There we sat around the breakfast table at Shaw’s, a historic hiker hostel in Monson, Maine, that I first learned about by reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. My brother and I were two weeks into a Maine section hike, and we were joined by NOBO thru hikers nearing completion of their arduous journey, SOBOs only a week into their backpacking adventures, other section hikers, and a father/son team out for their first AT experience.
It was August 2010, 12 years after A Walk in the Woods was published, and inevitably the book became the focal point of conversation. The dad’s eyes lit up as he instantly became “that guy” intent on telling everyone who would listen, including those who didn’t care, how much he loved the book, and how it was his inspiration for hiking Maine’s infamous 100-Mile Wilderness with his son.
As pro-book dad spoke, numerous eyes rolled amongst the thru hikers. One made the point of mentioning there was a gentleman on the trail sporting a “Bryson is a Pussy” t-shirt. Everyone laughed. Some defended the book by citing their favorite parts. Overall, it was a split crowd, truly representing the love/hate dichotomy that follows this best-selling book throughout hiking circles.
The haters are quick to point out that Bryson never completed the Appalachian Trail, not even close, and as such shouldn’t claim to have hiked it. The movie addresses this near the end, with Katz, played by Nick Nolte, proclaiming they’ve hiked the AT in good weather, rain, and snow, so in his mind they’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail. How many mountains do they need to see? he concludes.
If you’re in the hater column, you’ll find plenty of new fodder in the movie’s “authenticity” department. Bryson, played by Robert Redford, is oddly clean shaven throughout the movie, as is almost all of the other thru hikers they encounter. Neither Bryson or Katz’s characters appear to shed an ounce of weight in their journey, and several of the thru hikers they encounter are built like all-American athletes, not emaciated hikers. Where the movie Wild took great care to show period-specific gear, this appears to have been less of a concern for the A Walk in the Woods producers. Sending a film crew to Hanover, NH, clearly also wasn’t in the cards for the one AT scene that occurred here.
The book lovers have always delighted in the laugh-out-loud passages, as well as drawn hiking inspiration from Bryson’s daunting descriptions of the Appalachian Trail’s challenges. If you’re in this column, the movie won’t disappoint. Redford and Nolte are excellent in their portrayals of Bryson and Katz, and most of the book’s beloved humorous scenes are depicted in the movie.
Personally, I’m in the love column. I’ve always found it important to keep the book’s purpose in perspective. Bryson never intended to write an AT guide. His motive, emphasized in the movie, was to write about his experience. Also consider that Bryson was already a successful travel writer looking to reach a mainstream audience. He knew that the more over-the-top his descriptions of the AT’s hardships were, the funnier the book would be, and the more it would sell.
Let’s also think about the original purpose of the Appalachian Trail. The AT was never created with the intent of thru hiking; in fact, an end-to-end hike was viewed as impossible in the beginning. Maybe it’s because I’m a section hiker with no clear end in sight, but I find it difficult to admonish someone for not completing the whole trail. To me, hiking accomplishments are a lot like fantasy football teams. You do it for your own enjoyment and challenge, nobody else cares.
The movie is also best viewed with proper expectations. At its heart, A Walk in the Woods isn’t really a movie about hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s a movie about friendships, relationships, life decisions and where they lead us. In other words, it’s a movie about people that happens to take place on the Appalachian Trail. Viewed through this lens, it’s enjoyable. On a scale, I’d put it in the gray area between see-it-in-the-theater and wait-to-watch-it-at-home.
One aspect of Appalachian Trail hiking the movie gets right is when Bryson’s wife presses him with the “Why?” question. “It’s just something I have to do,” Bryson says, unable to think of an explanation that will suffice. By not answering the question, the movie hits on the Appalachian Trail’s greatest truth. People are either drawn to the Appalachian Trail, or they’re not. Rationalizing the allure is simply missing the point.
Hiking has exploded in popularity since A Walk in the Woods was published in 1998. While there are many contributing factors from economic downturns to a cultural shift toward healthy lifestyles, A Walk in the Woods is widely considered the catalyst for this growth. Known as the “Bryson Effect,” the movie promises to pour kerosine on this wildfire.
A Walk in the Woods the movie appears to accept the burden of stewardship responsibility by omitting the scene where Bryson and Katz, disgusted with the weight of their packs, remove items such as a coffee pot and fling them off a cliff. While Redford and Nolte could have made this one of the funniest scenes in the movie, leaving it out promotes leave-no-trace ethics. The movie takes this a step further by promoting the use of a cathole trowel.
Will these gestures be enough? In the end, the important question isn’t whether the movie is any good, it’s whether the movie is good for the Appalachian Trail. A Walk in the Woods enters theaters at a precarious time for the AT, when on-trail resources are being stressed and organizations such as Baxter State Park are publicly questioning their association with the trail.
The movie promises to exponentially deposit people at AT trailheads, and more people promises to add more problems. But let’s not count our AT issues before they overflow. More people also promises to cultivate more lovers of the Appalachian Trail, the galvanization of which could secure preservation of the trail for generations to come.
It will be many years before we know whether the movie was good or bad for the Appalachian Trail. For now the love/hate debate will continue to wage in trail shelters, online forums, and the breakfast table at Shaw’s.