Stephen Katz - A Walking Disaster of a Man
We all know that guy. Haggard, reckless and grating. Someone that you would best stay away from, if not for his being a bad influence, than at least a person who your association with might negatively affect your own reputation. Yet we can never completely turn our backs from such a fellow, for it seems that we are rejecting our roots, the place where we began but have grown so far away from. Our forged bonds it seems, run deeper than our discretion.
Enter one Stephen Katz. Such a depraved low-life that any description of whom is merely wasted words that are best left in back in the trailer park. Katz is Bill Bryson’s typical high school buddy from the Midwest who after a long period of little contact, Bryson recruits to walk with him along the Appalachian Trail in his book A Walk in the Woods. Along the way however a funny thing happens, as we start to see beneath the gruff exterior the heart of a man who struggles with existence, just like the rest of us.
As Bryson describes,
After out summer in Europe, Katz had gone back to Des Moines and had become, in effect, Iowa’s drug culture. He had partied for years, until there was no one left to party with, then he partied with himself, in T-shirt and boxer shorts, with a bottle and a baggie of pot and a TV with rabbit ears.
At some point in the intervening years, after a run in with a car and a telephone pole, Katz had actually gone sober, though his abstinence did nothing to smooth his coarse personality or his financial well-being. He was still the same ol’ gruff but lovable Katz.
Katz was also probably the least likely person to attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. He arrived grossly overweight, completely out of shape with absolutely no experience in backpacking or savvy in the woods to speak of. Come to think of it Kat demonstrated very little savvy of any kind, apart from the consumption of junk food.
Consequently his lack of preparation turned him into a walking wrecking ball when it comes to environmental ethics. Outdoorsmen are regularly encouraged to employ ‘leave-no-trace’ practices when entering into a natural environment. Katz had little such concerns, especially when saddled with a monstrously heavy pack, which on the first day he chose to lighten by conveniently disposing of personal items. Bryson describes finding a near-hysterical Katz on the trail after going back to look for him.
It was hard to get the full story out of him in a coherent flow, because he was so furious, but I gathered he had thrown many items from his pack over a cliff in a temper. None of the things that had been dangling from the outside were there any longer.
“What did you get rid of?” I asked, trying not to betray too much alarm.
“Heavy fuckin shit, that’s what. The pepperoni, the rice, the brown sugar, the Spam, I don’t know what all. Lots, fuck.” Katz was almost cataleptic with displeasure. He acted as if he had been deeply betrayed by the trail. It wasn’t, I guess, what he had expected.
Despite his many shortcomings, Katz does manage at times to be a voice of conscience for Bryson. The pair encounter an extremely annoying and bossy hiker named Mary Ellen, who quickly adopts them as they hike. Like an unwanted tag along, she continually berates Bryson and Katz while demonstrating her own ineptitude. Her irritating personal habits finally prompt the pair to ditch Mary Ellen as they sprint to the nearest road to hitch a ride into town. Later it is Katz who discovers his scruples as he shifts the blame for her ditching to Bryson
“She’s probably still walking right now. Wondering where the hell we got to. Scared out of her chubby little wits.” He nodded an empathetic, righteous little nod, and looked at me with a strange, accusatory expression that said, “And if she dies, let it be on your conscience.”
Ultimately Katz character serves as the foil to Bryson’s studied and intellectual personality. In the process, he provides a great subject for much of the book’s humor. Katz’s gruff nature is evident right away when the clerk at the hostel at the beginning of the trail is enumerating the list of dangers that they will face, including wolves and sub-zero temperatures.
“Oh great,” Katz said and gave a ruptured, disconsolate sigh. He looked challengingly at the man. “Any other news for us? Hospital call to say we got cancer or anything?”
Later, during a desperate struggle and near drowning while fording a dangerous stream, Bryson inquires to ask if the sopping wet Katz is all right.
“Oh, peachy,” he replied. “Just peachy. I don’t know why they couldn’t have put some crocodiles in here and made a real adventure of it.”
So while Katz will never be held up as a model for responsible hiking, perhaps we need a character like Katz in our lives. Someone who we look upon with equal parts scorn and endearment. After all, no matter how low we may get, it feels good to have someone like Katz to point to and say, “At least I’m not as pathetic as him!”