Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Man and the Natural World

By Bill Bryson

Man and the Natural World

I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon [...] and say with a slow, manly sniff, "Yeah, I've s*** in the woods." (1.1.4)

Well, that's one way to put it. Another way of saying it would be that Bryson is tired of being a boring old city dweller and wants to get back in touch with nature. He's not a hippie or anything—far from it—but everyone needs to spend some time in the woods every once in a while.

He saw the AT [...] a network of mountaintop work camps where pale, depleted urban workers in the thousands would come and [...] refresh themselves on nature. (1.3.2)

On the other hand, Benton MacKaye (the creator of the Appalachian Trail) might have been a hippie before hippies were a thing. This guy fancies himself a proto-Steve Jobs of sorts: a restless innovator who will change the world through his genius ideas. Might be a bit ambitious, but we're interested.

All over America today people would be dragging themselves to work, stuck in traffic jams, wreathed in exhaust smoke. I was going for a walk in the woods. (1.3.31)

After hearing this, we wouldn't mind taking a stroll along the Appalachian Trail ourselves. That probably goes double these days—can you remember the last time you went a day without looking at some sort of screen? We're pretty sure we were still in elementary school. Yikes.

Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. (1.4.1)

Trippy, man. In fact, we might argue that this is why Bryson loves spending time in nature—it relaxes him immensely to be in such a peaceful and serene environment.

I was beginning to appreciate that [...] the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life. (1.4.58)

This makes sense to us. It's not that Bryson hates city life—in fact, we see him crave its comforts countless times on the Appalachian Trail. By depriving himself of those things he took for granted, however, Bryson forces himself to appreciate them even more when he returns.

Occasionally, it troubled me [...] just how far one strays from the normal measures of civility on the trail. (1.7.38)

Of course, there are plenty of downsides to roughing' it. It's not fun to share a nasty old shelter with a bunch of strangers. (And you get pretty smelly.)

Now here's a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. (1.11.1)

Although Bryson hikes the Appalachian Trail for mostly personal reasons, dude's probably in mad shape by now. So here's a tip from us: if you want to lose that dadbod and start looking like John Cena, then there's a lot worse places to start than the mighty Appalachian Trail.

I was home by 4:00 P.M. This didn't feel right at all. You don't hike the Appalachian Trail and then go home and cut the grass. (2.13.13)

Bryson has a very different experience with trail when he attempts to walk it piecemeal, driving his car between entrances. This method lacks the magical immersion that characterized his early retreats into nature—that Zen-like state Bryson now craves like a drug.

In America, alas beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it [...] or you deify it. (2.15.31)

This is a really good point. In America, there are very few communities that actually exist with nature. Instead, you're stuck with two polar opposites: super-dense cities and completely untouched countrysides. While that may seem like a good idea in concept, we can't help but feel like it sort of misses the point.

So we decided to leave the endless trail and stop pretending we were mountain men because we weren't. (2.20.83)

In the end, Bryson admits that he's no Daniel Boone or Captain Kirk—he'll never be that explorer who boldly goes where no one has gone before. The guy still loves nature, true, but he no longer has any illusions about his relationship with it.