An American Trails book review by Jim Schmid.
by Jim Schmid
Ramble On: A History of Hiking takes a very broad overview of the story of hiking, by discussing early hikers, the development of trails, the role of hiking clubs, the evolution of hiking gear and apparel, and concludes with the present condition of hiking while predicting future trends. There’s brief mention of other countries as pertains to ancient history, but for the most part Doran writes about the history of hiking in the United States.
Doran in his introduction refers to the “sport of hiking (also known as rambling, tramping, walking, hillwalking, backpacking or trekking).” Doran does not define what he means by hiking he just lists other words that can be used for similar activities. Delving right in to the history of hiking without explaining what hiking vs the other terms mean to him was a bit jarring. For me the words hiking and walking are so intertwined in their definitions and usage that it’s hard to discuss the history of one without first laying a little groundwork to help out the reader. His examples mix and match hiking and walking, which could be the way most people view the activities and I shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. A hike becomes a walk and a walk becomes a hike depending on where you do it and your intentions. While reading I had to ask myself if hiking really is a “sport” and are the terms hiking and walking interchangeable?
My fascination with words and definitions and how we use them can sometimes get in the way of a review. Perhaps the line between hiking and walking is a bit blurry and definitions don’t matter as long as you know your intentions when you step outside. For now let’s get back to the book.
Doran starts the book with a few hiking examples from Ancient Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and the Middle Ages before focusing on the last couple of hundred years and especially the last fifty years where he spends his time mostly with US examples. Some of these more recent topics include societal trends that fostered hiking as an activity; the first trails built specifically for recreational hiking, and the formation of the first hiking clubs. He doesn’t spend much time on clubs instead he refers the reader to Silas Chamberlain’s book On the Trail: A History of American Hiking which delves deeper into the culture of American hiking with a focus on early hiking clubs [I reviewed Chamberlain’s book in 2017].
Doran includes anecdotal stories of trail development in some of our oldest and most iconic national parks, such as Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Mt. Rainier and Acadia, as well as the first trails that were blazed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Doran is familiar with many of these National Parks as he has developed several website guides which provide detailed trail information for each area—HikingintheSmokys.com, HikinginGlacier.com, RockyMountainHikingTrails.com, and TetonHikingTrails.com.
Doran spent two years researching the rich and compelling history of hiking before he started writing. In fact, of the books 249 pages 43 are devoted to Endnotes, a Select Bibliography, and an Index. I imagine it was hard to edit out so much of this rich history and condense it all into 206 pages. I found what he wrote to be fascinating and informative. But for me even more fascinating, especially as pertains to the last fifty years, was what he didn’t include which led me to do my own reminiscing and research. I came of age in the last 1960s early 1970s living in northern California during the backpacking, hiking, bicycling, back-to-the-land craze. The following are individuals and organizations that weren’t in the book, yet had a profound impact on me and getting me outdoors and enjoying the backcountry.
Backpacker magazine is mentioned in the Select Bibliography section but missing in the body of the book. Since 1973 Backpacker has spread the word about hiking and backpacking and for the last 19 years they have hosted the “Get Out More Tour” where their current ambassador, Randy Propster, presents hiking and camping skills at towns across America. I’ve been a subscriber for many years and have attended Randy’s presentations. In 1970 I bought a copy of The Complete Walker (1968) an in-depth guide to backpacking written by Colin Fletcher. He updated the book three times, the last in 2002. Many people consider Fletcher the father of the backpacking boom of the early 1970s. Then there’s Walkin Jim Stoltz, who not only wrote about his backcountry adventures but would travel the country performing songs about his hikes until his death in 2010. He performed at many conferences that I attended. American Hiking Society is mentioned as the organizer of the annual National Trails Day. I would have liked Doran to include more about their impact on hiking as well as the impact of Scouting organizations, The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, American Youth Hostels, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Outward Bound, NOLS, Leave No Trace, and for that matter American Trails and the International Trails Symposium to list just a few.
I would also like to mention a few of the many groups, government agencies, and outdoor retailers working to protect and promote hiking trails such as the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS). They host an annual Hike the Hill event where they lobby Congress on behalf of trails. Since 1993 the Federal Highway Administration has provided millions in trail funding on an annual basis to the States through their Recreational Trails Program. Also in 1993 Beneficial Designs created The Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) a universal mapping system offering detailed information about individual trails. There are many suppliers and retailers of outdoor gear that have given back to trails—one of the biggest is REI through their corporate giving and in-store education and outings programs. I’d also like to mention the Professional Trail Builders who got their start organizing trail builders in the West and continue nationwide not only building trails but educating people on building sustainable trails. These are just a few examples of how rich our history of hiking and trails is and how hard it would be to include it all in one book.
Doran concludes his book by taking a look at some of the issues that currently face hikers and the trails they hike on. Overcrowding at National Park trailheads and some trails. Use of social media while on the trail. Dependence on search and rescue to get bailed out when the going gets rough. Doran states that “The proliferation of cell phones, global positioning systems (GPS) and personal locator beacons (PLBs) has given some hikers a false sense of security, and has encouraged many to take greater risks.”
I’d like to add climate change as another issue we need to consider—hurricanes, wildfires, and floods have affected many trails and can be major disruptors that are hard to plan for—not to mention the work involved in repair to get your trail back open.
He gives an example of one solution that had unexpected consequences—national parks have tried to ease parking issues at trailheads with shuttles causing an increase in hiker traffic on the trails with the unexpected damage to trail resources and in some cases bad behavior by some hikers. Many of our iconic National Parks see heavy visitation from international travelers requiring sensitivity while mixing languages and cultures in the backcountry.
Doran mentions other solutions being considered —reservation systems, additional fees, building more trails, and even the creation of more national parks. He also discusses how to bolster volunteerism and even corporate sponsorship of trails.
As members of American Trails we all spend a lot of time thinking, studying, and preparing for the future of trails. There are many recent books about the benefits of getting out in nature especially for children. There’s been a long history of studying conflict between users and how to alleviate the tension between hikers and other trail users (mtn bikers, equestrians, and especially OHV users). Lately the studies have been about sharing and not so much about conflict. Just as diversity has been seen as a good thing in society it seems to be the case with trails. Nature is no longer the domain of one culture. People of color and those of alternative sexual orientation are exploring the outdoors.
I’d like to address one of Doran’s observations. He states “From my own observations it seems to me that more and more people are hiking for the sole purpose of taking trophy selfies to share on social media, or to check off a box on a list, rather than for the simple pleasure of enjoying the beauty and experience itself.” I learned the refrain “Hike Your Own Hike” or HYOH for short when my wife, Sandra [trail name PachySandra] thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. I hiked with her on many sections of the Trail and met many of the other thru-hikers. I would hear someone say HYOH most every day. And I’ve thought about it many times since. We have a tendency judge how other people participate in activities that we enjoy. We like to think we have it right. Look at that person taking a selfie, or checking off a list, they aren’t enjoying the simple pleasures of being outside like me. Perhaps we can modify the hiker refrain a bit and change it to “Live Your Own Life.” Take a selfie if you want, check off an item on that list, enjoy the beauty around you and experience life your way.
This is one of those books where I learned more about myself by what was not in the book. I really enjoyed reading as well as reminiscing. As an avid hiker Doran’s hope is that the reader will come away with a better understanding of what it took to make hiking such a popular activity, and what we need to do to preserve our trails and the spirit of hiking for future generations. My hope is that you will come away with an understanding of your history with trails and what you’d like your future to be.