“Thru-hiking” long distances has exploded over the past decade. In addition to the millions of people who hike parts of the Appalachian Trail (AT) every year, those managing and surveying it report that the number of hikers heading north for the trail’s entirety (around 2,200 miles) increased 155 percent from 2010 to 2017. The two other premier long-distance trails in the United States, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), have seen similar increases.
Since the spring, of course, the number of hikers has tanked. Many of the agencies that manage public lands are shut down (it’s unclear at this point when they’ll reopen), making hiking through them illegal. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Pacific Crest Trail Association have called on people to ditch their plans to start on a thru-hike. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has stopped its shuttle service to the starting point on the CDT, which borders Mexico. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have reported that hikers are heartbroken about their dashed plans (likely accentuated by feeling cooped up indoors under stay-at-home policies), most recognizing that it would be selfish to risk spreading the coronavirus through the rural mountain towns that offer points of food resupply or a softer mattress for an evening. The amount of mainstream news coverage and debates on social media just go to show how much these long trails have grown in popularity in the years before the pandemic.
I witnessed this historical growth personally, as my family, from 2011 to 2015, dedicated our summers to completing as much as we could of the three trails. We were already experienced backpackers and wilderness travelers. We knew how to travel light and keep our base weight down, by sawing the handle off a toothbrush, for instance.
Still, there were experiences that were unique to thru-hiking, the most obvious being tramping for longer distances than we were used to. We learned how to navigate through snow. We survived wicked storms, camped in “tree holes” (a circle at the base of a tree that had dry ground even after a blizzard), crossed snow-gorged creeks that came up to our waists, and glissaded down 400-foot pitches, controlling our speed as best as we could with ice axes. Even with all these challenges, or maybe because of them, we came to love long-distance hiking, exhilarated by the natural beauty we saw.
As we trekked, we began to notice something of a subculture. We met fellow hikers with trail names like Wag Daddy, Hikes-a-lot, Hike-aholic, Optimist, Swami, Insane Dwayne, Mouse, and Cloud Walker. There was an ethic of providing one another information about trail conditions and sharing supplies. (Indeed, one guy saved us by giving us all of his chocolate-covered raisins when we ran out of food in the deep backcountry.) I’m more of a loner when it comes to backpacking. But I did enjoy the numerous encounters and conversations found on the trail, especially those that didn’t involve gear.
What surprised me most was how many working-class adults we ran into. I was expecting an exclusively young and wealthy crowd. But some of our favorite hikers were an industrial painter, a truck driver, an alligator-farm worker, and a clerk at an outdoor store. It’s not that expensive to do a thru-hike—once you’ve got your equipment, you’re left with buying food, after you’ve hitchhiked to the nearest town.
But there was a certain type we ran into over and over: middle-class white twentysomething male, confused about what he’s going to do with his life. I found myself listening to these young men confess their family problems and directionless drift—all of which was material for their forthcoming memoirs, or so they proclaimed. Sometimes but not too often, they might pull themselves out of their little world to ask me a question. Sometimes I’d tell them about the large books I had packed: Tolstoy, London, and Joyce (much to my wife’s chagrin, as she was a devoted weight-slasher). But more often, I’d stand up and put on my best mock-pandering tone and blurt, “I’m thinking about what you’re standing on right now: a quintessential work of democratic socialism!” I’d follow that up with an admonition to get out of their little universe and give glory to their predecessors who first imagined a long trail like the one we were standing on. I’d ask them to think about the politics of preserving long trails. If they engaged my spiel, I’d press them on the right to leisure (many of these young people never held a job) or the meaning of public lands or what’s really meant by socialism in today’s parlance. (This was the Obama years, when you still had to explain why Obamacare was not socialist.) Some drew back and I’d apologize, explaining that I’m a historian, I can’t help it. Or something to that effect, hopefully avoiding condescension.
The AT was the first long hiking trail built in the United States. It started as an idea of Benton MacKaye. Benton was the son of Steele MacKaye, an actor and playwright in New York City. Benton’s was not a wealthy family, but it was certainly a cultivated one. They owned a house in rural New England, where the then-open country became a source for young Benton’s naturalist explorations. From an early age, he loved to be outdoors. As social critic Lewis Mumford would later note, “The idea of long-distance trails had first been planted in MacKaye in 1897, when, at the age of eighteen, he took a six-week walking trip . . . in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”
MacKaye attended Harvard University, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. After obtaining a master’s in forestry, he moved back and forth between working for the U.S. Forest Service and teaching at Harvard. During this time, he became familiar with the Harvard Socialist Club (which included future journalists Walter Lippmann and John “Jack” Reed). By 1909, MacKaye was endorsing socialism as a way “to change a system and not human nature.” Eleven years later, he’d help edit the Milwaukee Leader, the newspaper run by the famous socialist politician Victor Berger. His fascination with socialism had sunk deep roots.