On Bill Bryson and Pennsylvania

The top three questions received after announcing my plans to hike the Appalachian Trail:

  1. What?
  2. Oh, that’s cool…is that in America? (a question made only okay because I was in Europe at the time)
  3. Have you read that Bill Bryson book?


My Jersey Shore

In September, Bill Bryson’s account of his 800-ish mile walk on the AT, A Walk in the Woods, will be playing in theaters everywhere. Moviegoers across the country will see the trail through his eyes, learn most of what they know about the AT from his perspective, soak up his experience as their own. And that’s too bad.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s an excellent writer. The stories involving his hiking partner, Katz, are highly entertaining, and the environmental/trail facts he details are quite interesting. It’s just that I found his portrayal of the AT to be vastly different from my own experience, and at times, in direct opposition. Yes, I realize the journey is different for everyone, but when I finish this hike, I have half a mind to write a book in rebuttal entitled: A Longer Walk in the Woods: Things Bill Bryson Might Have Learned Had He Hiked All 2,189.2 Miles Instead of 800-ish.

Kent, CT

Bryson often expressed disappointment in the scenic quality of the trail, wondering why it didn’t wind through any farmland, or past rushing rivers, babbling brooks, cascading waterfalls. So imagine my surprise when I walked through beautiful, cow-filled pastures in the rolling hills of Virginia, or when the trail ran alongside a beautiful lake in New Jersey, or the first of many rivers, streams and brooks, and yes, even cascading waterfalls. If you had only walked just a little further, Bill.


Em in the Lemon Squeeze, NY

Word around the AT World is they’re predicting the number of hikers starting from Springer Mountain, GA in 2016 to double (or even triple), which sort of blows my mind. If anything, after reading about Bryson’s journey, including his take on the beauty (or lack thereof), I wasn’t exactly running toward Georgia with my trekking poles. I remember thinking, “Shit, what the hell am I doing?” His tone isn’t exactly wooohooo, the AT rocks! 

We’re still wooohoooo!


Now, almost 1500 miles in, I can’t help but think of his book as an incomplete review of an incredible movie, one of which he saw the first 20 minutes before falling asleep, waking up only to catch a few spotty scenes here and there, never quite catching on, never getting the whole story. It’s an entire book telling one third of the story.


Bear Mountain, NY

I’m not even saying my version of the story is right. I’m saying his is wrong. Nah, I’m kidding. But if you read his book, or happen to see the movie, I am asking you to consider the possibility that there is more to the Appalachian Trail than meets Bill Bryson’s eye.

Road to Connecticut

Anyway, it’s been awhile since I’ve actually read it, so I am not going to argue every point where I can say, Look! A babbling brook next to the trail! In yo’ face, Bryson!

But I do want to talk about Pennsylvania. Even though he himself hiked only 11 of the 230 miles of Pennsylvania, he mentions that he never met a hiker with a good word to say about the trail in PA.

Perhaps I should introduce myself.

Me, somewhere

It is, by far, the most bipolar state we’ve walked through thus far. It begins with miles of rolling farmland, then flattens out, and ends with rocks. Big rocks, small rocks, jagged rocks, cocky rocks, slippery rocks, every rock. Rocks you climb, rocks you hop, rocks you kick, rocks that kick you. It ends with all of the rocks.

Em climbing out of Leigh Gap, PA

I’ve heard some people don’t like these rocks. Sure, they destroyed my gaiters, ripped my shoes to literal shreds, bashed my poles and bruised my ego a few times. But let’s take a look at the terrain we’ve been doing:



And the terrain to come:


more bumps

And now let’s look at PA:

No Bumps

Without those rocks, Pennsylvania is just flatlined heartbeat. The rocks…they bring it to life.

I get the feeling that the people of Pennsylvania are very aware of their pride crushing, soul sucking rocks and attempt to make up for it by being the most amazeball people on the planet.


Because not a day went by where a Pennsylvanian didn’t go out of their way for us.

From Al giving us a ride to Mount Holly Springs, saving us from the pouring rain, to Cindy and Mary who took time out of their busy day to return my phone charger, two dozen miles up the road, thank you. Thank you to Sue, who played my jams on the jukebox all night at Sorento’s Pizza and then, without a word, paid for our meal. Extra thanks for the hugs, we know how bad we smell. To the friendly folks of 219 Market St in Duncannon, for the sign that Emily magically saw in the black of the night, inviting us to stealth camp in their lawn, a much needed pitch after our first marathon (26 miler) hike, thank you.



To Lou, who we met at the Beer Stein in Wind Gap, for offering a ride to your well-groomed, extremely flat lawn to camp, and the use of your bathroom, “you know, if you need to poo or pee,” and to Mary for recognizing two lazy hikers prolonging a sub-par gas station breakfast to avoid the walk back up the hill to the trail head, and offering a ride. And to the Schoenemen’s for picking us up in the middle of Nowhere, PA, decked out in Badger gear, making me feel right at home, thank you for our first home-cooked meal in months (when we make it to Katahdin, we’ll still credit those vegetables), for opening your home to two grubby hikers, and for asking that beautiful question, “Do you guys just want to stay?” when we woke up the next morning to torrential rains. And then for leaving us home alone with DVR and that delicious root beer that’s actually beer. You are, The Best.


More roooooocks

I know what you’re thinking, Bryson, that I didn’t technically say anything good about the actual trail in PA. But I disagree (shocking). Because I believe people are a huge part of the trail and the AT wouldn’t be the experience it is without them.

And I can’t say enough about the good people of PA. Even if they come with a side of rocks.



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Comments 6

  • Colleen Goldhorn : Jul 28th

    I am so happy that someone finally wrote a post like this. Pennsylvania rocks!! (see what I did there?)

  • Judy : Jul 28th

    Enjoyed your post. Very well described in all fashions. safw travels

  • Alec : Jul 28th

    Great post !!! As I plan my thru-hike for 2016, I kinda hope double (or triple) the number of hikers start. With all the movie-watchers, the percent of us that finish will be like 10% after moviegoers drop out. I’ll act like it was hardest year EVER on the AT !!!!

    • Bob Rogers : Jul 28th

      I’ve been flip-flopping on that. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like mouth breathers. So, I wish Tosh.a had written the opposite. “You know, the A.T. really does suck. You should just stay home.” On the other hand, like you said, there’s the thumbing of the nose which isn’t really in the A.T. spirit.

  • Bob Rogers : Jul 28th

    Tosh.a … Thx a fricking lot. Now it’s going to be quadruple!!! 😉 I’m familiar with some of the PA rocks and I gotta say they aren’t my favoritests. I’ve also read the book and I will go see the movie as well. He shouldn’t have been more than a section hiker at best. I’m hoping to do better in ’16. And no, I’m not going because of the book or movie. I’ve probably wanted to do this since ’96 if not before.

  • John : Jul 29th

    Great read with awesome pics. Good job on “correcting” Bill’s account of things. I’ve always been interested in doing the hike and seeing it they your eyes has inspired me!


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