A [brief] escape

Lyn Widmyer, an ATC volunteer, stands with her son Nick before he sets out on his hike along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia//Photo and text courtesy of Lyn

In 1996, writer Bill Bryson attempted to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) He failed. But he succeeded big time with his humorous account of the trip. His book, “A Walk in the Woods,” quickly became a best seller and inspired a lot more people to hike the Trail. The upsurge in hikers was called the Bryson Bump.

Another Bryson Bump is expected in September when the movie version of the book, starring Robert Redford, premiers. In 1996, when Bryson attempted his thru-hike, 334 people joined the 2,000 mile club, the official roster of those completing the entire A.T. between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Katahdin, Maine in less than a year. In 2014, the list expanded to 714, an all-time record. The Bryson Bump is expected to inspire even more hikers in 2016.

Some thru-hikers (those who complete the entire Trail in less than a year), are disdainful of Bryson because he “only” hiked 200 or so miles before ending his quest.

Benton MacKaye, founder of the A.T., would not share their disdain. He envisioned the Trail as an escape for “toilers in the bee-hive cities along the Atlantic seaboard.” Harried urban dwellers could escape to the Trail for a day or a week, but McKay never thought people would thru-hike the Trail all at once. In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer became the first to report a thru-hike. He wanted to “walk the army out of [his] system.”

Only one in four hikers who attempt the entire Trail actually succeed. Most hikers complete different portions of the Trail over a longer time period. My first day volunteering at the A.T. Visitors Center in Harpers Ferry, WV, an elderly woman appeared and announced she had just completed the Trail. We all cheered. How long did it take you? I asked. “Nineteen years,” she replied. For two decades, her husband drove her to different locations on the Trail and then retrieved her days or weeks later.

Clearly, Bryson was a bit naïve thinking he could hike the rigorous Trail with very little preparation or hiking experience. In “A Walk in the Woods,” Bryson realizes his quest is over while sitting in a shelter in Tennessee looking at a map of the A.T. He writes,

“All that we had experienced and done—all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles—all that came to two inches on the map. My hair had grown more than that. One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.”

For someone like me, who considers a stroll along the C&O Canal towpath a major hiking event, Bryson’s decision to abandon his quest is very understandable. When I see thru-hikers at the Visitors Center loaded down with 45 pound packs, exhausted, hungry and reeking of sweat, I know even section hiking the Trail is not in my future. But my fascination with the A.T. only increases with each hiker I meet.

I agree with Bryson’s description of the Trail:

“There is the good old A.T., still quietly ticking along after six decades, unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.”

Experience the miracle. Park near the A.T. Visitors Center and walk into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on the Appalachian Trail. The hike is less than a mile.

Now that’s my idea of a walk in the woods.

Redford & Nolte ‘Walk in the Woods’

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in “A Walk in the Woods”//Photo courtesy Sundance Institute//Text by Ron Tipton, ATC’s executive director/CEO

It is not possible to watch the Sundance premiere of Robert Redford’s production of “A Walk in the Woods” without comparing it to its Pacific Crest Trail movie counterpart “Wild.” While Redford and his sidekick Nick Nolte (playing book author Bill Bryson and his long-lost high school buddy Stephen Katz) are far removed from Reese Witherspoon, there are important thematic connections that make “A Walk” very special in its own way.

As Director Ken Kwapis said in introducing the film last night, there are three co-stars: Redford, Nolte and the Appalachian Trail. Members of the audience I talked to marveled at the beauty, challenge and unique hiking experience of hiking the beginning in Georgia in the spring. The story line centers on Bryson as an accomplished aging travel writer looking for adventure and Katz as a grizzled, obese and human wreck prone to sexist observations about women of all ages and body sizes. Yet this mismatch of characters quickly becomes a charming and sometimes endearing account of their search for meaning in life as they trudge through the Southern Appalachians. It is a challenging journey that reveals deep personal rewards for both of them as they absorb the experience of the world’s most-famous long distance hiking trail.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a comedy that grows on you as Bryson and Katz re-connect their long-time friendship. Redford play the straight man with a philosophical dignity as he responds to Nolte’s earthy observations about life, people and hiking the Trail. As the story moves north through Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, it grows in charm, humor and a genuine love of life and an appreciation for the 2,100 mile Trail.

There are funny moments throughout as the stars meet characters on and off the Trail. Young and highly annoying fellow thru-hiker Mary Ellen creates a classic confrontation of style with the aging duo. And my favorite moment in the book – Katz’s “date” with the very large Beulah who he meets in the laundromat as she attempts to salvage her panties from the washing machine—is truly a laugh out loud experience.

“A Walk in the Woods” will certainly appeal as did last night at Sundance to those who hike and an older audience that identify with the story and the characters. I heard numerous rave reviews after the movie. Will it also attract a younger and broader audience?