A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)

book cover

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map of the appalachian trail

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  It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape--hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see exactly what's to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come. Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs-- nearly there now!--but this is a pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?

When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where the chilled air smells of pine sap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain's open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in a distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass. Finally, with a weary puff, you roll over, unhook yourself from your pack, struggle to your feet and realise--again in a remote, light-headed, curiously not-there way--that the view is sensational: a boundless vista of wooded mountains, unmarked by human hand, marching off in every direction. This really could be heaven. It's splendid, no question, but the thought you cannot escape is that you have to walk this view--and this is the barest fraction of what you will traverse before you've finished.

You compare your map with the immediate landscape and note that the path ahead descends into a steep valley--a gorge really, not unlike the gorges the coyote is forever plunging into in Roadrunner cartoons; gorges that have actual vanishing points--which will deliver you to the base of a hill even more steep and formidable than this, and that when you scale that preposterously taxing peak you will have done 1.7 miles since breakfast, while your schedule (blithely drawn up at a kitchen table and jotted down after perhaps three seconds' consideration) calls for 8.9 miles by lunch, 16.8 by teatime, and even greater distances tomorrow.

But perhaps it is also raining, a cold, slanting, merciless rain, with thunder and lightning playing on the neighbouring hills. Perhaps a troop of Eagle Scouts comes by at a depressing trot.

Perhaps you are cold and hungry and smell so bad that you can no longer smell yourself. Perhaps you want to lie down and be as the lichen: not dead exactly but just very still for a long, long time.

But of course I had all this ahead of me. Today I had nothing to do but traverse four middling mountains over seven miles of wellmarked trail in clear, dry weather. It didn't seem too much to ask. It was hell.

I don't know when I lost track of Katz, but it was in the first couple of hours. At first I would wait for him to catch up, bitching every step of the way and pausing after each three or four shuffling paces to wipe his brow and look sourly at his immediate future. It was painful to behold in every way. Eventually I waited to see him pull into view, just to confirm that he was still coming, wasn't lying on the path palpitating or thrown down his pack in disgust and gone looking for Wes Wisson. I would wait and wait and eventually his shape would appear among the trees, breathing heavily, moving with incredible slowness, and talking in a loud, bitter voice to himself. Halfway up the third big hill, the 3,400-foot-high Black Mountain, I stood and waited a long while, and thought about going back, but eventually turned and struggled on. I had enough small agonies of my own.

Seven miles seems so little, but it's not, believe me. With a pack, even for fit people it is not. You know what it's like when you're at a zoo or amusement park with a small child who won't walk another step? You hoist him lightly onto your shoulders and for a while--for a couple of minutes--it's actually kind of fun to have him up there, pretending like you're going to tip him off or cruising his head towards some low projection before veering off (all being well) at the last instant. But then it starts to get uncomfortable. You feel a twinge in your neck, a tightening between your shoulder blades, and the sensation seeps and spreads until it is quite decidedly uncomfortable, and you announce to little Jimmy that you're going to have to put him down for a bit.

Of course, Jimmy bawls and won't go another step, and your partner gives you that disdainful, I-should-have-married-the-quarterback look because you haven't gone 400 yards. But, hey, it hurts. Hurts a lot. Believe me, I understand.

OK, now imagine two little Jimmies in a pack on your pack, or, better still, something inert but weighty, something that doesn't want to be lifted, that makes it abundantly clear to you as soon as you pick it up that what it wants is to sit heavily on the ground-- say, a bag of cement or a box of medical textbooks, in any case 40 pounds of profound heaviness. Imagine the jerk of the pack going on, like the pull of a down elevator. Imagine walking with that weight for hours, for days, and not along level asphalt paths with benches and refreshment kiosks at thoughtful intervals, but over a rough trail, full of sharp rocks and unyielding roots and staggering ascents that transfer enormous amounts of strain to your pale, shaking thighs. Now tilt your head back--please, this is the last thing I'll ask of you--until your neck is taut and fix your gaze on a point two miles away. That's your first climb. It's 4,682 steep feet to the top and there are lots more like it. Don't tell me that seven miles is not far.

Oh, and here's the other thing. You don't have to do this. You're not in the army. You can quit right now. Go home. See your family. Sleep in a bed. Or alternatively, you poor, sad shmuck, you can walk 2,169 miles through mountains and wilderness to Maine.

And so I trudged along for hours, in a private little world of weariness and woe, up and over imposing hills, through an endless cocktail party of trees, all the time thinking: "I must have done seven miles by now, surely." But always the wandering trail ran on.

At three-thirty, I climbed some steps carved into granite and found myself on a spacious rock overlook: the summit of Springer Mountain. I shed my pack and slumped heavily against a tree, astounded by the scale of my tiredness. The view was lovely--the rolling swell of the Cohutta Mountains, brushed with a bluish haze the colour of cigarette smoke, running away to a far-off horizon. The sun was already low in the sky. I rested for perhaps ten minutes, then got up and had a look around. There was a bronze plaque screwed into a boulder announcing the start of the Appalachian Trail and nearby on a post was a wooden box containing a Bic pen on a length of string and a standard spiral notebook, its pages curled from the damp air. The notebook was the trail register--I had somehow expected it to be leatherbound and funereal-- and it was filled with eager entries, nearly all written in a youthful hand. There were perhaps 25 pages of entries since the first of January--eight entries on this day alone. Most were hurried and cheery--"March 2nd. Well, here we are and man it's cold! See y'all on Katahdin! Jaimie and Spud"--but about a third were longer and more carefully reflective, with messages along the lines of "So here I am at Springer at last. I don't know what the coming weeks hold for me, but my faith in the Lord is strong and I know I have the love and support of my family. Mom and Pookie, this trip is for you," and so on.

I waited for Katz for three quarters of an hour, then went looking for him. The light was fading and the air was taking on an evening chill. I walked and walked, down the hill and through the endless groves of trees, back over ground that I had gratefully put behind me forever, or so I had thought. Several times I called his name and listened, but there was nothing. I walked on and on, over fallen trees I had struggled over hours before, down slopes I could now only dimly recall. My grandmother could have got this far, I kept thinking. Finally, I rounded a bend and there he was stumbling towards me, wild-haired and one-gloved, and nearer hysteria than I have ever seen a grown person.

It was hard to get the full story out of him in a coherent flow, because he was so furious, but I gathered he had thrown many items from his pack over a cliff in a temper. None of the things that had been dangling from the outside were there any longer, including his water bottle.

"What did you get rid of?" I asked, trying not to betray too much alarm.

"Heavy fucking shit, that's what. The pepperoni, the rice, the brown sugar, the Spam, I don't know what all. Lots. Fuck." Katz was almost cataleptic with displeasure. He acted as if he had been deeply betrayed by the trail. It wasn't, I guess, what he had expected.

I saw his glove lying in the path 30 yards back and went to retrieve it.

"OK," I said when I returned, "you haven't got too far to go."

"How far?"

"Maybe a mile."

"Shit," he said bitterly.

"I'll take your pack." I lifted it onto my back. It wasn't exactly empty now, but it was decidedly moderate in weight. God knows what he had thrown out.

We trudged up the hill to the summit in the enveloping dusk. A few hundred yards beyond the summit was a campsite with a wooden shelter in a big grassy clearing against a backdrop of dark trees. There were a lot of people there, far more than I'd expected this early in the season. The shelter--a basic, three-sided affair with a sloping roof--looked crowded and there were a dozen or so tents scattered around the open ground. Nearly everywhere there was the hiss of little campstoves, threads of rising food smoke and the movements of lanky young people.

I found us a site on the edge of the clearing, almost in the woods, off by ourselves.

"I don't know how to put up my tent," Katz said in a petulant tone.

"Well, I'll put it up for you then." You big soft flabby baby. Suddenly I was very tired.

He sat on a log and watched me put up his tent. When I finished, he pushed in his pad and sleeping bag and crawled in after. I busied myself with my tent, fussily made it into a little home. When I completed my work and straightened up I realised there was no sound or movement from within his.

"Have you gone to bed?" I said, aghast.

"Yump," he replied in a kind of affirmative growl.

"That's it? You've retired? With no dinner?"


I stood for a minute, speechless and flummoxed, too tired to be indignant. Too tired to be hungry either, come to that. I crawled into my tent, brought in a water bottle and book, laid out my knife and torch for purposes of nocturnal illumination and defence, and finally shimmied into the bag, more grateful than I have ever been to be horizontal. I was asleep in moments. I don't believe I have ever slept so well.
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Excerpted from A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 1998 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.