Examining ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and Its Impact on the Appalachian Trail

The following is a guest post courtesy of Jim “Sisu” Fetig (full bio at the bottom). 

I was recently privileged to see a preview of “A Walk in the Woods,” a knockabout comedy staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. The show opens in 1,800 theaters on Sept. 2.

Redford. Slapstick. No way!!! Indeed, it’s true. The movie was a delightful midnight snack that adds a light touch to Redford’s rich acting career. If you recall, Redford and Paul Newman always had comedic chemistry.

To my delight, the humor was practically nonstop. The jokes kept coming. Anyone would get them, but there was enough hiker and A.T. double entendres to evoke knowing nods and smiles from the trekkers in the audience.

Delightfully potty humor on the trail isn’t new and this movie doesn’t disappoint. The ubiquitous and sometimes maligned potty trowel makes more than a cameo appearance. I mean, how are you going to dig a cat hole when flushable fixtures are only a figment of your imagination?

Redford with toilet paper in hand may have been added for shock value, but more likely, the potty trowel scenes are subliminal Leave No Trace messages using a subject not much discussed in polite, read the non-hiking, society.

Yup. Bears aren’t the only ones who do it in the woods and wanna be hikers need to know that and prepare in advance to pull their pants down around going to the potty and other deeply personal subjects.

To recap for the unfamiliar, author Bill Bryson penned a best-seller in the late 1990s entitled, A Walk in the Woods. It was an account of his trip, exaggerated for effect, based on chunks of the Appalachian Trail that Bryson sampled in preparation to write his story. His sidekick, Steven Katz – played by Nolte in the movie – is the foil and comedic counterpoint as their adventures unfold.

Bryson’s New York Times bestseller is credited with driving up the number of A.T. thru-hike attempts to record levels, with an estimated 60% increase in thru-hiker starts within 2 years.

The screenplay differs a fair amount from Bryson’s original story, but the essence is there. Two old comrades with diametrically opposite personalities reunite after decades of neglect for one last adventure.
Neither this film, nor the recent movie “Wild” (based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir) are about hiking per se. In each, hiking is the means to the end. In this case, Bryson confronts career burnout and the remedy is a romp in the woods with his old buddy Katz. Our treat is to go along for the ride and enjoy the laughs.

The cast is fantastic, especially Longmont, Colorado’s own Kristen Schaal who is brilliant. Her character plays off a classic A.T. stereotype, and the reappearance of her character could have been a hilarious punctuation point near the end of the movie when Bryson and Katz have to be rescued. Instead, the dynamic duo are saved by other stereotypes they first hate but come to love. In reality, it doesn’t happen that way on the AT. No spoiler alert here.

As with any movie about subjects we know intimately and love dearly, this movie has its share of nits to pick and quibble about. Among them, in the movie: Some of the geography appears out of order or isn’t actually the AT. The duo has trekking poles strapped to their obviously empty packs, but never use them. The social aspects of the A.T. experience are mostly AWOL. Bad weather lasts more than 30 seconds. The bears that steal Bryson and Katz’s food are grizzlies, not black bears. (We know bears will do almost anything for food, but hitchhike from Montana? That’s a bit much.) Neither golf carts nor any deus ex machina is going to charge to your rescue in the backcountry. But, hey, that’s dramatic license. So what?
The $64 dollar question is how “A Walk in the Woods” will affect the number of hikers in the future.

History is clear. Major mass media events drive numbers up.

Given that most Millennials barely know who Redford and Nolte are, it may not have much effect on that demographic. Large numbers of Boomers, on the other hand, missed out when they were in their 20s. Like me, they had to wait until retirement to find the time. Could it be that this will remind them to get off the couch and out in the woods?

More likely, we may expect the number of weekenders and short-distance backpackers to increase along the entirety of the trail. After all, Bryson himself didn’t hike the whole thing. For those without the where with all or inclination to thru-hike, sampling chunks of the trail is a viable alternative.

Everyone fears that hordes of uninitiated hikers can disproportionately damage the environment. That’s why the potty trowel metaphor is an effective vehicle to communicate the larger Leave No Trace message. It creates awareness and opens the door to a broader discussion of appropriate behavior and practices that mitigate human impact.

Viewers come to movies like this with a truckload of preconceptions. They’ve read the book, tramped around on the A.T. or other trails, and have their own inventory of intrepid experiences. Hikers want a hiking movie with which they can self-identify and that validates hiking as they understand it.

In other words, hikers will tend to want a certain label and vintage of fine red wine, e.g. perfection. For some, this won’t that movie, and I’ll submit that there’ll never be one. So, this flick may not be what you hope for, but it will still make you laugh because if you haven’t been there and done that, at least you know it happens.

As a feature film, this treat is tasty, but definitely a snack. It never intended or tried to be an opulent double Dutch chocolate delight. In other words, there’s little to satiate that uncontrollable urge known as hiker hunger in “A Walk in the Woods” the movie, and unfortunately the lack of high caloric content may be unfulfilling to a few of the usual suspects out there in hiker land who never seem to be satisfied anyway.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a light comedy based on our favorite pass time with a sprig of deeply personal revitalization for the two main characters garnishing the end. They all lived happily ever after.

Really? When you think about it, isn’t rejuvenation a big chunk of why any of us lace ’em up and grab our trekking poles? You bet it is.

Jim (Sisu) Fetig is a member of the ATC and PATC.  He maintains trails in Shenandoah National Park including the A.T. section he oversees, is the ridgerunner coordinator for the PATC, and volunteers at the ATC visitor center in Harpers Ferry.  He thru-hiked the A.T. in 2014.

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Comments 13

  • Reboot2016 : Aug 19th

    I’m terrified that this film will bring out legions of newbs!

    • Linda Bryson : Aug 19th

      Seriously? Weren’t you once a newbie?

      • George Turner : Aug 19th

        Newbs are fine in moderation… I’m worried about legions of them. I’ve heard horror stories about the impact of Wild on the PCT. I don’t know if the AT could handle a 30 to 40 % increase in traffic

    • Candy : Aug 19th

      Everyone that hikes the AT is a newbie at one time….. Even you!

  • Laurie Potteiger : Aug 19th

    I think all of us who love the A.T. some degree of concern about how the A.T. will be impacted. It will be a big management challenge for ATC, our agency partners, and all those volunteers, and we will see more people in our favorite places we think of as “ours.”

    In the long run, having more people to help protect, volunteer for, and support the A.T. will be a good thing.

    One very positive outcome of the movie is that is made hikers more aware of and receptive to learning and practicing Leave No Trace. In getting ready for the increased use, ATC has developed a variety of Leave No Trace initiatives that will begin to reach more and more people. Hikers are also more receptive to non-traditional thru-hikes (flip-flops) that spread out use. There are creative ways to accommodate more people on the A.T. by encouraging them to spread out and reduce their impacts.

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  • generalstratos : Aug 19th

    Just moved to Seymour, TN and have begun to explore the AT with short day hikes in the Smokies. I have been appalled at the amount of trash on the trails in the park. I end up carrying far more trash out than I bring in lately. That’s the impact of people who just don’t care. I’m a total newbie to this, but I have enough sense to educate myself first and I have enough respect for the land to care for it. I hope this movie educates people, I look forward to seeing it.

  • PastorBuzz : Aug 20th

    I can’t wait for the movie. In 2012, My newspaper publisher cut me time to take “A Walk in the Smokies” to catch what Bill Bryson missed. I had two experienced hikers with me, but had only done a couple of section hikes before the trek. It was a life-changing experience. #TakeAHike https://buzztrexler.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/a-walk-in-the-smokies-catching-what-bill-bryson-missed/

  • Richard Judy : Aug 20th

    Nice Work Sisu! Anyone who wants to see some comments by thru-starters at Springer last Spring should go the the AT Museum Facebook and see the mini documentary there. I plan to go back next spring and again ask the question — for video — “What have you gotten yourself into?” Hilarious responses are guaranteed. 2016 should be a barn burner out there.

  • Arashi Miyazawa : Aug 20th

    I did my through-hike at the height of the Bryson surge. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Anyone who’s hiking the trail just because they saw it in a stupid movie once is going to bail at Walasi-Yi after Blood Mountain kicks their butts.

  • Donald Sico : Aug 21st

    I enjoyed this review and am looking forward to the movie. There is plenty of room over 2200 miles for a few more hikers. Come on out!

  • GoHikeGo : Aug 24th

    It is a catch 22. The more people that get involved and use the resource the more conservation efforts are focused on the area. I agree with Laurie that there is plenty of space for everyone, and most increase in visits will occur around towns and easy entry points.

    Does anyone know if Bill Bryson ever gave back to the Appalachian Trail? The comment about his hike being exaggerated for effect might be an understatement, and there are rumors that he never hiked the AT, and that Katz never existed because it is actually BB’s alternate personality. After all, didn’t we all become someone else hiking the AT?

    I heard these rumors from someone who is an AT legend and was wondering if anyone else had heard the same?


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