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'A Walk in the Woods': More Hollywood stars take to the trails

'Woods' stars Robert Redford as Bill Bryson, whose memoir of the same name told the story of his sojourn along the Appalachian Trail. The film co-stars Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, and Mary Steenburgen.

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    'A Walk in the Woods' stars Robert Redford (l.) and Nick Nolte (r.).
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More movie stars are hitting the trails with the release of the new film “A Walk in the Woods,” which is based on Bill Bryson’s memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The film stars Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), Bryson’s childhood acquaintance who joins him for the hike. Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, Mary Steenburgen, and Kristen Schaal co-star in the film. 

Bryson’s book has been hailed as a classic since its publication. It comes to the screen almost a year after the release of the 2014 film “Wild,” which was based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after experiencing various personal crises such as a divorce and the death of her mother. Actresses Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their roles as Strayed and her mother. 

In the film, Bryson seeks the trail as a way to get away from it all. “I’m tired of life being all about ailments and funerals,” Redford says in the trailer. “I want to push myself.”

In an age of smartphones and constant connectivity, the theme has been popular in cinema recently, with actor Martin Sheen starring in the 2010 film “The Way,” which told the story of a father traveling along a pilgrimage path after his son’s death, and Emile Hirsch starring as Christopher McCandless, a young adult who decides to try to live in a remote spot, in the 2007 film “Into the Wild.”

“Wild” in particular may have inspired moviegoers to try the experience out for themselves. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, in December 2014, the month in which the film “Wild” was released, more than 15,000 people came to the section of their site that discusses long-distance hiking on the trail. That’s an increase of 340 percent from the year before. 

Mark Larabee, managing editor of the PCTA, says numbers of permits (given out by the PCTA but originating from the US Forest Service) have increased this year. A new permit system recently aimed to control the amount of hikers beginning on trailheads in the beginning 100 miles to 50 every day, and part of the reason for this new rule was to help hikers get some alone time, Larabee says. 

“We did this for several reasons,” Larabee says of the permit system. “To protect water sources and the sensitive desert environment and to ensure that people heading out could find solitude if that's what they were looking for. By all accounts, this worked very well.” 

Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff helped with the film “Woods,” serving as consultants, and the group thinks it’s ready for what they anticipate to be an increase in demand following the release of “Walk.” One new program that was created in response to what they think will be a heightened interest in the trail is a registration system (which is voluntary) that keeps track of when hikers who are planning to travel the whole trail are going to start out so hikers can see if a particular day will be crowded or quiet. 

Hawk Metheny, New England regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, believes the age of the characters depicted may influence who sees the movie and is then inspired to try a hike. (Redford is 79 and Nolte is 74.) He could see the movie influencing “the retirees who have always thought about the A.T.,” Metheny says.

Films like “Wild” and “Woods” show the discomforts and the dangers of taking to the trail, but Metheny believes there are still a couple of factors that make moviegoers want to put on their hiking boots after seeing the films. In terms of the Appalachian Trail, “in the American consciousness, it has a mystique,” he says. “It’s iconic.” He thinks there’s “the challenge standpoint, also” for any trail.

“Woods” is now in theaters.

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