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Dan McCaslin: Looking Back at the History of Hiking in America

Author Silas Chamberlin writes about the blazing of trails for organized outings

A view of the Topatopa Mountains from the Red Reef Trail near Ojai. Click to view larger
A view of the Topatopa Mountains from the Red Reef Trail near Ojai. (Dan McCaslin photo)

“Why would anyone enjoy deliberately walking around in nature?” is an initial question. As a longtime junior high school teacher, it was a challenge to bring 14-year-olds to a mental place where they could appreciate “just walking” around in the backcountry. At first, many wanted to keep riding in cars, skateboarding or at least biking — hiking was rather stupid.

Hiking, or leisure walking (includes backpacking), began as a chosen social activity only when Americans were freed from the necessity of travel by foot. When public transportation improved after the Civil War, and when automobiles became very common after World War II, many citizens suddenly awakened to the idea they could drive to a trailhead and just walk right out into nature. It’s not such a simple concept if you mull it over. We aren’t thinking of Jim Bridger or Jedediah Smith, but urban sorts venturing out of the city.

I call this column On the Trail, and most of the narratives deal with hiking and backpacking Santa Barbara backcountry trails. Imagine my interest in Silas Chamberlin’s new book with the catchy title On the Trail — I had not quite conceived “American hiking” as a topic for a Yale University Press history book (see 4.1.1. below).

Chamberlin’s well-written tome offers a concise, 204-page survey of the ways organized hiking or nature walking grew in the United States after the 1860s. Until the late 1960s, this was an East Coast story. Chamberlin reveals that a summer’s work with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s trail crew whetted his interest in the topic.

The author’s main thesis is that the social aspect of the new 19th-century hiking clubs had been lost by the 1970s with the rise of hiking as a mass phenomenon. The United States developed from fewer than 2 million walkers to more than 34 million dayhikers/backpackers today.

I made my own first backpacking trek in 1971 to nearby Little Pine Mountain with my spouse and another friend, a guy who knew the way and helped us figure out the borrowed Kelty backpacks. As a western American hiker, I’d barely heard of the Sierra Club, and backpacking in very small groups, or solo, seemed the obvious best practice.

Chamberlin’s bias against masses of post-modern Americans hiking in small groups today reflects little understanding of the vast population growth in the United States since the 1900s, nor does he realize the impact of World War II and the middle-class buying tens of millions of cars. (USA population in 1870 = 39 million; in 2000 = 281 million). Chamberlin asserts that we can observe a transition from the rich social life of the large-group hiking clubs back east and their “producer hikers” to the “consumer hikers” of today’s mass democratization of enthusiastic walkers.

Increasing throngs of Americans began free-will hiking and exploring in nature soon after World War II ended (1945), while increasing urbanization stimulated even more Americans to try to find their way back to a wilderness. Inventor Dick Kelty began producing his revolutionary nylon and external-frame backpacks in 1951, and sales took off in the next decade. By the 1960s, backpacking guru Colin Fletcher could ruefully joke, “The woods are overrun, and sons of bitches like me are half the problem” (Chamberlin, page 157).

When did the idea of choosing to hike out into nature increase to the point that by the 1960s, the old-style hiking clubs couldn’t handle the masses (or, the masses rejected large-group social hiking)?

Chamberlin answers that the origins of U.S. hiking can be found in the culture of “nature walking” in 19th-century American cities, and these forays were almost always based on social clubs like ADM. The Appalachian Mountain Club was the first hiking club, founded in 1876 in Boston, and these clubs additionally performed many trail-building and land protection functions we think the government performs today. There are philosophical distinctions here about how much “the government” should fund trails and nature recreation, but no need to wax political.

Some of our Santa Barbara backcountry hiking trails and camps — along Manzana Creek, for example — were built by the federal government; these were social welfare programs under New Deal auspices (1930s). Nira Camp, built in 1937, a gateway to the San Rafael Wilderness, is actually an acronym for the National Industrial Recovery Act, a socialistic federal program of the Depression, similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

But the official and more significant federal government participation in public trails came mainly after 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act into law. The Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail are only examples of national trails getting some government support (local governments participated earlier).

Colin Fletcher’s revolutionary The Complete Walker also came out in 1968, and this massive book shows anyone, in detail, how to backpack or long-hike alone. Fletcher inspired friends of mine to plunge into backpacking in the glorious near-wilderness we have close to us right here in Santa Barbara. For many years, I shared the bias to go it alone out in the woods [e.g., nine].

Chamberlin’s best chapters are the first — “The Origins of American Nature Walking” — and the last (fifth) — “Hiking Alone.” He sees a counter-cultural trend in the late 1960s that influenced western Americans’ newfound pleasure in small-group hiking and backpacking. Another East Coast snob, Chamberlin embeds this trend unfavorably in the ugly mass culture overwhelming the USA in the '60s. (I’m not sure where this leaves us with today’s Internet, social media and 21st century’s “mass culture.”)

If you hail from the East Coast, the many trials and trails of the eastern and middle-American hiking clubs such as ADM will hold your interest, and they contributed greatly to pleasure walking in the United States. They are themselves offspring of the European, and especially German, nature hiking clubs, the Wandervogel (rambling) movements beginning in 1896.

As eastern cities grew more polluted by industrial revolution, hiking inside (parks) and outside town grew in popularity for those with some leisure time. Remember, by the 1890s we also see the “country day school movement” emerging on the East Coast, and these rustic campuses promised the affluent city children a less polluted and more garden-like learning atmosphere.

However, these clubs, like those private schools, typically limited themselves to middle- and upper-class white Americans, although they were economically egalitarian and remarkably gender-fair for the late 19th century. Chamberlin carefully notes that while the hiking community did become more diverse after 1968, “In 2012, 70 percent of outdoor recreation participants were Caucasian, and 40 percent came from household earning more than $75,000 per year” (Chamberlin, page 203).

When more and more hiking moved toward western America, Chamberlin overstates his thesis by dismissively writing, “In the same way that freeze-dried food and aluminum cook kits had replaced the camp cook, mass-market media replaced the institutional knowledge of clubs” (page 193). He carefully cites Robert Putnam’s landmark 2000 study, Bowling Alone, and it is true that most backpackers I run into are solo men, or perhaps a pair of guys.

I grew up in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and had no idea that the radical Sierra Club led group hikes. I had to figure out how to go camping and backpacking on my own, basically via two college friends. Most of the dayhikers and backpackers I know are rushing to the wilderness, not simply fleeing from the city. Another western “consumer hiker,” it feels normal to go out on the trail with family or colleagues, but frequently solo.

Western hikers and most post-modern walkers do not work on the trails much or hang out together in “hiking clubs” to find social thrills, but we do saunter “outside” with our friends and kids, and sometimes simply for the pleasure of walking alone in the hills.

4.1.1.

» On The Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin (Yale, 2016); Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker (1968, see 2001 third edition in print) and The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968); the classic is Rod Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (orig. Yale, 1967), now see fifth edition; and I am trying to peddle Autobiography in the Anthropocene by Dan McCaslin (n.d.!).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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