Book Review – On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

297716552.5 stars. Silas Chamberlin examines trail development and culture in the United States in On the Trail: A History of American Hiking. Starting with the developments in technology and culture that first led to the rise of walking as a leisure activity, the author traces how interest in hiking developed, what factors drove its growth, how trails were built, and the decline of the trail club in favor of individual hikers.

The book is rich with noteworthy information about the hiking clubs that actively developed trail networks and promoted hiking as a leisure activity. At its genesis, hiking required the rise of a working class exempt from physical labor (who wants to walk for fun when one must walk all day to put food on the table?). The clubs were largely egalitarian, with membership being extended to all interested regardless of sex or race; an interesting sociological observation. Clubs typically designed, developed, maintained, and shared information about routes within their purview.

The history of these clubs contains many fascinating tidbits that give insight into the mindset of the hiker community. The story of the Dartmouth Outing Club is a great read. I liked the tale behind the founding of the Mazamas in Portland, Oregon: to ensure that membership was for accomplished climbers, the first meeting was held on the summit of Mount Hood. Another great anecdote was how a club in New York was laying out a trail with string, only to find that they were just ahead of hikers following their route.

After World War II, On the Trail turns nostalgic, examining a decline in membership and influence of the trail clubs. Many clubs, such as the Sierra Club, turned to a conservation and environmental focus. Governmental funding focus changed towards multi-use pathways seen as a transportation alternative rather than featuring closeness to nature as the main purpose. Technological changes in equipment, the availability of military surplus, and advances in food storage enabled people to hike individually. As hiking has become more popularized, the paradox of being “loved to death” has forced hikers to adopt lower-impact methods and environmental causes.

And here I veer from review to rebuttal…

At the genesis of hiking culture, hiking or backpacking was virtually impossible without club membership or guidance. Routes did not exist until clubs established them, and there were not resources available outside club newsletters and word of mouth. Equipment was not readily available, and was of such a weight that it was only suited to group use. Since then, the availability of trails, information, and equipment has lessened the importance of a club (or for that matter even a group) to a beginner.

Another factor in group hiking’s decline that this book does not cover is that barriers often exist that prevent large groups from hiking. Permits or campsite reservations often specify maximum limits on group sizes, and popular areas frequently need to be reserved considerably prior to the trip.

I would also posit that many hikers had their first experience outdoors within a social structure: friends, family, and organizations. My first hikes were on family vacations, and my first backpacks were with my Boy Scout troop. In college, I was a trip leader with the school outdoor recreation program, taking many first-timers out into the woods. One of the common sights on trails around me is the fruits of an Eagle Scout service project: benches, trailhead kiosks, interpretive signage, and often even the trails themselves. Most hikers are ecstatic to share trips, hike preparation tasks, and skills instruction with newcomers. Leave No Trace is widely practiced and preached. Many hikers actively participate in governmental park and trail planning. We may hike individually more often, but we’ve also taken a much larger sense of personal responsibility for trail development, maintenance, and evangelism.

One of the huge weaknesses is that the author’s perspective seem to drive his narrative. He spent the summer of 2003 on the trail crew of the Adirondack Mountain Club (thank you for your contributions to the trails of that beautiful area, Mr. Chamberlin!), and he clearly lets his experiences there determine his idea of what hiking should be. Through its erroneous need to equate trail clubs with the hiking community, this book becomes far less authoritative and interesting as its reporting approaches modern day.

I was also rubbed the wrong way by occasional prejudices and unsubstantiated claims. As an example, he points to the National Trails System Act of 1968 as the turning point of when we began to expect government-provided trails to be the norm and “the volunteer ethic that had defined the hiking community for more than one hundred years was lost.” Yet he provides no evidence to substantiate this assertion other than club membership numbers. His statement would have far more credence had he quantified a change in volunteer hours, number of trails, general decline in condition of trails, etc. He then goes on to build a strawman, again without offering any evidence: “New hikers believed that they were entitled to clean, well-maintained trails. Why, they wondered, should they be asked to do more?”

In the epilogue, his prejudices are again apparent:

“Even the most unlikely of places, Brentwood, Tennessee–located in what has been called the most conservative county in America–had at least 20 miles of trails.”

I happen to live in the county he refers to, and have hiked many times in Brentwood (make sure you check out the Red Trail at the recently-established Marcella Vivrette Smith Park if you visit!). I’m curious as to why it is “the most unlikely of places,” as Tennessee has a rich outdoor tradition. And what does its political leaning have to do with its trails? The author has already established that the rise of the hiking club culture he so prizes was fueled by middle class and wealthy preservationist benefactors, and if there’s a place that’s middle class or wealthy in Tennessee, it’s Brentwood for sure.

Chamberlin fails to mention current ambitious trail projects, which are often driven by clubs who coordinate government and volunteer effort. Examples are Boston’s Bay Circuit Trail and California’s Bay Area Ridge Trail. In my area, many park trails are maintained by “friends of” groups that organize work days and promulgate information. As an example, private land access revocations led to a significant rerouting of the excellent Fiery Gizzard Trail, and the Friends of South Cumberland State Park led the charge to have it rerouted, and volunteers working with Tennessee State Parks were able to complete the rerouting ahead of schedule.

On the Trail‘s most glaring oversight is its total ignorance of online hiker communities. There is no mention whatsoever of the huge number of online gathering places for hikers–hugely popular Facebook groups for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the large number of Meetup groups regarding hiking, collaborative trail sites featuring user submissions, recommendations, and reviews of trails, Instagram sharing by and for hikers, and so on. I find it very hard to take Chamberlin’s account of the decline of hiking community seriously when he neglects these resources.

Permeating On the Trail is the author’s implication of “wrongfun” that if you’re hiking by yourself, you’re doing it wrong: you’re an individualistic “consumer” hiker (boo! hiss!) instead of a “producer” club member who is social and contributes to the community (applause!). For me, part of the appeal of hiking is that it can be a private activity, or it can be a social activity with family, friends, and even strangers. There isn’t a “right” reason to set boot to trail, and I certainly can’t see any basis for stating that hiking as a social activity is better or worse than hiking alone. The hiking community has a phrase that perfectly captures how different hikers have different goals: “hike your own hike.”

The text is authored at a very high reading level, with dense, information-packed paragraphs. One simple improvement to its readability would have been to break up its five chapters into smaller, more focused ones (for example, one chapter on the Long Trail, one on the Dartmouth Outing Club, one on the National Trails System Act of 1968, etc.). The text would flow better without even having to be altered, as the reader would have both a logical stopping place between topics instead of monolithic prose and a cue that the text was shifting to a new topic. (I suspect that the author’s chapter layout was dictated by his “decline of the hiking club” theme, and a shift to shorter chapters would not have helped his case, though.)

The interspersed pictures are excellent, adding life to the text. They are drawn from a variety of sources and are nicely illustrative of the history of trails and trail clubs.

I’m very torn on my rating for On the Trail. Were it simply a history, it would be a 4 star examination of trails and trailbuilders. Where Chamberlin veers into sociology, his obvious and pedantic axe to grind detracts substantially from the value of his work as he laments the supposed “golden age” of the hiking club. The information is good; improvements in the presentation and thematic content would have made a much better volume.

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