Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Perseverance

By Bill Bryson

Perseverance

The peaks of the Appalachian Trail are not particularly formidable [...] but they are big enough and they go on and on. (1.1.16)

Bill Bryson knows that hiking the entire Appalachian Trail will be a serious challenge, but he's confident that he'll pull through in the end. After all, he knows as well as anybody that this thing is a marathon—not a sprint.

Every year [...] about 2,000 hikers set off from Springer, most of them intending to go all the way to Katahdin. (1.3.12)

Spoiler alert: very few people actually make it the whole way. In fact, most hikers quit before they've even emerged from the Deep South. No matter which way you slice it, the Appalachian Trail is a bonafide beast.

"I had a guy [...] who shoulda quit but didn't [...] I don't think he'd seen anybody for the last several week. When he came off he was just a trembling wreck." (1.3.19)

This actually raises an important question for us—why are these people expending so much effort on the Appalachian Trail in the first place? Sure, it would be a cool accomplishment to hike the whole darn thing, but so would winning a bowling tournament, and those don't typically end with the winner collapsing into a "trembling wreck."

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. (1.3.52)

Yeah—that would drive us insane too. It also doesn't help that the landscape of the Appalachian Trail is unchanging for large stretches, leading Bryson to sometimes feel like he's walking through the same neck of the woods every day.

I was plunged into a restless funk [...] by the realization that Katz was verily in heaven at the prospect of several days idling in a town. (1.6.56)

Although Bryson is dead-set on conquering the Appalachian Trail, Katz is a little bit less picky. He'd love to do it—sure—but he just might prefer to plop himself on the couch and watch an X-Files marathon. Understandably, this disparity drives poor Bryson insane.

Of the four feet of trail map before me, reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches. (1.8.15)

By our count, that means Bryson and Katz have traversed a mere four percent of the Appalachian Trail so far. We're speechless. This is a huge bummer for both men, as the last few weeks of travel have been so grueling that they doubt they can make it much further.

In a way, it was liberating. If we couldn't walk the whole trail, we also didn't have to, which was a novel though that grew more attractive the more we considered it. (1.8.22)

The more they think about it, the happier the guys become they won't be able to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. It might be a slight buzz-kill, but it mostly just helps them relax and enjoy their time on the AT. Before, it felt more like a chore than an adventure. Now, however, they finally feel like they have control over their own destinies.

Take Bill Irwin, the blind man. After his hike he said: "I never enjoyed the hiking part. It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn't my choice." (1.9.9)

It quickly becomes clear that very few people feel satisfied after completing the entire Appalachian Trail. What's up with that? If you ask us, it's because the sort of people crazy enough to actually finish the whole trip are the same type of people who are never satisfied with their accomplishments.

It must actually be quite a depressing moment—to have slogged through a mountainous wilderness [...] to realize that [...] you are still but halfway there. (2.14.6)

Luckily, Katz and Bryson don't have this problem, having already accepted their zero percent chance of coming out on top. Still, Bryson can't help but place himself in the shoes of those madmen and women who actually stuck to their guns and saw the Appalachian Trail through to the bitter end.

Katz responded to this in a way that I had never seen from him [...] as if the only way to deal with this problem way to bull through it and get it over with. (2.19.86)

The Hundred Miles Wilderness is perhaps the most brutal section of the entire Appalachian Trail, but Katz responds to the challenge by toughening up more than ever before. Frankly, we're proud of the guy. He might be the wet blanket to Bryson's trail-blazing spirit at times, but he really pulls through when it matters.