Monday, February 13, 2017

New book tells story of the history of hiking in America

By the late 1960's more than 100,000 miles of walking trails guiding millions of hikers and backpackers annually through public lands in the U.S., had been created. Almost all of this mileage was the work of volunteers in hiking clubs, going back to the first days of organized recreational hiking in the 19th century.

 "On the Trail: A History of American Hiking," by Seth Chamberlin, tells the story of how American hiking clubs began to create a strong hiking culture, centered on trail building, nationwide beginning in the middle of the 19th century.  Ironically, the success of hiking clubs in expanding the nation's trail network, along with technological improvements in hiking and backpacking gear and a growth in hikers going solo or in small groups, beginning in the 1960s, the hiking club culture that built the trails in the first place began to diminish,  Chamberlin claims.
 
Today less than one percent of American hikers belong in an hiking club, Chamberlin says.  
 
Using club newsletters, minutes of club meetings and spirited written recollections of club activities dating back several generations as source material, Chamberlin focuses on the bonhomie shared by hikers beginning in the 19th century when upscale Victorian urbanites formed hiking clubs seeking a spiritual uplifting by escaping from the growing stench, noise, stress and crowding of cities in the throes of the Second Industrial Revolution.
 
Chamberlin considers hiking club members of the nation's earliest organizations, such as, the Appalachian Mountain Club, 1876, Boston; the Sierra Club, 1891, San Francisco; and the Mazamas, 1894, Portland (OR),  the "producers" of the nascent hiking culture.  They scouted the trails, built them and maintained them at a time when what few trails there were they were very short.  Club members organized outings to use the trails, and published maps and trail guides for members and non-members to gin up interest in hiking.  They advocated for environmental causes and for the establishment of national parks.  American hiking was invented by these producers, Chamberlin says.  
 
"Trampers" as Victorian era hikers called themselves, were a high spirited group, spending days enjoying  "a good, honest-to-goodness, upright, God-fearing, one hundred percent American, red-blooded  hike," and nights spent singing and dancing(!) around a roaring fire before retiring to sleep on the floor of a rustic hut.
 
Socially the clubs were advanced.  Women were welcome to almost all hiking clubs and many rose to prominent positions in the club at a time national women's suffrage was a generation in the future.
 
There were practical benefits to being in a club.  At the turn of the century, gear for an overnight was too heavy for humans to carry so pack animals had to be used.  Or, overnighters would spend the night in a rustic lodge on the trail built by club members for their use.  In the early days of hiking clubs, before automobiles became widely available, hikers traveled from the city to their destinations on trains, as trains went just about everywhere then.  (In 1914, 96 percent of interstate travel was by train.)  Somebody had to organize all of this.
 
Newsletters were important to promoting a club's activities and hiking in general.  Many newsletters reported scientific discoveries of the members who had an interest in the physical nature of the world they walked through. 
 
But shortly after World War II, hiking culture began to erode, "consumers" began replacing the "producers."  Freeze dried foods and nylon fabrics, both perfected during the war, substantially reduced pack weight permitting hikers overnight stays in the wilderness with just what they could carry on their backs.  In 1951 the packs themselves got an upgrade when Dick Kelty began selling the first nylon and aluminum-frame backpacks.  A padded waist belt greatly improved the comfort and load carrying capacity over the standard pack of the time--wooden U-shaped packs from army surplus stores.
 
Spirited discussion around the campfire on the merits of this piece of gear or that trails difficulty, has given way to the rise of an outdoors press that targeted magazines, newspaper articles (and later Internet content) to hikers in contemporary times, Chamberlin claims.  Backpacker Magazine published their first issue in 1973.
 
As longer trails were completed: The 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in 1937; the 273-mile Long Trail in Vermont in 1930 and a partially complete Pacific Crest Trail first explored in the 1930's, more hikers wanted to experience nature solo, not with groups.  "Through-hikers" hiking a trail that might take days or weeks to complete end to end became more numerous.  What passed for social interaction was the chance meeting of one small group of hikers with another in a trail side shelter, Chamberlin said.
 
The biggest hit organized hiking took was in the fall of 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Systems Act, claims Chamberlin.  The bill provided federal money for the construction of trails in some areas and placed the nation's longest trails under federal protection.  After that hikers began to see trails as an entitlement, built and maintained by government workers.  Hiking club membership and the commitment to trail work that came with it no longer looked appealing to hikers.
 
"The traditional hiking community had relied on clubs as net producers of hiking culture but evolved into a loose gathering of millions of Americans consuming equipment, information and physical trails produced by private business,  professional environmental groups and the  government...
"The evolution of the citizen hiker to the consuming hiker meant that most hikers would spend almost no time in investing in the clubs or trails they used," Chamberlin comments in the book.
 
"Most hikers today have no experience with the realities of trail work or the policies that make trails possible.  Hikers and backpackers today do not appreciate how much they owe to the hiking clubs that organized in the late 19th century to plan, build, maintain and promote those trails," Chamberlin.
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"On the Trail :A History of American Hiking," by Seth Chamberlin, (2016) Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  The book looks like a verbatim transcription of a dissertation submitted by Chamberlin in pursuit of a Ph.D in American history from Lehigh University and available in its entirety for free on the Internet.  The book is also available to check-out from the Jefferson Parish Library.