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Interview: Nick Nolte and Bill Bryson on A Walk in the Woods

Hollywood takes on the Appalachian Trail in the cinematic adaptation of a hit travelogue

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Less than a year after Wild put the Pacific Crest Trail on the pop culture map, another long trail comes to the big screen. In early September, A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s bestseller about a not-quite-successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, debuted with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as Bryson and his partner Katz. We caught up with Bryson and Nolte to get their views on hiking, acting, and why the two suddenly go together.

BACKPACKER: Bill, in the movie version, your character keeps saying he’s not planning to write a book. Was that true?

Bill Bryson: It was always my intention to write a book. I couldn’t have justified the time otherwise. But the hike was also something that I intensely wanted to do. I wasn’t doing it just to get material for a book.

BP: Have you ever considered finishing the hike?

BB: The top item on my bucket list is to do Mt. Katahdin, the culminating summit on the AT in Maine. I would happily walk lots of other sections of the trail—I would particularly like to go back and do the Berkshires in western Massachusetts again—but whether I will ever get to that is another question.

BP: Nick, how did you prepare for this role of the unprepared backpacker?

Nick Nolte: The very first day was extremely interesting. If you walk with somebody, you try to walk the same pace, you’re talking, whatever. Bob [Robert Redford], first thing, boom, he took off. It wasn’t hard for me to struggle.

BP: You did some of your own stunts. What was the worst one?

NN: The one where Bob insists on riding me like a cowboy. He had all his weight on me, and I started to slide out from under him. I grew up wrestling in Iowa from the age of two, so my reaction was, I started to do a sit-out wrestling move to get out from under him. He said, “Whoa, wait, you’re forgetting how old we are!”

BP: Speaking of age, Nick, you and Redford (and your characters) in the movie are a lot older than Bryson and Katz were in the book. How did that change the story?

NN: I don’t think it really did change the story. Age is just bumping up. Now we’re active in our 60s much more, and our 70s. It’s really in your 80s that old age starts. I’m dealing with a lot of age effects [at 74], but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I can remember when old age was 60. But A Walk in the Woods is kind of like the last walk. It’s really a film that’s going to appeal to the older set, my generation.

BP: Bill, how do you respond to purist thru-hikers who say your AT hike was not “real”?

BB: I’m full of admiration for serious, committed long-distance hikers. I know how tough it is because I tried it and failed. But surely long-distance trails should be for anybody, of all levels of aptitude and attainment, as long as they respect the trail and value the great outdoors. The belief that one kind of walking is “real” and others are not is a little strange.

BP: Have you gone backpacking since your AT hike?

BB: I walk a lot in Britain, where I now live. It has lots of really good, well-signposted, beautifully maintained trails. But those aren’t backpacking trips. The best part about walking in England (or Europe generally), is that you can carry a light daypack, and at the end of the day go to a pub or inn, have a hot shower, food and drink, and a good night’s sleep. At my time of life, that is the way to hike.

BP: With this movie and Wild, thru-hiking is kind of having a moment in American culture. Nick, what do you think of that?

NN: We’re asking to get back to nature, closer to the natural. We have comforts all over the place—spring beds, cars—and we don’t live outdoors at all. I think there’s an ache to get back.

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