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…
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