Only a writer with a wit as sardonic as Bill Bryson’s would title a book about a more-than-2,1000-mile, five-month wilderness trek on foot through 14 states of the Eastern seaboard— A Walk in the Woods. A “walk”? A person still in touch with the real world would likely title it A Punishing Rite of Passage That Should Be Done Only by Those Under 30.
At the time of his odyssey with the pseudonymous Stephen Katz, a childhood chum from Des Moines, the writer was in his mid-40s. The idea to undertake this Dante-esque venture began, in fact, as a “walk” in the woods in 1996. Bryson and his English wife, Catherine, had recently bought a home in Hanover, New Hampshire, Bryson having returned to the United States after a near-20-year career abroad as a writer and journalist for English newspapers. The opening sentence of his memoir reads, “Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire, I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.” One can’t help but recall the opening sentence of the first canto of The Divine Comedy:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.
Born in America’s heartland, in a city that he eulogizes in his 2006 autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir that is also a window into the upbeat zeitgeist of the 1950s, when, except for the looming threat of the “Red Menace,” a horizon of material wealth for the working and middle classes (of whites, at least) seemed within easy reach. As a young man Bryson traveled broadly, eventually moving to England during his early 20s. On his return to the U.S., walking the Appalachian Trail seemed to be the perfect way to re-integrate himself with his native land. The AT is not a great historic path like many of the settlers’ trails that opened the American West. The Appalachian Trail started as an idea, simply enough, in the summer of 1921, with Benton MacKaye telling his friend Charles Harris Whitaker of his dream to create a walk along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Not much actually happened with this dream until Milton Avery, a more down-to-earth guy than the visionary MacKaye, took over the trail’s construction in 1930. It was finally completed 16 years after MacKaye’s seminal idea, on August 14, 1937, with the opening of a two-mile leg in a remote section of the Maine woods. Even today, the trail meanders a bit from year to year, maintained largely by hundreds of volunteers who live along the way who respond to the trail’s changing conditions.
According to Bryson, MacKaye and Avery didn’t much cotton to each other. He writes that MacKaye gets too much credit, that it was the publicity-averse Avery who did much of the mapping and persuaded groups of hikers in the affected states to help with the trail’s construction. No grand event announced the opening. In fact, for years it was almost a closely guarded secret. From the mid-1930s to 1968, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which was founded in 1925, recorded only 59 verified thru-hikers. The numbers soared during the most recent decades, with a registered total of about 15,000 who have completed the near-2,200-mile trek from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to the rocky summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine (elevation 5,269’).
More than half the thru-hikers are in their 20s; the oldest one recorded was 81. Hiking parts of the trail, and especially thru-hiking, is an increasingly popular rite of passage for Millennials. Confronting nature’s sublime indifference to man, testing oneself in it, seems especially apt for a generation that has spent way too much waking time since childhood staring at electronic screens. That is not to say that the Millennials’ growing commitment to nature and the environment makes them spawn of the communal, back-to-nature hippies of the ’60s; they are, after all, plugged in, and discussions of the latest high-tech camping gear and boots can be overheard at your local REI, where you can even find a wood-burning camp stove that charges your iPhone. A quick YouTube search will reveal dozens of postings, live action and stills, documenting highlights of the trail; there are even GIFs of its entire length. A video that suggests the arduous human experience, which is also well photographed, features hundreds of stills by hiker Raymond Johnson, whose trail moniker (every hiker adopts one) is “Flatfoot.” The compilation is over 20 minutes, but interest never flags.
Johnson also kept a record of his daily and weekly averages of miles hiked, which you can see here.
There’s also a National Geographic documentary that gives a logistical and visual overview of the trail and its history. It profiles individual hikers and features some stunning aerials. Even if you are an armchair traveler and have no fantasy about taking on such a challenge, this Nat Geo overview will make you want to get moving.
There are YouTube how-to guides with best tips for packing and selecting footwear. Of course, when Bryson and Katz made the trek, these information sources were more basic, mainly books, and Bryson cites them, including a two-page “suggested reading” list, at the end of A Walk in the Woods. Because many of Bryson’s travel and history books draw upon research from other sources, it is also totally expected that he would serve up a large dose of anecdotal testimony from other hikers. However, years later (as related at the end of Thunderbolt Kid), Katz tells Bryson that his account is “mostly fiction.” Even before Bryson meets up with Katz at Hanover’s closest airport, Lebanon Municipal, he is having second thoughts. Bryson spends most of the next two chapters documenting the perils of Lyme Disease, snake bites, blisters and getting lost. He does not believe the heroic tale told by Henry David Thoreau living a year in a remote cabin (not remote at all), or the myth of the American Pathfinder, always moving west as soon as he sees a new neighbor a la Daniel Boone. Shortly after Bryson and Katz set off, he pauses for a dark soliloquy on nature:
So, 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 with every step and leaves you profoundly aware that you are out of your element and ought to keep your ears pricked.
It is northern Georgia, after all. Bryson is a big movie fan, and he may have seen John Boorman’s Deliverance a few too many times as he seems to have his ears pricked for the sound of pursuing banjos
Then there are the bears. Though Bryson admits they represent little threat to hikers, he positively delights in describing yet another book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. It truly stretches credibility that Bill Bryson is the right man to document the magic allure of the Appalachian Trail, but his inappropriateness as an outdoorsman is nothing compared to that of the only person he is able to talk into going along with him. Stephen Katz, whoever he really is, is no foil for Bryson’s fundamental ineptitude. Katz is well beyond that — a complete basket case. He’s in such bad shape that when Bryson sees him descending the portable stairway on the airport tarmac, his old friend steps down gingerly, holding onto the railing with both hands … and so it begins.
This spring I am once again in Atlanta, Georgia, the “New Hollywood,” photographing a film freely adapted from Bill Bryson’s comedic memoir. Robert Redford optioned the book in 2006 for his company, Wildwood Enterprises, hoping that he and Paul Newman would play Bryson and Katz. It would have been their third movie together, after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. But it was not to be, as Newman fell ill and then passed away. Redford has tried several times since then to go into production. Now, with Nick Nolte signed on as Katz, the movie has just completed production with a week of 2nd unit shooting on the trail in northern Georgia, No. Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. For the first time, I have kept a daily journal of its making.
Ken Kwapis is directing. This is our sixth film together, the first we are not shooting totally on 35mm film. The non-hiking parts of the movie were photographed on the Arri Alexa. But the producers have made it possible for us to photograph the major hiking scenes on 35 mm Kodak film. Many of these walk-and-talk scenes between Redford and Nolte were on narrow paths up to a half-mile from the closest drop-load point. A reliable 35mm Panaflex Millennium in Steadicam mode, and minus video village, allowed us to move quickly with minimum gear. Also, the great dynamic range of the film negative, especially in overexposure, gives me more creative latitude later in the DI suite. This still confirmed “analog kid” has been very happy to see and hear a film camera again— and to show it to younger crew members who had never seen film running through a camera. (I have photographed my last five films with the Arri Alexa — a wondrous camera, to be sure, but it’s not film.)
I readily plead guilty that much of my career has been spent making movies about life rather than actually living it. Maybe this is true of many of us who spend so much of our most productive years in the closed circle of our crews, those temporary families formed while forsaking friends and children as we work in far-flung locations. Sadly, this is a condition that’s even truer now that Hollywood has been mostly abandoned for feature films and has become the province of reality TV and game shows. Doing a film like “AWalk in the Woods” has brought me back to some basic values about that delicate balance between life and work. Also, my wife, Carol Littleton, is the movie’s editor and the film has brought me closer to her world.
Carol is an avid hiker, whether day hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail above our high-desert cabin, her recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, or her more ambitious, hundreds-of-mile treks on the Santiago Campostella Pilgrimage Trail in southern France and northern Spain.
For the last 45 years, most of my “treks” have been from one camera setup to the next. I think this is why Bill Bryson’s Appalachian Trail walk and the movie we are making about it exerts such a strong emotional tug on me. Bryson went into the woods to find himself. In a culture that’s increasingly alienated from the natural world, one that is rapidly disappearing, such encounters with nature may help keep us from being lost in filmmaking’s own dark and tangled woods.
NEXT: DRONES, DRONES, DRONES