By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager
I have been reading Silas Chamberlain’s On the Trail: A History of American Hiking (2016: Yale University Press). It’s a thoroughly-researched and entertaining book based around a thesis that there was a fundamental change in how Americans approached hiking during the 20th century.
Walking as a leisure pursuit began in the 19th century when people began to have jobs that were not so physically demanding that they had the time and energy to stroll about the countryside, Chamberlain writes, and in the early 20th century organized trail clubs came into being.
These various clubs promoted walking as good for the health, mind and spirit, and hiking was a communal, social activity. Soon these clubs began building trails to better access the mountains, culminating in places like Vermont’s Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail. But by the 1960’s and 70’s, Chamberlain argues, hiking shifted from being a group activity to one undertaken alone or as a family. Even as total numbers of hikers exploded, the percentage who belonged to trail clubs plummeted. Hikers switched from creators and maintainers of trails to consumers—of hiking gear and of the trails themselves.
Chamberlain was a trail maintainer on the Adirondack Trail Crew and more recently was Director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, so he has the experience working on trails and knows the local trail clubs—which critically still promote and maintain area trails. But this book also has a national scope and nicely draws together the picturesque pastoral movement of the 1800’s to the history of environmental advocacy among groups like the Sierra Club. This book provides valuable insights into how membership in a social movement has changed, with lessons which might be applied to the future.