Themes

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The central theme which runs through all of A Walk in the Woods is the difference between two quite separate worlds: the civilized world of home and the wild world of the untamed wilderness. Bryson is constantly amazed at the ease with which one passes into the latter and the difficulty of returning to the former. America, he points out, is still full of vast woods in which an individual can be lost or killed. When Bryson leaves the tame confines of civilization, he experiences the psychological states which are part of life in the wild. These states become the important themes of his story.

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Fear is the first psychological reaction to the woods considered by Bryson. He observes early in his narrative that "woods are spooky. Quite apart from the thought that they may harbor wild beasts and armed, genetically challenged fellows named Zeke and Festus, there is something innately sinister about them, some ineffable thing that makes you sense an atmosphere of pregnant doom."

Putting aside Bryson's derision toward the working poor who live near the trail, he has a point about the danger of hiking alone in the woods. Throughout the story he tells tales of bear attacks and hikers who succumbed to hypothermia. Both, he asserts, are real risks even to day hikers. The former, though a rather rare occurrence, is one hikers are generally somewhat powerless to protect themselves from. As a result, Bryson notes, one becomes a constantly coiled spring in the wilderness, always attuned to the smallest noise.

The trail also has benign psychological effects. After spending only a few days on the trail, Bryson becomes more attached to his traveling companion and the hikers who walk ahead, behind, or abreast them. The common hardships of isolation and depravation make all hikers more kind and giving. All of the characters Bryson passes are imbued with a strong sense of solidarity among hikers. Especially, he notes, the thru-hikers. These individuals, committed to the task of walking the entire trail from start to finish, inspire awe among day hikers and comradery among themselves. Bryson describes many individuals who make substantial personal sacrifices in an effort to help another hiker.

Bryson's style of weaving information into his narrative makes themes out of such scientific or sociological concerns as the trail's history, its geography, and the nature of the wildlife that surrounds it. For Bryson, the most important feature of the Appalachian Trail's history is that it is a history of men and women who dedicated large portions of their life to its foundation. The trail started as one man's vision, but it could be neither completed nor maintained without tireless labor on the part of people driven by their love of the outdoors. Their tirelessness impresses Bryson and restores his faith in the goodness and work ethic of American people.

Though alternately funny and dramatic, A Walk in the Woods conveys a surprising amount of geological and zoological data. Bryson is interested in the uniqueness of the Appalachian chain of mountains, so he recounts its history alongside that of the trail that runs along its spine. Bryson's great feat is to take this rather scientific thematic concern and make it highly readable, even to the casual naturalist. Scientific data about the size and nature of the Appalachian wilderness also underscores another of the trails psychological impacts. The sheer breadth of the wilderness and its primordial qualities have the effect of making the hiker feel tiny, insignificant. But this is not one of the negative effects. Instead, Bryson believes this personal annihilation, this recognition of unimportance makes the individual feel more at home in the world, a stronger part of the whole.

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