Motivation to hike the Appalachian Trail from Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”

My daughter and I hiked along the Appalachian Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia in June 2016.At long last, I finally read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Since it was published in 1998, it only took me about two decades to check it off my reading list.

Bryson’s story telling was fantastic. It was easy to get a sense that for some the Appalachian Trail is a form of sadistic torture for those who have attempted to hike 2,200 miles up and down hundreds of mountains for weeks and months on end.

I also loved reading about his spur trips to Waynesboro, Va., Centralia, Pa., Gatlinburg, Tenn. and more. They made the struggle more appealing and added great color to the landscape along the trail’s path. His inclusion of tales of murder on the trail were interesting and disturbing, like ghost stories that await hikers at the end of each long day’s hike. I thoroughly enjoyed his berating of the National Park Service’s budget woes and (mal)practice of park maintenance. And his hearkening back to the days of former glory for the mountain towns, resorts and more along the trail were very interesting.

Perhaps what I appreciated most was his self-deprecating daily log of his account – he was not cut out for this hike. For example, his accidental education on hypothermia in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – a near-miss on an innocent wardrobe miscalculation.

I was so inspired by the book’s description that I decided I needed more experience on the A.T. myself. In all, I’ve probably only logged about 20 miles hiking on the trail itself, dabbling in Virginia locations like the Devil’s Marble Yard, Grayson Highlands State Park, Damascus and along the trail in the Great Smoky National Park around Clingman’s Dome.

The Appalachian Trail covers approximately 2,200 miles between Georgia and Maine, but Virginia is right in the middle. According to the good folks at Virginia Tourism Corp.:

Virginia is home to 544 miles of the Appalachian Trial, more miles than any other state! And 101 of those miles lie in beautiful Shenandoah National Park and parallel to Skyline Drive. The A.T. also parallels the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, goes through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, and ends in Damascus, known as Trail Town USA, where the trail goes right down its main thoroughfare.

Like I said, I loved his take-down of the National Park Service’s management practices. While hiking at Grayson Highlands to see the wild ponies, my daughter and I learned the value of the grassy balds (which the ponies help keep in check):

Consider the grassy balds — treeless meadowy expenses of mountaintop, up to 250 acres in extent, which are quite unique to the southern Appalachians. Why the balds are there, or how long they have existed, or why they appear on some mountains but not others (is a mystery). Some believe they are natural features, perhaps relics of lightning fires, and some believe that they are man-made, burned or cleared to provide land for summer grazing. What is certain they are central to the character of the Smokies. Grassy balds cover 0.015 percent of the Smokies landscape yet hold 29 percent of its flora. Within 20 years, there may be no balds left in the Smokies. The National Park Service has no plans to save them.

It would be a shame to lose them. We loved seeing the ponies, but didn’t think about the importance of the flowers (though we did collect several to press into a book).

We’re very excited to spend more time on the Appalachian Trail, likely heading next to Shenandoah National Park this fall with Boy Scouts. We’d also like to hike around on the trail in Harpers Ferry National Park and visit Harpers Ferry and the National Headquarters for the A.T. sometime soon. Bucket list!

Side note: I also watched “A Walk in the Woods” film adaptation of the book, which stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. If you really liked reading the book, there are way too many of the good stories and sidebars missing or altered to satisfy most people’s interests. Nolte was great/awful as Stephen Katz. The characterization was great, but what a miserable person to have to emulate. At least the scenery was nice!

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