A Walk in the Woods' main character is, of course, the author. Bryson acts variously as guide, participant, and commentator; he relates events, usually involving himself, and offers his interpretations of them. Though the opinions expressed in his commentary are subjective, he does speak from a position of authority, having experienced both the trail's splendor and its hardships. The reader may be interested in the wilderness, but Bryson has been there and back.
Generally, Bryson is a rather likeable character, poking fun at himself as much as the people he encounters. Occasionally, however, class antagonism enters his rhetoric as he expresses contempt for tourists unable to appreciate natural beauty in his way and for those who use the woods to make a living. In these instances, Bryson's jibes become acts of snobbery. Unfortunately, he fails to realize that other aesthetic visions are just as valid as his own and that some individuals do not have the luxury to enjoy the wilderness in the same manner he does.
Usually, though, Bryson presents himself as "Joe Average." He confesses to being old and overweight, traits which do not suit him for hiking a 2,100 mile trail. His limited triumph over the Appalachian Trail's obstacles, then, gives hope to all the readers who would brave the trail's challenges to enjoy its beauties. The reader is left with an almost overwhelming feeling that if a middle-aged academic can hike some 800 miles of grueling back country, then he or she can do it as well.
His traveling companion, Stephen Katz, is an even purer example of the average guy turned hardcore hiker. Katz, a friend of Bryson's from childhood, is the only one of all his acquaintances who accepted his invitation to take on the trail. In addition to being, like Bryson, extremely out of shape, Katz is a recovering alcoholic. Fighting the trail, his desire to quit, and his addiction, Katz succeeds, albeit with more grumbling, just as nobly as Bryson. There is an implicit connection between the power of will needed to make a long hike through treacherous woods and the self-discipline needed to end a lifetime of substance abuse.
Though Katz does not seem to share Bryson's sense of awe at the natural splendor they witness, he is driven to complete their task in his own way. He seems driven by the "because it's there" school; he demonstrates, then, the American desire to take on obstacles for no reason other than the conquest. Furthermore, Katz offers many philosophical insights (along with many explicit exclamations of frustration) into what compels people to take epic walks and why it is acceptable to end such a walk prematurely. Having completed only a portion of the intended journey, Katz says: "as far as I'm concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked it in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled." Katz argues, and Bryson agrees, that the start and end points of the trail are somewhat arbitrary, and that experiencing the trail does not require passing over every inch between start and finish.
Along the way, Katz and Bryson encounter a variety of hikers who represent various levels of commitment to completing the trail. Their first traveling companion, Mary Ellen, reveals the depths of isolation and loneliness the trail can inspire. She latches on to Bryson and Katz and, though irritated by her ineptitude and poor social skills, the pair is reluctant to leave her to fend for herself. She thus functions as a demonstration of the strength of solidarity among hikers.
Bryson also tells the stories of hikers at the other extreme of ability—supremely fit, highly motivated individuals who take the trail's hardships in stride. Often, these characters act only to underscore Bryson and Katz's amateur status. Elsewhere, Bryson tells of the men who set the trail's speed records both to show their dependence, in spite of athletic prowess, on large support staffs and to assert that their dedication to speed causes them to miss the most important part of the journey, the journey itself. The joy of the Appalachian Trail is, in Bryson's view, not in completing but in enjoying one's time on it.
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