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.