The True Story of Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz

The True Story of Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz

Films that leave us with a sense of joy and elation often linger in our memories, imprinting themselves as lasting cinematic experiences. A similar feeling is induced while watching ‘A Walk in the Woods’ which follows the story of Bill Bryson, who, feeling the weight of age and a desire for adventure, decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. Faced with the daunting task of navigating over 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, Bryson’s plans become more challenging when his older, and not-so-physically fit friend Stephen enthusiastically volunteers to join him. The two embark on the journey with vastly different levels of hiking experience, leading to a series of comical and challenging encounters.

Directed by Ken Kwapis, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is an exploration of friendship, self-discovery, and the transformative power of nature. Robert Redford delivers a compelling performance as Bill Bryson, capturing the essence of a man’s journey with age and rediscovery. Nick Nolte, portraying Stephen Katz, adds depth and humor to the narrative, creating a dynamic on-screen duo. The film’s stellar cast also includes the talents of Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, and Mary Steenburgen, whose nuanced performances contribute to the movie’s emotional resonance.

The Real People of A Walk in the Woods

Based on a true story, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ brings to the screen the real-life journey of Bill Bryson. The screenplay, penned by writers Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman, draws inspiration from Bryson’s widely acclaimed travel memoir of the same name. Bill Bryson, a popular travel writer, chronicles his humorous and challenging attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail in the memoir, providing rich source material for the film.

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In the book, Bryson faces a myriad of challenges, from the physical demands of the rugged terrain to encounters with the idiosyncrasies of the wilderness. Despite the formidable hurdles, Bill and Stephen managed to cover a significant portion of the trail, conquering 870 miles out of the 2,200-mile stretch they had originally set out to traverse. Bryson openly acknowledged that when he embarked on the Appalachian Trail, his initial motive was to document the experience for a book. However, as the arduous journey unfolded, he found much more than a narrative; he discovered resilience, friendship, and a deeper understanding of himself.

Bryson and Stephen Katz shared a connection that stretched back to their school days at Callanan and Roosevelt schools in Des Moines. Bryson delved into his memories of those Des Moines years in his memoir, ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,’ where he wrote about his experiences with Stephen Katz. For a considerable period, the true identity of Stephen Katz remained shrouded in mystery. It wasn’t until around 2015 that the revelation emerged that Stephen Katz was a pseudonym, and the genuine name of Bryson’s old friend was Matt Angerer.

Angerer and Bryson embarked on numerous adventures together, including a memorable journey to Turkey filled with laughter and camaraderie. Despite their shared escapades, life led them to different shores — Bryson settling in England while Angerer made his home in the United States. However, a significant challenge loomed over Angerer’s life; he grappled with a persistent drinking problem that proved resistant to multiple treatments. Bryson, while maintaining occasional contact through postcards, reached out to him and extended an invitation to join him on the trek. By this time in the late 1980s, Bryson was already becoming quite popular in England.

The success of their Appalachian Trail adventure and the subsequent book catapulted Bryson to fame. Angerer recalled that Bryson took him on a trip to Cuba and made periodic visits to Angerer’s Carlisle residence in the following years. During this time, Angerer experienced personal growth and transformation, finding love, getting married, and achieving sobriety around 2005. In an interview, he expressed immense happiness about the prospect of a film being made about their journey, with Robert Redford set to portray Bryson on the big screen. He said, “Just another day in Bill’s life. I don’t know how he does it; he’s always on top of his s—.” According to reports, Angerer passed away in June 2023, having lived a life that he would be proud of.

The majority of the film was shot in Georgia, but despite the geographical variance, the actors managed to authentically capture the camaraderie and humor depicted in Bryson’s book. The on-screen portrayal closely adhered to the source material, with minimal creative liberties taken, and this adherence to the essence of the true story adds depth and sincerity to the film. Real stories, when translated onto the screen with integrity, contribute to the richness and power of the cinematic universe. They establish a profound connection with viewers, allowing them to resonate with the authenticity of the narrative and the genuine human experiences portrayed.

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