Culture  /  Book Review

Take a Hike!

Why do people hike?
Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress

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.