In his 2006 book, “A Walk in The Woods – Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail”, Bill Bryson gives a delightful and humorous account on how he and his long-lost and former travelling partner, Stephen Katz, walked the Appalachian Trail.
Before reading this book, I have never heard of the Appalachian Trail. What really caught my attention was the shear length of it – approximately 3500 km’s (2200 miles) of marked hiking trail in the eastern United States between Springer Mountain (Georgia) in the south and Mount Katahdin (Maine) in the north.
In-between these two landmarks, the trail snakes through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire – 14 in total! One could expect that a trail of this magnitude might exists somewhere in Canada or the remote northern regions of Russia, but to find it in one of the highly developed and populated countries in the world is truly remarkable.
The idea of the Appalachian Trail (simply called the A.T.) was first proposed by Benton MacKaye in 1921 and in 1923 the first section of the trail was opened. MacKaye also called for a two-day conference to be held in 1925 and this meeting inspired the formation of the Appalachian Trail Conference, now called the Appalachian Trail Conservancy .
In 1930, a keen hiker and lawyer named Myron Avery took over the development work of the project and it is really his efforts that ensured the completion of the trail in 1937.
The trail and surrounding land is maintained and preserved today in a collaboration effort between government organizations, clubs and volunteers (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy), which is the reason why it has endured for so many years.
The actual length of the trail has changed over the years as new sections were added or existing sections re-routed. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy the latest official length has been established as 2181 miles (3509 km’s) in 2011.
If you look at the map below, you can appreciate its scale and grandeur. Some detailed maps tilt the trail on its side so that is displayed in a horizontal fashion from south to north, mostly because it is easier to pin it on a wall in this way!
“Thru-hikers” are those who attempt to complete the trail in a single season. “Section-hikers” complete the trail in a serious of separate trips. The trail is usually hiked from south to north (Georgia to Maine) starting in March or April. A thru-hike requires anything from five to seven months, but hikers taking too long might have to abandon their effort when winter settles in causing cold, snowy and dangerous conditions.
Not everyone might get excited by the idea of putting on a rucksack to trod 3500 km through woodlands and camp outdoors. In fact, Bill could not find anyone to accompany him on his endeavor. At the last minute he received a phone call from his former travelling partner, Stephen Katz, excepting the invitation. Bill and Katz previously back-packed together through Europe as described in his 2001 journal, “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe”.
When his wife remarked that she thought they worked on each other’s nerves during their youthful European trip, Bill replied: “We started off on each other’s nerves. We ended up despising each other”.
A movie with the same title was released in 2015 starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Katz. Without the book as background, I felt that the movie did not really stood its own ground. The director probably had the same fear, hence the fact that seasoned actors, including Emma Thompson, were utilized to compensate for this. However, I can still recommend it as a good introduction to the A.T. and I know you would enjoy it if you love the outdoors.
In the movie there is a dramatic scene where Bill and Katz encountered a bear looking for food at their camp site. Although this is a bit of Hollywood entertainment thrown in, the chance of actual human-bear encounters on the trail are very rare. Even if you do run into one of these beasts, it would be the American black bear (Ursus americanus), not the dreaded (mainland) Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). I cannot recall that Bill and Katz actually had any close encounter with a bear in the book. One night they might have heard some sniffing noises outside their tents, but it could have been any form of wild animal. Basic safety measures in any case dictate that you should not keep food in, or close to your tent but rather leave it in a tree outside your camping area.
Roads and Towns
Being located in a highly populated country like America, the trail is unfortunately crossed by many roads. The benefit is that it gives hikers the opportunity to hitch-hike or walk to the nearest town in order to indulge in some creature comforts if they desire.
There is a delightful scene in the book (not so well portrayed in the movie) where Bill describes his ill-fated effort to walk to the nearest Kmart in one of these towns to buy some insect-repellent. It turned out that the roads were not build for pedestrians at all – no sidewalks, pedestrian crossings etc. For most part he had to press himself against the dusty railings enduring angry looks from ignorant motorist who probably thought he was crazy. At one point, he decided it was safer to walk underneath a bridge spanning a small trickling creek than over it. When he finally arrived at the store, tired, rattled and covered in mud, he discovered that they did not sell any insect-repellent…
In case you are wondering, Bill and Katz never intended to do a “thru-hike”. At some point, they had to abandon the trail since Bill had work-related obligations to attend to. After that, Bill hiked little chunks of the trail on his own – sometimes just daily excursions. Bill and Katz reunited for a final time doing Maine’s infamous Hundred Mile Wilderness, but it proved to be the hardest part of the trail so far. In the end, after some near misfortune, they decided to stop pretending to be mountain men and headed home.
But as Katz said, after they hitched a ride into the nearest town and ordered some cream sodas: “As far as I’m concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bryson.”