upon how much that improved his experience.

“I can’t tell you what a satisfaction it is to be able to say, ‘Ah! Dunnfield Creek, I see,’ and, ‘So that must be Shawnee Island down there.’… It occurred to me now that a great part of my mindless indifference to my surroundings earlier on was simply that I didn’t know where I was.”

The experience must be vastly different now with electronic maps and GPS smartphones, but I wonder how the aspect of being able to name one’s surroundings affects one’s general experience of being in the “wilderness.” That alone could be a rich research area.

Accounts of hiking would hardly be complete without nature. The first animal description that tickled me enough to look up was the hellbender salamander mentioned in chapter 7, which is also known as the snot otter. Unfortunately, he never encountered one. Also among the things he mentions but never encounters are dozens of extinct species, such as the American chestnut tree which was wiped out by an alien fungus in the early twentieth century. He described a historical photograph of how mighty the trees were, perhaps one of the photos on this site. I appreciated the various descriptions of extinct birds, plants, and other wildlife that Bryson offered throughout the book. In the last twenty years, we’ve no doubt lost dozens more; we’re in the midst of a mass extinction, after all. On the other end of the spectrum, chapter 10 begins with a vivid description of how discovering American species created such a craze in western European countries – and some of these cuttings and saplings retrieved by explorers and botanists have been preserved in captivity despite dying out in the wild.

In chapter 11, Bryson describes the trouble he faced when attempting to walk a few miles across Waynesboro rather than catching a cab. Between a lack of sidewalk, bridges with no room for pedestrians, and private property with tall fences, being a pedestrian in a city or suburb becomes nearly impossible. Even hikers or marathon runners comfortable with going long distances on foot find themselves unable to get by in our current society without cars (besides the impracticality of spending so much time commuting). Many cities are installing more pedestrian- and biker-friendly terrain, and it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the personal car and the setup of our cities.

7 thoughts on “Reading Reflection: A Walk in the Woods

  1. Timothy Stelter January 25, 2017 / 2:47 pm

    After reading this review on “A Walk in the Woods” written by Bill Bryson, I’m inclined to give the book a read for myself. I found the comments about Chapter 15 very interesting. Especially the part on how just knowing the area and landmarks significantly increased his experience overall during the hike. I believe that this kind of context gives everything a new perspective while continuing the hike, and the experience would be his own personal take on it.

    I’ll be sure to read this book in the coming weeks to hopefully add more opinions on this reading myself.

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  2. Jamie Davis January 26, 2017 / 9:46 am

    I snagged the VT library’s copy of “A Walk in the Woods” this week and plowed through it. Here’s my review, reproduced from http://people.cs.vt.edu/~davisjam/blog-media-reviews.html#bryson-a-walk-in-the-woods.

    Summary

    The book follows Bill Bryson in his pursuit of completing the Appalachian Trail. He is accompanied by a real-life bumbling sidekick named Stephen Katz, who is even more out of shape than Bryson at the beginning of their “walk” and adds plenty of comic relief in his endless gruntings and lust for cream soda and the X-files. Bryson shares stories about his time on the AT while weaving in vignettes on the history of the AT, the work of the Forest Service, and the death of many things: trees, songbirds, murdered AT hikers, and Americans’ interest in being outdoors.

    Thoughts

    Bryson paints the Appalachian Trail (AT) in vivid detail, and brings you through many emotions. I chuckled throughout, was in turns incensed and grieved by the portrait offered of the mismanagement of our natural resources by the Forest Service and other US government agencies, and grew deeply concerned for Katz’s safety. Overall, I thought the book was great.

    I was frustrated, however, by a tiresome refrain through the first few chapters of the degree of inbreeding and general wildness of the “hill folk” (think Kenneth Parcell’s family from 30 Rock) near the southern end of the AT. One hyperbolic joke was fine, but after four or five I began to wonder about Bryson’s prejudices. Once Bryson got out of North Carolina he eased up on the hillbilly jokes and his narration began to grow on me.

    Bryson has some interesting observations on the use of technology on the AT in chapter 16. Here’s a quote:

    “I hate all this technology on the trail. Some AT hikers, I had read, now carry laptops and modems, so that they can file daily reports to their family and friends. And now increasingly you find people with electronic gizmos like the Enviro Monitor or wearing sensors attached by wires to their pulse points so that they look as if they’ve come to the trail straight from some sleep clinic…All this high-tech equipment, it appears, is drawing up into the mountains people who perhaps shouldn’t be there.”

    He then proceeds to lambaste the many ill-prepared folks who have gone for a hike somewhere along the AT and called the national guard, or police headquarters, asking to be variously carried or helicoptered home again.

    It’s not clear to me what the use of gadgetry has to do with unwise decision-making. I found Bryson’s sentiment especially curious given that Bryson and Katz were both “babes in the woods” in chapter 1. Bryson himself bluffed his way through an equipment store without much clarity on what he was buying or why. Bryson and Katz begin their hike with too much equipment and no clue how to use it, and indeed that Katz nearly dies (but does not!) in chapter 20. Things could have ended badly for Bryson, too, back in chapter 17. But when writing the book, Bryson had spent several months on the AT off and on, and considers himself a mountain man, an AT veteran, and perhaps superior to the millions of Americans (and one or two park rangers) he gleefully depicts as never having ventured into the woods.

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    • Jamie Davis January 26, 2017 / 9:48 am

      Also, if anyone can dig up the 1996 Wall Street Journal article Bryson mentions in chapter 16, I’d be grateful.

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      • Gracie Fields January 26, 2017 / 1:04 pm

        I’d love to read it, too. I remember searching for it online when I was typing up my post, but I couldn’t find it. Alas, the days before mass archiving of text online. :\

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  3. Abigail Bartolome January 26, 2017 / 10:48 am

    Prior to planning our section hike of the AT through the Smokies, my dad described A Walk in the Woods as being really humorous and a compelling read, so I am looking forward to reading it once my copy arrives this weekend.

    Part of my enthusiasm for having an academic excuse to read this book is that on our way to Davenport Gap (southbound entrance to GSMNP on the AT), my dad and I spoke with a woman who had spent decades of her adult life living in Fontana Dam. She was a seasoned hiker and had done several thru-hikes of the AT, in addition to countless section hikes of the AT and other various hikes in GSMNP. Not only did she know the southern region of Appalachia well, she knew the AT well. She had a lot of frustrations with this book. To quote her, she said, “he wrote his experience on the Appalachian Trail into a work of fiction”. I look forward to reading this book and thinking about which sections made her feel that way.

    In Gracie’s review of the book, she mentioned crowded trails and the elitist idea that some people should not be on trails. I myself have been guilty of likening Yosemite Valley to Disneyland and smirking at the not-so-outdoorsy tourists taking pictures in front of Half Dome, though they’d only walked the 50 feet out of the parking lot to take the picture. However, I have to remember that there is so much beauty in nature and it would be a shame for not everyone to appreciate it. That’s why parks have front country and backcountry. The front country is easy to access, and tourists can enjoy the beauty of nature from them. For those that are passionate about escaping crowds and seeing less people on trails, there is a lot to gain by investing in a backcountry permit. This gives everyone the opportunity to have the experience that they hope for in nature.

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    • Jamie Davis January 26, 2017 / 10:55 am

      Yup, it sure was nice to read this book during the semester without feeling too guilty about it!

      I think the question of “easy-access tourism” is whether you can truly experience natural wonders by driving up to them, or if you must pay a more significant cost (e.g. a long hike) before it “counts”. Do the tourists in Yosemite understand what they see?

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    • Gracie Fields January 26, 2017 / 1:52 pm

      Several of us have commented on the tourism aspect of trails (perhaps worth having a separate post and discussion?), so I’m throwing in a few extra cents on your reply.

      I agree with Jamie’s last paragraph in the first reply about how Bryson himself was a naive newcomer at the beginning, and he admitted to hating “talking shop” with other hikers about gear because he didn’t know everything they did. Yet he still considers himself apart from other newcomers to the trail… enough to write a book about it, despite not completing it. So I’d love to hear your take on the Fontana Dam lady’s discussion after you read the book!

      I agree with you that having both the front country and backcountry in parks is important. Especially if it’s arranged in a way that people can graduate from enjoying front country to being knowledgeable about and engaged with backcountry. For example, being able to go on guided white water rafting before feeling confident enough to do it with a group of friends. I’m also guilty of snickering at tourists in Cape Cod who don’t understand how the tidal flats work (read: they get really wet when the sandbar goes under and they have a deep tidal pool to cross), but I’m the same, I just figure it’s great they’re having this experience in nature and learning.

      As for the question of whether brief tourist-y visits “really experience” or “truly understand” nature, I counter that there’s no One True Experience where someone’s mind melds with nature and only now do they understand dedication to natural beauty. For a metaphor, I’m a video gamer, and video games are enjoyed in an extremely broad number of ways. Does someone have to play 80 hours and beat the game to get something out of it? Do they have to understand the exact damage percentage mechanics and the best strategy? Do they need to follow the storyline and know every character’s backstory? I do all those things, but that’s not what every single gamer wants out of a game. Some use The Sims 3 only for its character modeling. Some play Minecraft only to build circuits. Having a diverse community is just as important as having the dedicated core that live and breathe it. And some newcomers who came for X thing might end up staying and loving A-Z things about it.

      The other problem about gatekeeping is that you inevitably end up harming populations that you didn’t intend to keep out. Some physically disabled people would never be able to enjoy national parks or nature if there were no easily accessible areas. Some people simply don’t have the time or budget to do more than a quick pass through a park. Families with small children have some restraints on difficulty and time.

      And in light of recent politics with the EPA, I think the national parks system and nature in general can use every single friend it can get right now, even if that friend is looking at a cell phone screen 90% of the time. 😐

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