Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Fear

By Bill Bryson

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Nearly everyone [...] had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail [...] and come stumbling back with [...] a bobcat attached to his head. (1.1.7)

Okay, so Bryson is obviously exaggerating (as he is wont to do) but the gist of what he's saying is true—there are plenty of things that can go wrong along the Appalachian Trail. We'll learn more about these potential horror stories soon enough, but let's just suffice it to say that a bobcat lobotomy is actually on the tamer end of things. No joke.

Imagine, if you will, lying in the dark alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and [...] a 400-pound bear. (1.2.3)

We'd rather not, buddy. Frankly, we're a little surprised that Bryson still wants to go on his Appalachian adventure after reading this book about bears, especially because he seems so freaked out by the whole deal.

Whatever mechanism within you is responsible for adrenaline, it has never been [...] so keenly poised to pump out a warming squirt of adrenal fluid. (1.4.2)

Ew—that sounds a little dirty to us. Regardless, the point Bryson is making is that you're always a little on edge when you're alone in a desolate forest. Of course, there's nothing to fear most of the time, but you never know when you're going to have to run for your life.

I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. (1.11.107)

If Bryson hears a sound in the middle of the night, he instantly assumes that it's a bear dead-set on eating him in particular, because he's so delicious. Katz, on the other hand, would rather keep catching Zs than pay any mind to these suspicious noises.

"I know how much you come to rely on the goodness of strangers. The trail is really all about that, isn't it? And to have that taken away, well…" (2.13.31)

Although it's unlikely, the chance of getting slashed up by a Charles Manson-wannabe on the Appalachian Trail is very real. In fact, Bryson travels through an area in Virginia where two women are murdered just months later. As if bears weren't enough, Bryson now has to worry about people.

Of all the catastrophic fates that can befall you in the out-of-doors, perhaps none is more eerily unpredictable than hypothermia. (2.17.1)

Just the thought of hypothermia makes us shiver (pun intended). As Bryson explains, the real threat of the condition isn't freezing per se, but the effect it has on one's brain. A little bit of frostbite can be managed just fine, but nothing's going to get you back on your rocker once you've fallen off.

I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state (2.17.23)

Okay Bryson, you've kind of lost us on this one—this thing is the Inception of sentences. Jokes (and Christopher Nolan references) aside, this perfectly illustrates why hypothermia is such a scary thing. It's pretty hard for a bear to sneak up on you because, well, bears are big. But hypothermia? That thing will knock you down for the count before you've even heard the bell ring.

If something goes wrong in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, you are on your own. You could die of an infected blood blister. (2.18.25)

Good grief, Bryson, are you trying to give us—or yourself— a heart attack? At this point, we don't even know why Bryson is going through with this, especially because he already realizes that he won't see the Appalachian Trail through to the end.

Calling his name at intervals, I picked my way slowly along the path down the cliff face, fearing the worst at the bottom [...] but there was no sign of him. (2.20.39)

There's one thing that scares Bryson then bears, serial killers, and hypothermia combined—the thought of something happening to Katz. Bryson goes into full-on panic mode when Katz goes missing, which reveals that he cares more about his friend then he'd like to let on.

There was something in his look.
"You want to go home?" I ask.
He thought for a moment. "Yeah. I do." (2.20.79-81)

After getting lost, Katz is forced to face the very real prospect of his own death. That's a serious thing. This leads him to abandon the Appalachian Trail for good this time, and we can't really blame him for it.

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