Andrew Eames takes to the Appalachian Trail to follow in the footsteps of Bill Bryson
Like many a travel writer, I much admire Bill Bryson. His latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, has just been published. This fall has also seen the release of the movie version of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson’s account of hiking America’s 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, mostly in the company of old friend Stephen Katz. Bryson, played by Robert Redford, shares his on-screen escapades and mishap with Nick Nolte’s disheveled Katz.
It was back in September that I jumped at the chance of walking some of the lengthy Appalachian in Bryson’s footsteps. I was most looking forward to taking on the section through the Smoky Mountains, where the trail runs along the state boundary between South Carolina and Tennessee. This is the location of the resort town of Gatlinburg as well as the site of Clingman’s Dome, which, at 6,643ft is the highest point on the trail.
Like Bryson, I found the landscape to be tremendous. Also like Bryson, I had my fair share of escapades.
The Smoky Mountains have some 136 species of trees. In fact, the ‘smoky’ in the name is down to all that transpiration creating a fine mist in the air. For the most part, I was up on the ridgeline at around 6,000ft, doing lots of what Bryson called PUDs — Pointless Ups and Downs. The path wound through red spruce, mountain ash, Fraser firs and yellow birch. There were huckleberries and blueberries, butterflies and red squirrels, goldenrods and white snakeroot. It was pretty much gorgeous all the way.
As with Bryson’s journey, the overnight camps were just as entertaining as the daytime hikes. In the Smokies, to save hikers from having to carry a tent, the trail is dotted with shelters. These are simple, three-walled structures fitted with a sleeping platform on which we curled up in our sleeping bags. The presence, or otherwise, of bears is a constant source of speculation and conversation in these places, and any rucksacks containing food have to be hauled up high on steel cables.
Shelters turned out to be fantastic places to meet other hikers. At the Ice Water Springs shelter, for example, there was Nick, a broody, monosyllabic character who barely said a word to anyone. In contrast, Christopher was a talkative media executive, who worked in New York’s Empire State Building and whose stride was so long that fellow trail-mates had christened him ‘Elk’. At Mount Collins shelter, we met Jess and John, two old-style hillbillies who entertained us with talk of their favorite military hardware, of lightning strikes and, of course, of their close encounters with things that go bump in the night.
Fortunately, one of them snored like a 40 ton truck reversing up a steep hill. With the nocturnal noises made by those two, there was no way any bear was coming near.
I couldn’t help but feel that Bryson would have had a field day with these guys, but when he and Katz hiked this stretch they had a miserable time thanks to a constant deluge of rain. For my part, I had nothing but clear skies, with glorious sunrises and sunsets.
I also enjoyed the Smokies’ resort town of Gatlinburg, a happy-go-lucky place. I wandered past the Lumberjack Feud dinner show, the Shoot’em Up cinema, shops selling Old Smoky Moonshine and a big sign announcing ‘The wait is over: pumpkin fudge is back’.
Bryson described Gatlinburg as ‘appalling’, but to me it felt a bit like a seaside resort, marooned inland.
So, on the subject of Gatlinburg, he and I will have to agree to disagree.