Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Exploration

By Bill Bryson

Exploration

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. (1.1.1)

Now that's a call to adventure if we've ever seen one. For Billy Bryson, the mere thought of venturing into the Appalachian Trail makes him as excited as a One Direction fangirl with front row tickets. Of course, the reality of this quest will be a little more complicated.

I ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas. (1.1.40)

Okay buddy—you're going on a hike, not climbing Mount Everest. Still, we'll come to learn that the Appalachian Trail packs plenty of punches of its own and shouldn't be trifled with.

At the airport, she presented me with a knobby walking stick the children had bought me. It had a red bow on it. I wanted to burst into tears. (1.2.81)

SO maybe Bryson isn't quite the rough-and-tumble explorer he wishes he was. After all, he's an older dude with a family—his adventuring days have come and gone. Now that we think about it, actually, this might be the reason he decides to hike AT in the first place.

But even if the preindustrialized Appalachians were only half as wild and dramatic as in the painting of Durand and others like him, they must have been something to behold. (1.10.4)

The truth is that Bryson couldn't be like the explorers of yore even if he wanted to. Putting aside the fact that most of the world has already been discovered at this point, you have to consider how much modernization has transformed the face of the United States. There's still plenty of wilderness to explore, sure, but it's nothing compared to what once was.

When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the wilderness, he confidently expected them to find woolly mammoths and mastodons. (1.10.4)

That's... amazingly awesome. That would be like a president today sending a diplomatic contingency to Mars in the hopes of establishing ties with its alien denizens. Joke aside, this little fun fact shows just how unknown the planet Earth once was.

One of the younger Bartram's expeditions lasted over five years and plunged him so deeply into the woods that he was long given up for lost. (1.10.8)

Here's another fun fact about Mr. Bartram: when he emerged from the Appalachian forest, he was shocked to learn that America had declared its independence from England. For real. This dude might as well have been on the moon for all the difference it would have made.

We had allotted six and a half weeks for our initial foray and now it was nearly over. I was ready for a vacation [...] I longed to see my family, beyond my power to convey. (1.11.86)

If you were looking for evidence that Bryson is a bit softer than the legendary explorers of yesteryear, then you've just hit the jackpot. Bryson could have the strength of the Hulk and the speed of the Flash, but he still wouldn't have the heart to spend such a long time away from his family. And that's definitely not a bad thing in our book.

When I returned a few minutes later, Katz had accumulated a small, appreciative crowd and was demonstrating the use and theory of various straps and toggles on his backpack. (1.12.41)

Wow, this dude is a straight-up sitcom character. Unlike Bryson, Katz revels in the image of himself as a "fearless explorer" any chance he gets (especially if it involves the prospect of spending quality time with the ladies). He also doesn't know half as much about early Appalachian explorers as Bryson, which makes it easier for him to buy into his own hype.

Every foot of the landscape from here on north would be scored and scarred with reminders of glaciation [...] I was entering a new world. (2.15.19)

This is about as close to being a real explorer as Bryson gets. But maybe we're selling the guy short. After all, he does indeed traverse the eastern seaboard of the United States, even if he does take a few vehicular shortcuts along the way. That's still pretty impressive.

I watched him go, looking old and tired, and wondered for a minute what on earth we were doing up here. We weren't boys anymore. (2.20.33)

In the end, Bryson finally admits what he's been avoiding all along—this might be his last great adventure. What's more, this also represents him admitting that he came on this trip in large part to reconnect with his youth. Bryson might not be able to turn back the clock, but that's not going to stop him from trying.

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