Can you give me a quote by Shakespeare about hiking? Or one by Ben Franklin? Ah… trick questions! Of course not. “Hike” wasn’t even a word, back when people walked everywhere, every day, unless they had a horse. Taking walks in woods or rural areas for leisure pleasure didn’t begin to happen until the mid-1800s, when the Industrial Revolution began to concentrate more and more people in cities, where they worked in factories and at jobs that confined them indoors. When they began taking walks just because they wanted to be outside, exercising in nature, they called it “tramping” or “taking a tramp.” The term hike didn’t become common until it gradually entered vocabularies in the 1920s-1940s.
Silas Chamberlin, a native of rural York County, Pa., spent the summer of 2003 as a college-student summer crew worker with the Adirondack Mountain Club. This accelerated his interest in hiking and trails and eventually led to his Lehigh University Ph.D. dissertation, which became the basis of the 2016 Yale University Press book On the Trail: A History of American Hiking.
Trivia in the book was of interest to me. For example, I had long known of the Philadelphia-area Batona Hiking Club, which is a member of KTA, and of the Batona Trail in New Jersey, but I had not known that the name “Batona” was short for “Back To Nature” or that the club, formed in 1928, was one of the nation’s very first hiking clubs. I was also interested in learning that as the value of real estate pushed cemeteries out into the countryside and away from urban church yards, winding circular pathways were specifically designed – as opposed to straight grid lines – to encourage Sunday strolls among trees and grassy areas as early venues for weekend walkers.
The main thesis of the book, however, is that hiking in the 1900s evolved from a social, club-based activity to an activity more often undertaken by individuals or pairs or trios than by larger groups.
“Tramping” in the late 1800s was usually on country roads, but that was before automobiles changed tree-shaded rural lanes to paved roads. As paving took over the countryside in the following decades, hiking clubs developed, first to seek out places of quiet beauty and scenery for walkers, and eventually to identify and maintain or to build new trails in woods and mountains more remote from cities. Weekend hikes with picnics and camaraderie led to weekend backpacking and grand camping expeditions. Hikers learned from each other about trail locations and destinations and about improvising gear, often from military surplus with heavy materials, and club newsletters were sources of information.
Hiking culture began gradually to change after World War II, with change becoming more rapid in the ‘60s and ‘70s and continuing since then. Three things happened:
* First, two noteworthy individuals did what no one had envisioned or attempted before – Earl Shaffer and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail alone, giving rise to the solo-backpack, test-yourself-against-the-elements idea as opposed to hiking as a social-group activity.
* Second, information became available to hikers outside of clubs and their newsletters, with Backpacker magazine starting in spring 1973, so that scoops about trail locations, tips on the latest gear, and advice from those-who-have-done-it were available to anyone, without club membership. At the same time, participation in all kinds of organizations, such as Lions, Rotary, and other civic clubs, went into decline everywhere in a less-community-minded, less interdependent, more go-it-alone citizenry. Perhaps it is the hectic pace of modern consumer lifestyle that drives this lack of connection. Clubs such as ours wince as we contemplate the future when we look at average member age in the 60s or even 70s. We wonder how to involve the next generation. Today, some 34 million Americans hike, but fewer than one percent belong to a hiking club (p. 194).
* Additionally, hiking clubs successfully advocated for state and federal park and trail projects for funds, corridor protection, construction, and maintenance. Gradually many hikers came to assume that trails are a government-given right, not something primarily built and maintained by volunteers, work in which hikers need to engage, to give back in order to KTA – Keep Trails Alive!
No solutions here, but lots worth thinking about and understanding. I recommend the book.
Keystone Trails Association