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Take a Hike!

Granger
Hikers ascending Tyndall Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, circa 1920

To the uninitiated it can be hard to understand why anyone would go hiking. Today’s fleece- and Gore-Tex–clad masses may take for granted the attraction of spending weekends doing what, for most of human history, qualified as grunt work: trudging through the wilderness, surrounded by dangerous animals, a heavy pack on your back. Earlier advocates had to be more candid. “This is very hard work for a young man to follow daily for any length of time,” wrote John Meade Gould in a popular guide in 1877. “Although it may sound romantic, yet let no party of young people think they can find pleasure in it for many days.”

Henry David Thoreau offered similar advice. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” he wrote in “Walking,” his classic hiking treatise, “and never see them again…then you are ready for a walk.” When I was a child my parents had already been indoctrinated into modern hiking culture; my sister and I knew better. I would only go for a hike if promised M&Ms at every stop. My sister, cannier than I, demanded a new CD before each trip, which she then listened to on headphones while the great outdoors passed by.

Why do people hike? Surprisingly little has been written on the origins of so unnatural an activity. Silas Chamberlin, an official at a Pennsylvania-based hiking advocacy organization and a recent Ph.D. who studies environmental history, has written the first comprehensive account of the pastime, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking. Looking back it can seem easy to draw a direct line from men like Thoreau and John Muir to hikers today. We climb the same mountains: Thoreau, in The Maine Woods, writes about his struggle to ascend Mount Katahdin, the endpoint of the modern Appalachian Trail; Muir, in The Mountains of California, describes much of the landscape passed through by the path that now bears his name, the 211-mile John Muir Trail that runs from Mount Whitney to Yosemite. We also share many of the same goals. Thoreau preferred to hike “absolutely free from all worldly engagements”; Muir spent days by himself in the wilderness, with nothing but the animals in the forest for company.

Chamberlin’s participation in the often ignored club hiking community—34 million Americans go hiking each year, but only two million belong to hiking clubs—leads him to ask how typical Thoreau and Muir really were at the beginning of American hiking. Early hikers shared with these men a love of nature, Chamberlin agrees, and they may have also admired the daring of those who walked in the forest alone. But what most early hikers sought was not solitude; it was fellowship. The decisive moment in the rise of American hiking was thus the formation of groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club, in which “meetings, dances, meals, and simple companionship were almost as important as the act of walking itself.”

As one New England woman recounts, the working class felt no need for a club—typically a project of the middle class or wealthy—to authorize their leisure. “It was our custom,” she wrote of her days off, “to wake one another at four o’clock, and start off…together over some retired road whose chief charm was its familiarity, returning to a very late breakfast, with draggled gowns and aprons full of dewy roses.” Chamberlin nonetheless shows that the early clubs were responsible for much of the development of hiking as a discrete activity, distinct from a stroll in the park, or a long journey along roads, or the surprisingly popular nineteenth-century spectator sport of competitive walking.

The social ambitions of the clubs were evident from their memberships. When the first significant hiking association, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), formed in Boston in 1876, the group’s magazine declared that it had been founded on the marriage of “scientific and aesthetic elements,” so that “the former, like a strong husband, would do the laborious honor-bearing work, and the latter as a graceful enthusiastic consort, would win many friends to the association.”

This language was not just figurative: the AMC, like most hiking clubs, recruited men and women alike. Perhaps the founders were thinking of how the Shoshone woman Sacajawea helped guide an earlier trip into the mountains. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with their followers John C. Frémont, Clarence King, and Ferdinand Hayden, were among the most widely read “nature writers” of the day; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the early clubs saw themselves as recreating in miniature these more famous ventures in the union of romance and science. And unlike Thoreau and Muir, when these explorers recounted their tales of long walks through the woods, they could at most offer only the pretense of facing the wild alone—their government-sponsored expeditions required dozens of participants.

As the members of the AMC marched off into the mountains of New England, botanizing and charting routes up peaks, they too did so in large groups. Out west the Portland Mazamas held their first gathering in 1894 atop nearby snow-capped Mount Hood—155 men and thirty-eight women met at the summit. In California the Sierra Club, founded by Muir in 1892, organized regular trips into the high country. A representative outing included 287 members. Even if early hikers had wanted to travel by themselves, the equipment would have made an expedition difficult: a typical multiday trip required heavy canvas tents, cast-iron Dutch ovens, rubber mattresses, and sheet-iron stoves—much of it surplus equipment from the Civil War. Early hiking looked less like a country idyll, more like an army encampment. So much for the solitude of the wild.

The clubs’ show of scientific credibility could not be sustained for long. The Mazamas promoted one group of trips with the promise of establishing “heliographic communication” along the entire West Coast; in the event, club members used mirrors to signal from Mount Baker in northern Washington to Diamond Peak in central Oregon, an impressive accomplishment, but one that, expedition organizers admitted, had little scientific value. Those with greater interest in the production of knowledge rebelled at their fellows’ devotion to the picturesque. “The wish to enjoy the prospect becomes the pretext for repeated halts,” complained one scientifically inclined hiker; distracted by beauty, “the will acts with less vigor.” By the early twentieth century the marriage of science and romance had ended in divorce.

Without science for cover, the clubs needed some new excuse for their love of long walks in the woods—romance and beauty seemed suspect, especially given that the clubs, while they admitted women, remained dominated by men. The most obvious place to turn was the great new passion of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, bodily culture. “The real joy of hiking is that it is highly healthful and at the same time interesting,” a Cleveland club member offered. A hiker from Allentown, Pennsylvania, was more unrestrained: “The next time you climb that mountain, and your chest heaves, and you feel like your lungs will explode, remind yourself,” he wrote, “it’s all for health’s sake.”

For some, hiking offered religious benefits. “Our trips have always embraced…first, the worship of God,” one hiker insisted; his club regularly scheduled religious services at a rock formation they dubbed Dan’s Pulpit. There do not, however, seem to have many priests or rabbis in the woods.

Indeed, although Chamberlin cherishes the early hiking clubs too much to draw out this point, the evidence he presents suggests they may have been one of the central rallying points—along with the Episcopal Church and Ivy League football—for a new elite culture that for the first time excluded all Jews and Catholics. Basing their identity on the then-novel concepts of “muscular Christianity” and “Anglo-Saxonism,” club hikers desired to present themselves as ancient and rooted in the land. “There’s nothing like a good, honest-to-goodness, upright, God-fearing, one hundred percent American, red-blooded autumn hike,” one member wrote in his club’s log book—perhaps parodically, as Chamberlin insists, but if so the parody also reveals the character of much hiking rhetoric.

The founder of another club felt that his group was reminiscent of a leading WASP imperialist organization, dubbing it “a sort of advanced Boy Scouts.”1 Other clubs promised health of a distinctly racial variety. “All we need are a few more trails…and the color of young Americans will soon turn from putty to bronze,” a Wisconsin club declared, promising its hikers “two rosy cheeks.” At least one southern club explicitly limited its membership to whites. Northern clubs may not have needed to: although Chamberlin notes that some clubs were racially open, he does not discuss a single nonwhite hiker before World War II.

After World War I the clubs’ horizons, which had rarely reached beyond local or regional borders, expanded to include entire mountain ranges. What remain the most prominent symbols of American hiking culture were the result: the Appalachian Trail, 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine, and the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,659 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Like the great wagon roads of the nineteenth century or the federal highways then being charted across the country—Route 66 was established in 1926—these trails knit together the national landscape.

The lack of utilitarian function also made the trails’ ideological purpose more evident. The chief architect of the Pacific Crest Trail, Clinton Clarke, saw the project in explicitly racial and religious terms. The “negro boys” of America, he complained in 1937, had remained “closer to the soil” and so were taking “all the athletic prizes,” while whites suffered from “too much sitting on soft seats in motors, too much sitting in soft seats in movies, and too much lounging in easy chairs before radios.” Only a long trip in the woods by “clean, strong young Christians,” Clarke’s assistant wrote, could “preserve our Christian civilization,” while eradicating communism as well. The great attraction of the new trail, according to a young man who blazed a section, was “the fact that I was one of the first fellows to participate in such a conquest of this kind.”2

W.R. Ross/National Geographic Creative
The Wanderlusters, a coed hiking club based in Washington, D.C., circa 1915

Back east the founder of the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye, was a rather different figure, a supporter of the Soviet Union and a friend of Sinclair Lewis, John Reed, and Lewis Mumford. MacKaye believed his trail would provide a solution to the labor unrest of the period—much of which was led by Wobbly lumberjacks and miners—by offering land and work in government-owned towns, newly built along the trail in the forest; no less a man of his time than Clarke, MacKaye termed his scheme “colonization.”

Like any activity oriented around that great cipher, Nature, hiking is ideologically flexible. After World War II the culture established by the clubs underwent a radical change. A new breed came to prominence: the “thru-hiker.” The first, Earl Shaffer, had never belonged to a hiking club. He spent the summer of 1947 trying “to walk the army out of my system, both mentally and physically,” by becoming the first person to trek the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. When Shaffer finished, the public guardians of club hiking culture were incredulous. An official questioned him at length, only to relent when Shaffer produced a day-by-day diary and hundreds of photographs documenting the trip.

Thru-hiking was too threatening to the clubs. The goals were different: speed and fame (several clubs banned hiking races) as well as a therapeutic approach to nature that seemed insistently antisocial, a rejection of fellowship. The success of thru-hikers also called into question the need for the material resources the clubs provided. Trips like Shaffer’s “proved that it was possible to hike without a camp cook, heavy equipment, experienced guides, or other benefits of club outings,” Chamberlin writes. This shift came about in large part because of the spread of new technology like lightweight nylon tents and freeze-dried food. Shaffer and his followers—including Martin Papendick and Colin Fletcher—looked less like club members and more like high-tech loners, perhaps new versions of Muir and Thoreau, perhaps a portent of what Robert Putnam diagnosed as the quintessential postwar American social pathology, “bowling alone.”

Chamberlin contends that the hiking culture that followed has been a pale shadow of that produced by the clubs. Robert Moor offers a more promising view. On Trails, his account of his own 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and the practice of trail-making more generally, shows how contemporary hikers have moved beyond the sport’s WASP origins and, in part by returning to the thought of Muir and Thoreau, in part through the canonization of writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Edward Abbey, come to see hiking as a way to create not a club but a kind of utopian community.

A typical parody of the hiking culture that arose after the 1940s might run like this. Hikers are just as white, wealthy, and socially snobby (if not explicitly racist) as ever, but now, because they hike alone or in small groups instead of clubs, they are obsessed with individual speed as well as ever newer and more expensive equipment that, when not in use, piles up in the garage along with all the other detritus of suburban life.

This image, which Chamberlin peddles as he contrasts postwar hiking culture with the positive aspects of the clubs, has some truth to it. But the consumerist hiker, who, however much he enjoys walking, does not so much escape to the wild as use the wild as an excuse to indulge in yet more shopping, is an apt label for only part of the contemporary hiking community. The remainder are more likely to rely on the same piece of gear until it falls apart after decades of use—hiking equipment may be the last bastion against planned obsolescence in the American economy—or else, as in the recent craze for lightweight backpacking, to look for ways to repurpose common items like old plastic water bottles, which are lighter than the most high-tech versions on offer. My favorite book on the subject recommends, “Make your own stuff, and making it out of trash is always best!”

Moor, who hikes with a tarp instead of a tent and dehydrates his own food, is clearly of this latter tribe. His spiritual guide to hiking is not the latest outdoors company catalog but the poet Gary Snyder, at least as channeled by Kerouac in The Dharma Bums: “Walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by”; only then will you achieve the true “meditation of the trail.” Moor had set out on the Appalachian Trail with no particular goal other than “to live in a prolonged state of freedom.” The first day he realized the hike required a kind of submission. In his journal he wrote:

There are moments when you cannot help but feel that your life is being controlled by some not-entirely-benevolent god. You skirt down a ridge only to climb it again; you climb a steep peak when there is an obvious route around it; you cross the same stream three times in the course of an hour, for no apparent reason, soaking your feet in the process. You do these things because someone, somewhere, decided that that’s where the trail must go.

Because the path had been carved out by trail-builders and past hikers, to follow it, Moor found, was to be a slave to determinism. His sense of mastery, as he finished, was mixed in equal measure with a feeling of humility. “On a trail, to walk is to follow.”

To walk is also to be part of a community, although often an unplanned one. The Appalachian Trail has changed since Shaffer’s lonely expedition in 1947: in 2015 roughly 2,700 hikers set out from Georgia intending to walk the entire length to Maine. A similar number attempted the Pacific Crest Trail, with about fifty hikers departing from the Mexican border on a typical day in April of that year. This may not sound like a crowd, until all those hikers arrive around dinnertime at one of the shelters or campsites along the way. As the weeks go by a free-floating community develops. Moor fell in with a group for the first part of his trip, then outpaced them. “Weeks or months later,” he writes, “whenever I slowed down or they sped up, I would bump into these friends again, as if by some miraculous coincidence.” If not by intention—the original promoters had expected that few people would hike the trail’s entire length—this was by a kind of design. “The miracle,” Moor writes, “was the trail itself, which held us together in space like so many beads on a string.”

Moor set out alone, but he found on his hike a community in which, as the Appalachian Trail’s founder, Benton MacKaye, had hoped, “cooperation replaces antagonism, trust replaces suspicion, emulation replaces competition.” Unlike many other works about hiking—Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling 2012 memoir Wild being the most prominent example—Moor does not take this experience as the occasion for an anguished excavation of his past. Instead his experience becomes the starting point for a series of reflections on the nature of trails themselves, from the earliest surviving traces of animal movement 565 million years ago to the arts of concealment that make possible the well-maintained trails of today. Throughout, Moor returns to the same paradox: the way that the careful planning of trail advocates like Chamberlin can come together with the spontaneous activity of individuals like him and his trail-mates to create a hiking culture that expresses a utopian critique of modern society.

The trail, for Moor, is not separated off from the modern world; rather, the trail becomes that world’s inverted mirror. He is obsessed with the concept of “stigmergy,” a biologist’s term for how creatures like ants and termites self-organize without any central command. Unlike its close cousin the market, stigmergy assumes altruism, not competition. With animal trails much of this altruism is inadvertent: a creature cannot travel to a food source without leaving behind a trace of the way it went—and as other animals follow, that trace turns into a trail.

In humans, a similar logic can be found in the paths of culture. Moor details the practices of tribes like the Western Apache, which see the past itself as a trail that must be carefully attended and preserved. Then “the land grows to contain not just resources,” he writes, “but stories, spirits, sacred nodes, and the bones of ancestors.” Moor tends to ignore the way overuse can cause a pathway to expand until it destroys a landscape, or consensus leads to a monochrome culture stuck in the same old ruts. He takes the perspective of the hiker, trying to account for what made possible the brief utopia he found on the Appalachian Trail: a physical landscape planned by trail builders, a cultural landscape created by hikers—even those in the woods for only a day or two—devoted to not just traveling the trail but building a community and helping one another along the way.

Moor, perhaps without meaning to, also carries out a subtle critique of the hiking culture he inherited from the early-twentieth-century clubs. Against the spirit of conquest that motivated some early hikers, he bases his understanding of trails on a relationship to the land drawn from Native American traditions. He devotes another chapter to the International Appalachian Trail, a project that explodes the nationalist impulse behind the long trails of the 1920s and 1930s by taking seriously the idea of a trail concerned with respect for geology itself, establishing pathways through every remnant of the original Appalachian mountain formation, from Mexico to Canada, Scotland to Morocco.

A still-further revision may be needed. Moor notes the absurd specificity of the word “hike,” which carries with it both a sense of work—the word’s etymology lies somewhere between “to hoist” and “to sneak”—and an assumption of wilderness. Other languages are more capacious. In German, to hike is wandern, to wander; in French, it is randonner, which originally meant to move with impetuosity. Even in English, “hiking” is a peculiarly North American word: for the British and the Irish, a walk can designate any kind of perambulation, from a stroll in the park to a trip through the Alps; New Zealanders go tramping, while Australians prefer bushwalking.

In the United States, it wasn’t until around 1900 that the words “hike” and “hiker” began appearing in the annals of outdoor societies. A young woman on a Sierra Club outing left a portrait of this new specimen, the hiker: “He is harmless, but is not generally loved, for he is a little overbearing and given to much talking of a certain catalogue of hours and distances which he keeps in his mind and calls his record.” A few years later Muir, when asked for his own opinion on hiking, rejected the term, preferring “to saunter”; most others talked of tramping. The former strikes me as too pious—Muir adopts Thoreau’s folk etymology, according to which “saunter” comes from “à la Sainte Terre,” a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—while the latter is too redolent of cultural slumming. I prefer the term taken up by Henry James in The Art of Travel: the next time you see me on the trail, whether in a park, along the street, or in the woods, you’ll find me rambling.

  1. 1

    For the imperialist origins of the Boy Scouts, see Ian Buruma, “Boys Will Be Boys,” The New York Review, March 15, 1990. 

  2. 2

    Chamberlin neglects the racial impulses of Clare and his associates; these details come from Jenn Livermore, “The Pacific Crest Trail: A History of America’s Relationship with Western Wilderness,” senior thesis, Scripps College, 2014; and Glynn Wolar, “The Conceptualization and Development of Pedestrian Recreational Trails in the American West, 1890–1945: A Landscape History,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Idaho, 1998.