A walk in the woods

An excerpt from Bill Bryson's new book, 'A Walk in the Woods,' describes the author's almost-encounter with two big animals in the middle of the night.


Bill Bryson
May 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

The cab dropped us at Rockfish Gap, southern gateway to Shenandoah National Park, our last long stretch of hiking before we ended part one of our big adventure. We had allotted six and a half weeks for this initial foray and now it was nearly over. I was ready for a vacation -- we both were, goodness knows -- and I longed to see my family, beyond my power to convey. Even so, I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a climactic amble. Shenandoah National Park -- 101 miles from top to bottom -- is famously beautiful, and I was eager to see it at last. We had, after all, walked a long way to get here.

At Rockfish Gap there is a tollbooth manned by rangers where motorists have to pay an entrance fee and thru-hikers have to acquire a backcountry hiking permit. The permit doesn't cost anything (one of the noblest traditions of the Appalachian Trail is that every inch of it is free) but you have to complete a lengthy form giving your personal details, your itinerary through the park, and where you plan to camp each night, which is a little ridiculous because you haven't seen the terrain and don't know what kind of mileage you might achieve. Appended to the form were the usual copious regulations and warnings of severe fines and immediate banishment for doing, well, pretty much anything. I filled out the form the best I could and handed it in at the window to a lady ranger.

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"So you're hiking the trail?" she said brightly, if not terribly astutely, accepted the form without looking at it, banged it severely with rubber stamps, and tore off the part that would serve as our license to walk on land that, in theory, we owned anyway.

"Well, we're trying," I said.

"I must get up there myself one of these days. I hear it's real nice."

This took me aback. "You've never been on the trail?" But you're a ranger, I wanted to say.

"No, afraid not," she answered wistfully. "Lived here all my life, but haven't got to it yet. One day I will."

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Katz, mindful of Beulah's husband, was practically dragging me towards the safety of the woods, but I was curious.

"How long have you been a ranger?" I called back.

"Twelve years in August," she said proudly.

"You ought to give it a try sometime. It's real nice."

"Might get some of that flab off your butt," Katz muttered privately, and stepped into the woods. I looked at him with interest and surprise -- it wasn't like Katz to be so uncharitable -- and put it down to lack of sleep, profound sexual frustration, and a surfeit of Hardees sausage biscuits.

Shenandoah National Park is a park with problems. More even than the Smokies, it suffers from a chronic shortage (though a cynic might say a chronic misapplication) of funds. Several miles of side trails have been closed, and others are deteriorating. If it weren't that volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintain 80 percent of the park's trails, including the whole of the AT through the park, the situation would be much worse. Mathews Arm Campground, one of the park's main recreational areas, was closed for lack of funds in 1993 and hasn't been open since. Several other recreation areas are closed for most of the year. For a time in the 1980s, even the trail shelters (or huts, as they are known here) were shut. I don't know how they did it -- I mean to say, how exactly do you close a wooden structure with a fifteen-foot-wide opening at the front? -- and still less why, since forbidding hikers from resting for a few hours on a wooden sleeping platform is hardly going to transform the park's finances. But then making things difficult for hikers is something of a tradition in the eastern parks. A couple of months earlier, all the national parks, along with all other nonessential government departments, had been closed for a couple of weeks during a budget impasse between President Clinton and Congress. Yet Shenandoah, despite its perennial want of money, found the funds to post a warden at each AT access point to turn back all thru-hikers. In consequence, a couple of dozen harmless people had to make lengthy, pointless detours by road before they could resume their long hike. This vigilance couldn't have cost the Park Service less than $20,000, or the better part of $1,000 for each dangerous thru-hiker deflected.

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On top of its self-generated shortcomings, Shenandoah has a lot of problems arising from factors largely beyond its control. Overcrowding is one. Although the park is over a hundred miles long, it is almost nowhere more than a mile or two wide, so all its two million annual visitors are crowded into a singularly narrow corridor along the ridgeline. Campgrounds, visitor centers, parking lots, picnic sites, the AT and Skyline Drive (the scenic road that runs down the spine of the park) all exist cheek by jowl. One of the most popular (non-AT) hiking routes in the park, up Old Rag Mountain, has become so much in demand that on summer weekends people sometimes have to queue to get on it.

Then there is the vexed matter of pollution. Thirty years ago it was still possible on especially clear days to see the Washington Monument, seventy-five miles away. Now, on hot, smoggy summer days, visibility can be as little as two miles and never more than thirty. Acid rain in the streams has nearly wiped out the park's trout. Gypsy moths arrived in 1983 and have since ravaged considerable acreages of oaks and hickories. The Southern pine beetle has done similar work on conifers, and the locust leaf miner has inflicted disfiguring (but mercifully usually nonfatal) damage on thousands of locust trees. In just seven years, the woolly adelgid has fatally damaged more than 90 percent of the park's hemlocks. Nearly all the rest will be dying by the time you read this. An untreatable fungal disease called anthracnose is wiping out the lovely dogwoods not just here but everywhere in America. Before long, the dogwood, like the American chestnut and American elm, will effectively cease to exist. It would be hard, in short, to conceive a more stressed environment.

And yet here's the thing. Shenandoah National Park is lovely. It is possibly the most wonderful national park I have ever been in, and, considering the impossible and conflicting demands put on it, it is extremely well run. Almost at once it became my favorite part of the Appalachian Trail.

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Bill Bryson

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