A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

by Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

by Bill Bryson


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Told in the hilarious, yet thought-provoking way that only Bill Bryson can tell it, this narrative tells the history of the Appalachian Trail by the man walking it. It’s a call for better treatment of nature and a celebration of what’s left. A brilliant read, perfect for readers of all walks.

For reasons even he didn't understand, Bill Bryson decided in 1996 to walk the 2,100-mile Appalachian trail. Winding from Georgia to Maine, this uninterrupted 'hiker's highway' sweeps through the heart of some of America's most beautiful and treacherous terrain. Accompanied by his infamous crony, Stephen Katz, Bryson risks snake bite and hantavirus to trudge up unforgiving mountains, plod through swollen rivers, and yearn for cream sodas and hot showers. This amusingly ill-conceived adventure brings Bryson to the height of his comic powers, but his acute eye also observes an astonishing landscape of silent forests, sparkling lakes, and other national treasures that are often ignored or endangered. Fresh, illuminating, and uproariously funny, A Walk in the Woods showcases Bill Bryson at his very best.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767902526
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/1999
Series: Official Guides to the Appalachian Trail
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 8,633
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 1210L (what's this?)

About the Author

About The Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include A Walk in the WoodsThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and A Short History of Nearly Everything (which won the Aventis Prize in Britain and the Descartes Prize, the European Union's highest literary award). He was chancellor of Durham University, England's third oldest university, from 2005 to 2011, and is an honorary fellow of Britain's Royal Society.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail.  Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents.  It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snooze--indeed was enjoying a long night's snooze--when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open.  Normally, I slept through everything--through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees--so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual.  There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed--a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage--and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.


I sat bolt upright.  Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest.  I reached instinctively for my knife, then realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent.  Nocturnal defense had ceased to be a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose.  There was another noise, quite near.

"Stephen, you awake?"  I whispered.

"Yup," he replied in a weary but normal voice.

"What was that?"

"How the hell should I know."

"It sounded big."

"Everything sounds big in the woods."

This was true.  Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded like a stegosaurus.  There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the spring.  It was having a drink, whatever it was.

I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black.  As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife.  When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked.  It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.

Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam.  Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me.  I couldn't see anything at all of its shape or size--only two shining eyes.  It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.

"Stephen," I whispered at his tent, "did you pack a knife?"


"Have you get anything sharp at all?"

He thought for a moment.  "Nail clippers."

I made a despairing face.  "Anything a little more vicious than that?  Because, you see, there is definitely something out here."

"It's probably just a skunk."

"Then it's one big skunk.  Its eyes are three feet off the ground."

"A deer then."

I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn't move, whatever it was.  A deer would have bolted.  This thing just blinked once and kept staring.

I reported this to Katz.

"Probably a buck.  They're not so timid.  Try shouting at it."

I cautiously shouted at it: "Hey!  You there!  Scat!"  The creature blinked again, singularly unmoved.  "You shout," I said.

"Oh, you brute, go away, do!"  Katz shouted in merciless imitation.  "Please withdraw at once, you horrid creature."

"Fuck you," I said and lugged my tent right over to his.  I didn't know what this would achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm moving my tent."

"Oh, good plan.  That'll really confuse it."

I peered and peered, but I couldn't see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from the near distance like eyes in a cartoon.  I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be outside and dead or inside and waiting to be dead.  I was barefoot and in my underwear and shivering.  What I really wanted--really, really wanted--was for the animal to withdraw.  I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it.  I think it may have hit it because the animal made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to my lips) and then emitted a noise--not quite a growl, but near enough.  It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn't provoke it.

"What are you doing, Bryson?  Just leave it alone and it will go away."

"How can you be so calm?"

"What do you want me to do?  You're hysterical enough for both of us."

"I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me.  I'm in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers.  Let me ask you this.  If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to do--give it a pedicure?"

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Katz said implacably.

"What do you mean you'll cross that bridge?  We're on the bridge, you moron.  There's a bear out here, for Christ sake.  He's looking at us.  He smells noodles and Snickers and--oh, shit."


"Oh.  Shit."


"There's two of them.  I can see another pair of eyes."  Just then, the flashlight battery started to go.  The light flickered and then vanished.  I scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went, and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries.  If I were a bear, this would be the moment I would choose to lunge.

"Well, I'm going to sleep," Katz announced.

"What are you talking about?  You can't go to sleep."

"Sure I can.  I've done it lots of times."  There was the sound of him rolling over and a series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.

"Stephen, you can't go to sleep," I ordered.  But he could and he did, with amazing rapidity.

The creature--creatures, now--resumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises.  I couldn't find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner's lamp on my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries.  Then I sat for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last line of defense.  The bears--animals, whatever they were--drank for perhaps twenty minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come.  It was a joyous moment, but I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return.  I listened and listened, but the forest returned to silence and stayed there.

Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweater--pausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit--and after a very long time got back into my sleeping bag for warmth.  I lay there for a long time staring at total blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.

And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.

What People are Saying About This

Dwight Garner

Don't look to A Walk in the Woods for forced revelations about failed relationships or financial ruin or artistic insecurity. Bryson is hiking the trail because it's there, and he's great company right from the start -- a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley and (given his fondness for gross-out humor) Dave Barry.

Bill McKibben

Bill Bryson is an extremely funny man, the Appalachian Trail is an exceedingly magnificent place, and together they have created an exceedingly fine book.


On Sunday, June 21st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Bill Bryson to discuss A WALK IN THE WOODS.

Moderator: Welcome to barnesandnoble.com, Bill Bryson. Thanks for joining us -- on Father's Day, no less -- to discuss A WALK IN THE WOODS. How was your weekend?

Bill Bryson: Well, thank you for having me. My weekend has been terrific.

Amelia from Asheville, NC: Why the Appalachian Trail, Mr. Bryson? Why would you want to reinitiate yourself to the United States by traveling in this neck of the woods?

Bill Bryson: Well, what happened was, after living in England for 20 years, I moved back to America with my family in the spring of 1995, and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, and discovered quite unexpectedly that the Appalachian Trail runs through the town. And that was what peaked my interest, originally. I found myself captivated by the idea of this immensely long hiking trail, and decided to try to do it. It was really as simple as that.

Kerry Norman from Yaphank, NY: I know from friends who have hiked the AT that you learn what you need most by how long you decide to carry it. So, after your trip to the camping store, what was the first thing to go? Or, what was the most surprising thing you kept?

Bill Bryson: The very first thing to go was a can of Spam. I'm not sure that we even took it to the trailhead. I can't think of a particularly surprising thing I kept, but the one thing that was always real important to me was a book to read just before bedtime in the evening. I only allowed myself one book at a time, and it was essentially my most treasured possession.

Hank from Portland, ME: Can you tell us about your traveling companions? How did you select them, and did you kill each other before you finished the trip?

Bill Bryson: My traveling companion was an old school friend named Stephen Katz, who was a somewhat unlikely hiking companion, because he was very out of shape (so was I, come to that), but he had the great virtue that he was willing to come with me. Although we had our squabbles from time to time, we actually became very very good friends, as a result of the shared experience, and have remained very good friends since leaving the trail.

Newt from Newton, MA: What was your favorite stretch of the Appalachian Trail, in terms of how beautiful it was -- and because the two (I've learned) aren't always the same thing, which was your favorite to hike, physically?

Bill Bryson: Well, in our case, the two actually coincided. My favorite stretch of the trail, and the most beautiful, was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. A big reason for this was that it was the first place where we got continuous good weather. Before that, we had a really rotten spring -- a couple of blizzards, and lots and lots of really cold rain.

Phil T. Treahing from Old Bridge, NJ: How come you didn't talk much about ticks? I would have thought that ticks would have been quite worrisome when hiking in the woods. Personally, I get nervous when in the woods -- bears don't scare me, ticks do!

Bill Bryson: I can beat up a tick. Ticks are indeed worrying, and we certainly checked ourselves for them, but luckily we didn't have any problem with ticks.

Joanne from Washington, D.C.: How did you tackle the trail? Did you go north-south, south-north? Did you do it in legs, or try to do the whole thing from spring to fall?

Bill Bryson: We started at the southern end in early March, and hiked north. Our intention at the outset was to hike the whole thing, but we realized after a few weeks that we were never going to do every bit of it. So, after that, we just tried to hike as much of it as we could and felt like doing. We hiked in lots of different places -- the two national parks, around the Delaware Water Gap, the Berkshires in Massachusetts, most of Vermont and New Hampshire, and the hundred-mile wilderness in Maine -- and did about 870 miles altogether. I still hope to finish off the trail one day.

Penney from West Virginia: Hi, Mr. Bryson. Welcome back to the States! When you moved to England, did you know you would be there for 20 years? Had you been back at all in that time? How had America changed the most in the time you were gone?

Bill Bryson: No, when I first went to England, I didn't realize I would be staying so long. What happened was I met an English girl and got married and settled down over there. I had been back to America several times on visits, but I discovered when we moved back permanently in 1995 that living in a place, even your own country, is very different from visiting it. A lot of things had changed. For one thing, road maps weren't free anymore.

Lisa from Albuquerque: Who are you rooting for in The World Cup? Does the American team even rate in your loyalty to the English team?

Bill Bryson: Well that question is very much easier to answer now, because I gather America has been eliminated, so I'm cheering for England and Scotland. Frankly, I would just like to see any English-speaking nation win it.

Brenda from Belmar, NJ: Was there ever a time when you were on the trail that you wanted to throw in the towel and give up?

Bill Bryson: The question would be better phrased as, was there ever a time when we didn't. Seriously, the trail was wonderful, and incredibly rewarding, but there was hardly a moment when it wasn't also extremely hard.

Gilleen from Bennington, VT: How did your family deal with your decision to hike the trail? How long or how often were you gone?

Bill Bryson: The longest I was away at one stretch was six and a half weeks. It was during that stretch that I realized I didn't want to be away from my family that long ever again. So, after that, I was never away for more than about two weeks at a time. My wife was very supportive. She hates the separations, as I do, but she recognizes that this is the sort of thing I do to make a living.

Rachel from Weston, CT: Can you recommend any books for anyone who loves the AT? What did you read to prepare for your trip? How did the literature compare with the real thing?

Bill Bryson: My favorite book was

Lowell Petersman from Raleigh, NC: In your mind, what can we do to protect the AT from destruction? What is the biggest threat to it today?

Bill Bryson: The AT itself is probably more secure than it has ever been. It has so many friends and admirers that it's virtually inconceivable that anyone could do anything terribly destructive toward it. The real danger is to the woods around the trail, in a more general sense. I'm no authority on environmental matters, but even a layman can see that there are a lot of stressed trees out there, and a lot of views that are nothing like as pristine as they were 25 years ago.

Josie from New York, NY: Have any of the people that you encountered on your hike read A WALK IN THE WOODS? Did they show up at any of your book signings? Has Mary Ellen read A WALK IN THE WOODS?

Bill Bryson: Certainly at least two people I know have read the book. One was Katz, who thought it was all bullshit, but very funny. And the other was was an Irish fellow we hiked with for a couple of days in the Deep South and who wrote to me after the book came out there. As far as I know, Mary Ellen has not read the book. She didn't strike me as a great reader.

Kiernan from Richmond, Va: I've heard that on the weekends, the AT can be like a sidewalk full of people, with everything from weekend warriors to families out for a picnic. Is this true? Was it crowded on your trip? How often did you see people?

Bill Bryson: It is certainly true that some of the more popular parts of the AT can get pretty crowded at certain times. I'm thinking especially of the two national parks, Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. But most of the trail is relatively quiet even at peak time. I suppose, on average, we saw two or three other hikers an hour -- hardly an overwhelming number.

Kent from Cheyenne, WY: What did you learn about bears on your trip?

Bill Bryson: I learned, I am greatly relieved to tell you, that bears are not really a threat on the Appalachian Trail. There are actually very few recorded instances of black bear attacks on the AT.

Frederique Albom from Washington, D.C.: Hello, Mr. Bryson. What did you miss the most about the United States when you were living in Great Britain? Was there anything that you did not miss at all? Also, I was wondering how long you plan on staying in this country. Thank you for taking my question.

Bill Bryson: Baseball! I really missed that. I also missed the more emphatic weather of North America. I really like very cold winters and very hot summers. I didn't miss American commercials. As for how long we will stay here, we're not sure, but very possibly forever. My wife and kids love it here very much. Personally, I would like to be in a position to divide our time between the two, as I like them both very much.

Elliott from Athens, GA: If you have gleaned one key piece of wisdom from your travels to give as advice to future maniacs who would like to hike the AT, what is it?

Bill Bryson: Don't feel that you have to do every inch of it. There's this horrible idea that the AT is an all-or-nothing proposition -- that you either do it all, or you don't do any of it. My philosophy would be to do just as much of it as you enjoy.

Jonas from Boca Raton, FL: I love your writing -- most notably, your incredibly funny voice as a writer. How long did it take you to find and shape that voice? Do you have any suggestions or advice to a young writer?

Bill Bryson: Thank you for your praise. I don't know about finding my voice. Sometimes I feel as if I'm still searching for it. One of the nice things about writing, I find, is that you always feel as if you can get better at it. In terms of advice, the only real suggestion I can give is to persevere, persevere, persevere -- and get lucky.

Eleanor from New England: Where do you like to go on vacation? Has vacation become like work for you now?

Bill Bryson: To me, the biggest possible treat in life is to go somewhere with my family knowing that I don't have to write a word about it.

Steven from McAlester, OK: You must agree that you have the best career in the world. If you don't agree, I'd like to hear your defense! I loved A WALK IN THE WOODS and I'm glad to find you online.

Bill Bryson: Yes, I do!

Moderator: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Bill Bryson. We wish you much luck in your future travels and hope that you'll join us online again. Do you have any final comments for the online audience?

Bill Bryson: Just thank you very much for your stimulating questions, this has been a real pleasure!

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