Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Isolation

By Bill Bryson

Isolation

Then there were all the problems and particular dangers of solitude. I still have [...] organs that might burst or sputter in the empty wilds. (1.2.18)

Solitude can be nice and all, but there are a lot of advantages to being around other human beings. And we're not even just talking about companionship and quality conversation—we're talking about having someone there to save you when you're knock-knock-knockingon heaven's door.

The whole would be, as MacKaye ecstatically described it, "a retreat from profit." (1.3.2)

In a way, the Appalachian Trail was always meant to be isolated from the rest of the world. While the rest of the country is stuck in the rat race, the AT takes things at a slower pace.

Even at busy times, however, [...] I encountered long periods of perfect aloneness, when I didn't see another soul for hours. (1.4.20)

At first, Bryson loves the feeling of being alone on the Appalachian Trail. It provides him time to think, to focus on the important things in life. This relationship might change over time, but there's no denying Bryson's initial enjoyment of the AT's solitude.

Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string. (1.6.5)

This actually sounds pretty awesome to us. Most people in the big city would pay top dollar for a guru who could attain such a pristine Zen-like state, but Bryson is getting that for free.

You get a kind of sixth sense for the presence of others in the woods, and when you realize people are near, you always pause to let them catch up. (1.10.23)

Although he enjoys spending time alone, Billy Boy Bryson never turns down quality hang-time. None of these brief encounters with other hikers ever blossom into long-term friendships, but they provide some much-needed camaraderie in a place so devoid of human interaction.

The problems, however, is not that there are too many hikers for the shelters but too few shelters for the hikes. (1.12.18)

Some people complain that the Appalachian Trail is getting too crowded, but Bryson dismisses these concerns as hogwash. Although you might end up sharing a shelter with a few other smelly hikers, you can easily go for days without seeing another person.

That stick [...] had become all but part of me. It was a link with my children, whom I missed more than I can tell you. I felt like weeping. (1.12.49)

Bryson's walking stick provides him with an important connection to his family. That's a big deal for him. After all, he could meet a million new friends on the Appalachian Trail but he'd still feel a little lonely being separated from his family. Gotta love the Bryson Bunch.

There didn't seem to be another person within fifty miles. I pushed on, filled with mild disquiet, feeling like someone swimming too far from shore. (2.14.9)

Yikes. Here, we see Bryson struggle with real isolation after Katz leaves the trail for a few months. Though the kooky Stephen Katz drives him crazy at times, Bryson values him as a companion and truly misses him when he's gone. Dude's got a craving for Katz… and he doesn't care who knows it.

Personally, I would have been pleased to be waling now through hamlets and past farms rather than through some silent "protected corridor." (2.15.29)

At a certain point, Bryson gets a little annoyed by the intentionally isolated design of the Appalachian Trail. The woods are great and all, but he'd give his right arm to be able to stroll alongside a quaint farm or tiny country shack. A Burger King would be a nice too, but beggars can't be choosers.

"It's just that sometimes all I see ahead of me is TV dinners—a sort of endless line of them dancing towards me." (2.20.25)

Katz is dealing with a much different form of isolation than Bryson. Bryson has a loving family to go home to after leaving the AT—all Katz has to look forward to is an empty house and a difficult job. Although it's easy to forget about this, it's an integral part of understanding Katz' character.