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So you’ve written a batch of books, Mr. Bryson, and now you live in New Hampshire, a state where people rest from the chore of meeting Presidential candidates by lacing up their hiking boots and exposing themselves to black flies. You’re tired of looking out the window. One day you take a walk. And you get an idea: I’ll amble the 2,100-mile length of the Appalachian Trail.
You have had zany ideas before, but you follow up on this one — in your Christmas card, you ask many friends to walk the trail with you. Only one responds. He is Stephen Katz, a college buddy who has gone on to abuse alcohol and drugs and is now sober, if not exactly tame. You have not seen him in a decade. The last time you did, you fought. But what the heck — he’s willing to do it, even if he is seriously weight-challenged. So, laden with candy bars and brand-new camping equipment, the two of you fly down to Georgia and start walking.
You fully expect to be re-enacting that really depressing scene from “Deliverance” within minutes of stepping into the woods. But you don’t need rednecks to challenge you. You have Katz:
I don’t know when I lost track of Katz, but it was in the first couple of hours. At first I would wait for him to catch up, bitching every step of the way and pausing after each three or four shuffling paces to wipe his brow and look sourly at his immediate future. It was painful to behold in every way. Eventually I waited to see him pull into view, just to confirm that he was still coming, wasn’t lying on the path palpitating or thrown down his pack in disgust. I would wait and wait and eventually his shape would appear among the trees, breathing heavily, moving with incredible slowness, and talking in a loud, bitter voice to himself. Halfway up the third big hill, the 3,400-foot-high Black Mountain, I stood and waited a long while, and thought about going back, but eventually turned and struggled on. I had enough small agonies of my own.
At length, Katz appears, wild-haired and one-gloved, and nearer hysteria than I have ever seen a grown person. He has not helped himself during his absence. It was hard to get the full story out of him in a coherent flow, because he was so furious, but I gathered he had thrown many items from his pack over a cliff in a temper. None of the things that had been dangling from the outside were there any longer, including his water bottle.
Soon enough, personal relations — vital on a trip involving just two people — devolve:
For two days, Katz barely spoke to me. On the second night, at nine o’clock, an unlikely noise came from his tent- the punctured air click of a beverage can being opened– and he said in a pugnacious tone, ‘Do you know what that was, Bryson? Cream Soda. You know what else? I’m drinking it right now, and I’m not giving you any. And you know what else? It’s delicious… Man that was so good. Now fuck you and good night.’
There is modest good news. The average American walks 350 yards a day. On the other hand, to your great pride, you and Katz cover more ground every 20 minutes than Mr. Average Joe does in a week. So you press on. You meet silly people — but then, who else goes for long walks in the woods on weekdays? You get lost. And, on occasion, you have the proverbial bliss that only Nature provides. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
“A Walk in the Woods” is not a book to be read in bed. I read a chapter that way, and soon I was laughing so hard I was gasping. Bill Bryson is a funny, funny man — and, though you don’t quite realize it, he’s a fabulous writer who sneaks the history of the Trail into the book so smoothly that you never feel you’re in history class.
This is a book that clever children and savvy wives give to Dads on Father’s Day, birthdays, holidays and any warm day when the Man of the House has dreams of outdoor glory. It’s a useful cautionay tale — it will discourage any reasonable male from attempting to duplicate the Bryson-Katz walk. Or even, for that matter, going outside, where there are bugs and heat and creatures that make noise in the dark.
We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night’s snooze–indeed was enjoying a long night’s snooze–when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything–through thunderstorms, through Katz’s snoring and noisy midnight pees–so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed–a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage–and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.
I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. I reached instinctively for my knife, then realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent. Nocturnal defense had ceased to be a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose. There was another noise, quite near.
“Stephen, you awake?” I whispered.
“Yup,” he replied in a weary but normal voice.
“What was that?”
“How the hell should I know.”
“It sounded big.”
“Everything sounds big in the woods.”
This was true. Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded like a stegosaurus. There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the spring. It was having a drink, whatever it was.
I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.
Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn’t see anything at all of its shape or size–only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.
“Stephen,” I whispered at his tent, “did you pack a knife?”
“Have you get anything sharp at all?”
He thought for a moment. “Nail clippers.”
I made a despairing face. “Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see, there is definitely something out here.”
“It’s probably just a skunk.”
“Then it’s one big skunk. Its eyes are three feet off the ground.”
“A deer then.”
I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn’t move, whatever it was. A deer would have bolted. This thing just blinked once and kept staring.
I reported this to Katz.
“Probably a buck. They’re not so timid. Try shouting at it.”
I cautiously shouted at it: “Hey! You there! Scat!” The creature blinked again, singularly unmoved. “You shout,” I said.
“Oh, you brute, go away, do!” Katz shouted in merciless imitation. “Please withdraw at once, you horrid creature.”
“F*ck you,” I said and lugged my tent right over to his. I didn’t know what this would achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m moving my tent.”
“Oh, good plan. That’ll really confuse it.”
I peered and peered, but I couldn’t see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from the near distance like eyes in a cartoon. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be outside and dead or inside and waiting to be dead. I was barefoot and in my underwear and shivering. What I really wanted–really, really wanted–was for the animal to withdraw. I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it. I think it may have hit it because the animal made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to my lips) and then emitted a noise–not quite a growl, but near enough. It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn’t provoke it.
“What are you doing, Bryson? Just leave it alone and it will go away.”
“How can you be so calm?”
“What do you want me to do? You’re hysterical enough for both of us.”
“I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I’m in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to do–give it a pedicure?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Katz said implacably.
“What do you mean you’ll cross that bridge? We’re on the bridge, you moron. There’s a bear out here, for Christ sake. He’s looking at us. He smells noodles and Snickers and–oh, sh*t.”
“There’s two of them. I can see another pair of eyes.” Just then, the flashlight battery started to go. The light flickered and then vanished. I scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went, and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries. If I were a bear, this would be the moment I would choose to lunge.
“Well, I’m going to sleep,” Katz announced.
“What are you talking about? You can’t go to sleep.”
“Sure I can. I’ve done it lots of times.” There was the sound of him rolling over and a series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.
“Stephen, you can’t go to sleep,” I ordered. But he could and he did, with amazing rapidity.
The creature–creatures, now–resumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises. I couldn’t find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner’s lamp on my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries. Then I sat for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last line of defense. The bears–animals, whatever they were–drank for perhaps twenty minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come. It was a joyous moment, but I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return. I listened and listened, but the forest returned to silence and stayed there.
Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweater–pausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit–and after a very long time got back into my sleeping bag for warmth. I lay there for a long time staring at total blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.
And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.
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