The time-honored virtues of hiking have never been more apparent than during these challenging economic and social times. This activity delivers a targeted stimulus to each department of life:
Commerce. Hiking is affordable in that it can be practiced close to home, saving thousands of dollars on vacation airfare and motels. On the trail itself, the only hiking costs are footgear — which, if fashionable, can double as street gear –comfortable clothing, and a daypack or backpack, or no pack at all if the trail is a short one.
Education. High-quality information on both human and natural history follows the hiker throughout our park system. Accurate and well-researched brochures wait in wooden boxes at the head of many trails, while interpretive signs along popular paths explain significant natural features or historic events that took place where the hiker happens to be standing. The information attains documentary level when combined with personal photographs and often proves nearly impossible to find through other sources.
Health and Human Resources. A steady uphill hike represents first-tier aerobic exercise. Carried out in pleasant surroundings, it bears none of the tedium of health club workouts. The exercise enthusiasm that hiking generates is essential to restoration of our personal health. The most American model of physical culture, Charles Atlas — and the Governor of California could testify to this — repeatedly preached the connection between mental enthusiasm and successful exercise routines.
Wellbeing. Hiking not only enervates one’s self, but binds families and couples. It can be adjusted in terms of difficulty so that women and children are as comfortable with it as men. Men admire the ruggedness of the landscape, while women appreciate the floral displays and children relish each new sight, smell and sound.
State. Along our hiking trails, the New World meets the Old World. New arrivals to America , accustomed to greater physical exertion, find along our trails a way to carry on the walking they practiced in the Old World. In the high proportion of Asian and South American people along our paths, we are seeing the future of America and witnessing an ancient and enlightened manner of recreating.
Internal Affairs. Hiking is the one sport avidly embraced by people from opposite political and social poles. A slender vegetarian from suburban Washington shares a mountain climb in Shenandoah National Park with an Operation Desert Storm veteran. A fundamentalist church group ascends a Blue Ridge peak because hiking “cleanses the spirit,” and they meet an outing of Unitarian Universalists seeking an activity that “cleanses the spirit.” They come from the right and they come from the left, and they all gain perspective along the trail.
What distinguishes a hike from a mere walk is its status as a trek during which something is learned. In Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, about 80 miles from Washington, D.C., the trail follows a steep mountainside where signs convey events from the Civil War — the path where Confederate soldiers marched Union prisoners down the steep slope into the village below, the heaps of native stone piled up by soldiers defending positions. At the foot of the mountain, the trail incorporates the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal remnants, which once acted as the major trade route along the Potomac River. Entering town, it passes a marker commemorating a long-ago stop by Lewis and Clark.
One hiker appreciates the rushing sound of the Potomac River. Another appreciates the spring sun shining on silver maple blossoms. Another stands at the Lewis and Clark marker and wonders what their hike must have entailed and whether a similar one waits. In the final analysis, I suppose it is the Department of Internal Affairs that the great sport of hiking speaks most meaningfully to.
Bill Rozday grew up in western Pennsylvania and began writing at 13 years old. His latest work depicts a hike over a California mountaintop once hiked by Native Americans gathering obsidian to fashion into arrowheads. A poet as well, he has published in periodicals in Scotland and Australia. Bill is the author of The High Ground Books, a hiking series. For more information visit www.virginpinespress.com.