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Trails and tourism: Long distance hiking as a cultural experience

Walking across Ireland on a long-distance trail is immersion in culture.

By Phebe Novic

"Imagine the average American discovering the joys of walking and the travel opportunities it affords"

To most Americans, the term "long-distance hiking" conjures up thoughts of hauling a 60-pound pack through remote landscapes, slogging through pouring rain, pitching a tent, eating freeze-dried food, and sleeping uncomfortably on the ground. Although removed from the everyday comforts of life, this style of backpacking is still a wonderful experience.

But let's face it— this may not be the ideal sport for the average middle-aged American. While lots of us middle-agers are in great shape and enjoy backpacking, it's the 140 million or so others who will never go on an overnight trip (and those who want a different kind of trip) that I want to reach.

For this new king of walking adventure, we will venture beyond the boundaries of the US, across the ocean to distant shores, where you will find footpaths of a different nature. Some do meander through forest and mountain landscapes, but they also extend down country lanes, wind in and out of small villages, and cross the farmer's field. As writer Adam Nicolson so aptly stated, "In America to go for a trek is an attempt to emerge from culture; in Britain it is an inevitable immersion in it."

The rewards of such an experience are different. First of all, it's not merely sport or recreation, it's a form of travel; a way to visit a foreign land. To step onto a long-distance trail is to step into a history book and atlas, tied together with rain in your face, a beer in the pub, and treacle sponge cake at the end of the day. "Place is the most important component," says H.V. Morten. "Fantasy or not, we all need to know where we are." No other form of travel gives you such a thorough knowledge of your surroundings.

This year we are walking across Ireland. We'll follow five long-distance paths somewhat linked together and extending over 350 miles. The route will take us from coast to coast beginning in Dublin on the Irish Sea and ending at Bray Head on the Atlantic.

One of the secrets of walking a long-distance trail is immersion. To that end, I began reading as much Irish history and literature as possible during the winter. My conception of Ireland has already changed as I realized how little I actually knew about this small emerald isle. To me Ireland has always meant potatoes, immigration, red hair, fiery tempers, great tenors, and Guinness. I knew it had the fewest trees of any country in Europe and some of the least crowded roads, and I wasn't surprised to read that over 40 million Americans trace their roots to Ireland. What I didn't know was that Ireland is one of the best-fed and best educated countries in the world. Though we tend to emphasize our English heritage, it may be the Celtic influences that have made America much of what it is today.

So now, like settling in for a good read, we are ready to walk; ready to experience a place we've never been. To take you along on this adventure is to give you, the American walker, a vision of the "what could be". Imagine the average American discovering the joys of walking and the travel opportunities it affords. Imagine a whole new tourist industry, where all fifty states create their own walking trails. You might hike from dairy to dairy in Wisconsin, vineyard to vineyard in California, and through the small towns and Dairy Queens of the Oklahoma landscape.

"How many states have you done?" That might be the new travel question. Farm B&Bs and small town guest houses would spring up around the country. Tourist centers would hire new staff. Schools kids could get special credit for completing the trails and learn first hand about the history of their state. Walking would become a passion, not only for the joy of exercise, but as a means to an adventure. And most importantly, government funding would not be necessary&endash; it would fuel itself.

Even though I've hiked paths around the world, that first day I walked onto the rocky cliffs of the Coast to Coast trail in England, I knew I was on to something wonderful. Now we look forward to Ireland, to the freedom of crossing the land with only the essentials on our back; to the smell of the sea, green grass, and burning peat, to the smell of living history. So relax with a cup of tea or pour yourself a pint, and think about a new kind of journey on down the trail.

Phebe and her husband David Novic own The Warming House, an outdoor store in Estes Park, Colorado. We'll be continuing a series of articles on long-distance hiking by Phebe Novic at www.AmericanTrails.org.

September 25, 2004

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