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by William H. Benson

September 15, 2011

     Bill Bryson, the writer, moved back to the United States in 1995, with his British-born wife and their four children, and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he intended, for employment, to write books. First, he decided to take a hike, and so he begins his book, A Walk in the Woods.

     “Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town. A sign announced that this was no ordinary footpath but the celebrated Appalachian Trail.”

     So he decided that in 1996 he would hike the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2,100 miles of it, and then write a book of his adventures. He knew it would be a daunting task, especially for someone  overweight and without hiking experience. Early on he learned that perhaps only 10% of those who begin the trail ever finish it; it is exhausting, unnerving, and dangerous.

     It passes through fourteen states, from its southern point at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to its furthest northern point at Mount Katahdin in Maine. If successful, Bryson would see portions of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, a corner of West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, a tip of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

     Stephen Katz, a friend from Bryson’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, agreed to join him on the hike. Katz smoked, was a recovering alcoholic, was not in great physical shape, and griped. Bill Bryson’s wife was doubtful that he and Katz would relate well on a hike.

     With tents, sleeping bags, large quantities of noodles, cooking equipment, and rain gear all loaded in packs perched precariously atop their backs, they set out from Amicalola Falls Lodge, near Georgia’s Springer Mountain one spring morning. “The date was March 9, 1996,” he wrote. “We were on our way.” The temperature was 11 degrees F.

     The trail that first day opened his eyes to what lay ahead for him. “I trudged perhaps a hundred feet up the hill, then stopped, bug-eyed, breathing hard, heart kabooming alarmingly. Katz was already falling behind and panting even harder. I pressed on. I was hopelessly out of shape—hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.  Every step was a struggle.”

     The woods—elms, chestnuts, hemlocks, dogwoods, red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, sugar maples—stretch upwards on either side of the trail and enclose and swallow every hiker.

     Bryson wrote, “The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. 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. Seven miles seems so little, but it’s not, believe me. With a pack, it is not easy.”

     The Appalachian Trail does not offer campgrounds with hot showers and warm cafeteria food every few miles, for days can go by when you see only a handful of people or no semblance of civilization. Just the trail. A person survives with the food, clothing, and shelter that he or she carries.

     In the woods, Bryson learned to live with fear, for danger seemed always just ahead. Constantly he watched out for bears, bobcats, water moccasins, or a moose. Extreme care was required when the side of the trail disappeared in a sheer drop to a point dozens of feet below. Protection and shelter were mandatory when the weather turned cold or wet or miserable.

     Then, apt to disrupt his health were the microbes: “giardiasis, eastern equine encephalitis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, schistosomiasis, brucellosis, and shigellosis.”

     But the greatest danger came from the woods themselves. One day Katz, when alone and quite thirsty, decided to leave the trail and get a drink from a lake he saw a short distance away. In a moment he was lost. Katz explained, “There’s nothing to pay attention to out there. It’s just one big woods.”

     Bryson wrote, “And once you were lost in these immense woods, you would die. It was as simple as that. No one could save you. No helicopter could spot you through the cover of trees. No rescue teams could find you. There would be bears down there too—bears that had possibly never seen a human.”

Fortunately, Katz wandered around, stumbled upon the trail, and thus saved his life. It was a miracle.

     Bill Bryson walked 870 miles of the Appalachian Trail that summer, for he said, he came “to realize that this was way beyond—way beyond—anything I had attempted before.” He and Katz skipped difficult portions of it, like the Smoky Mountains, and kept moving northward.

     A century and a half ago, an oddball named Henry David Thoreau built a cabin beside Walden Pond, and then wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”