Armchair hikers can blaze the trail


If you have any interest in seeing America on foot, I would strongly recommend Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, before setting out.

If nothing else, you might get to laughing so hard at his hapless antics on the Appalachian Trail that you get a cramp in your side, landing you right back in your easy chair.

Burden to bear. This nonfiction narrative offers a glimpse in to the preparation for such a trip, since hiking the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail means every single necessary item must be folded up in a backpack and hauled every step of the way.

Imagine that for a moment. A tent. A sleeping bag. Food and water. A cook stove. Everything from matches to first aid items and bug spray to basic cooking utensils. Rain gear. Cold weather clothing.

It boggles the mind to think of folding all of this up and placing it in a pack to be carried on your back for miles and miles of rugged terrain.

“Few people manage to carry less than 40 pounds, and when you’re hauling that kind of weight, believe me, never for a moment does it escape your notice. It is one thing to walk 2,000 miles, quite another to walk 2,000 miles with a wardrobe on your back,” Bryson writes.

Blazing the trail. The book tells how the Appalachian Trail came to be, and how many people have hiked it in the years since the plan to blaze the trail was unveiled in 1921.

Some hike it from south to north, starting in Georgia, while others start in Maine and head through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, the Carolinas and on to Georgia.

Contemplating the possibilities of all that could go wrong makes me wonder what gives anyone the courage to hike this trail.

“Black bears rarely attack,” Bryson writes. “But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want.

“That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”

Bryson paints some mighty unappealing pictures of stopping points where he and his hiking partner would each pitch a tent, set up their cook stove, go in search of water and determine how high to hang the food bags in case if bear came prowling in the middle of the night.

Some places along the trail offer shelters, most open on one end, so they really aren’t much in the way of shelter, though I suppose a roof overhead with three walls is better than none.

But, many are overrun by mice and rats and all sorts of unwelcome wild critters, critters quite willing to remind the hikers that they were there first.

Just reading this book makes me grateful for such wildly luxurious things as my kitchen sink, complete with running water and fancy options like “hot” and “cold” with the simple flick of the wrist – and yet the adventure is detailed in such a way that makes one long for the freedom and beauty of the great outdoors.

Next week: The ecological balance of Appalachia.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.