A Walk in the Woods (1997) is author Bill Bryson’s personal account of walking the Appalachian Trail – one of the longest hiking trails in the US – which stretches from Georgia in the South to Maine in the North. Partially a memoir recalling his attempt to follow its route, the book is also a tribute to the ecology, wildlife, geological history and natural environment of North America. What’s more, Bryson’s old school friend, Stephen Katz, also comes along for the ride.
You don’t just step out the door not knowing what you might face. The author Bill Bryson had his mind set on walking the Appalachian Trail, but he had to be prepared.
The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the most famous hiking route in the United States. It begins in Georgia and stretches all the way to Maine, cutting through forests, mountains and plains. What’s surprising is that the trail was entirely artificially created. This isn’t a route used by generations of Native Americans or colonists as they moved across the country. Instead, it was the vision of one man – an American forester and conservationist named Benton MacKaye.
MacKaye formulated his plan back in 1921. He wanted to establish a behemoth of a trail some 1,200 miles in length. Over the years, MacKaye kept refining this vision, but it wasn’t until a passionate hiker named Myron Avery got involved that things got started.
Avery mapped out the trail and used crews of volunteers from hiking clubs to track it out on the ground. By August 1937, it was finished. Along the way, a further 1,000 miles had been added to MacKaye’s original plan. The completed trail is around 2,100 miles in total – although estimations of its length vary – with seasonal factors and road building work also affecting its length through rerouting.
Volunteers established the path, and even to this day, it’s volunteers who run it.
The Appalachian Trail is no walk in the park, however.
Even for seasoned hikers and explorers in top physical condition, the lengthy trail presents a serious physical challenge. Its landscape is varied – there are gentler stretches, but a fair few mountains too, the highest of which peaks at around 6,700 feet.
You can easily encounter unexpected challenges when walking the route. Bryson researched the dangers lurking in North American woods as he prepared himself for tackling the trail. Bears, for instance, are a present danger. There are roughly 500,000 black bears in North America, and many have been spotted along the Appalachian Trail. Thankfully, there are no grizzly bears in its vicinity. These more famous terrors are mostly found in and around the Yellowstone National Park, much further west.
Now that he knew just what sorts of adventure he could be facing, Bryson felt ready to lace up his boots.