Walk this Way....

I have never been what you'd call outdoorsy. I like nature. But I've never worn a North Face fleece, or had any use for a caribiner. And yet something about being cooped up during the pandemic, being unable to simply move around as I would like to, has triggered a primeval response in me, that I want to be outside. And so I found myself this year actually hiking. Suddenly signing up for miles-long treks, up and down hill, through brush, and it's been fun! I've enjoyed the views, enjoyed seeing the animals.

(Not so much enjoyed some of my encounters with nature, as I managed to sit in a patch of nettles that still bit me on the backside despite layers of quick-dry poly-blend outdoors attire).

Because I had to buy one of those awful garments that zips off into shorts, sort of like the spork of legwear. Even Thoreau said “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”. I had hoped the outdoors outlet might have something like culottes or capris: the kind of thing that Katharine Hepburn might have worn. But no, what they offered were these things that make me look like a giant toddler. The world's least flattering garment (even Reese Witherspoon couldn’t make them work in Wild). At least I chose navy blue.

If only the stylish duds advocated for lady hikers by the New York Times in 1920 had been available. A silk blouse with tweedy breeches sounds very much my brand.

Hiking, like so many hobbies, emerged as something to do for fun among middle class folks with time on their hands in the late nineteenth century. Also like many other hobbies, it involves doing for recreation what our poorer forebears had to do as part of daily life.

Outdoorsiness for leisure got a huge boost with the creation of designated hiking trails, national parks, and nature preserves. For most of European history, land that wasn’t under cultivation typically belonged to a king or nobleman, used for hunting or forestry, and wasn’t available for average folk to go strolling around, even if they wanted to. Rich people had parks or pleasure gardens, but these were not “public” as we think of parks now. The Royal Parks in London (including Hyde Park, Regents Park, basically any London park you’ve heard of) still belong to the crown, and were only opened for public use in 1851. Railways, and later automobiles, allowed city dwellers to strike out for rural locations for day trips or weekends.

Mountaineering became a hobby, when tourists started to show up and climb mountains and marvel at them. Nevermind that the people who lived on the mountains were well familiar with what was involved. (For the peasants of Switzerland, hiking up and down the side of a mountain was not considered a holiday, it was considered daily life.)

Robert Baden-Powell launched the scouting movement with Scouting for Boys, inspired by his military experience and some forerunner outdoor groups like the Woodcraft Indians. To Baden-Powell’s surprise, girls wanted to be included from the start, showing up to meetings in scout uniforms they’d fashioned themselves. Baden-Powell’s sister, Agnes, took on the leadership of the distaff branch, encouraging the establishment of Guide troops, with women leaders. Juliette Gordon Low (who had worked with the Baden-Powells in England), took the movement to the US, founding the first American Girl Guides (later renamed Girl Scouts).

The international scouting movement taught generations of middle-class children about camping, outdoor life, and exploring the natural world. It is a shrinking movement now, due to social and structural (and in some cases criminal) changes. But I can thank them for the important life skills I learned as a kid, like how to braid a woggle, earn badges - and the knowledge that camping is NOT for me. Sure, toasted marshmallows are great. But have you tried sleeping in a bed?

Meanwhile hiking took on different meanings, and women used it politically. Agnes Brown walked from Edinburgh to London in 1912 to campaign for women’s suffrage. Rosalie Jones led the first American suffrage hike a few months later, from the Bronx to Albany. In December, which makes my toes shiver just to think of it. The group started on the 16th, and the first finishers made it into Albany on the 28th. One way to avoid cooking for Christmas, I guess.

The participants were pretty hard-core, in that in February 1913 they were off again, this time hiking from New York to DC. Suffrage hikes became a popular way to draw attention to the cause, and were well covered by the press. At towns on the way, there would be rallies with speeches.

Today, political activists who walk for causes are not hiking, they are marching, a key linguistic shift. And hiking, if it has any political valence, tends to be focused on the environment. Outdoor wear companies marketing on “sustainability”, eco-friendly elements - claims in pretty much constant tension with the amount of petrochemicals required to make high-tech hiking boots and water-resistant clothing. Fantastic scam when you think about it, absolute genius. Nothing gets affluent consumers faster than telling them that their purchase makes them morally righteous.

Meanwhile, I will continue walking when the weather suits, and encouraging friends to walk with me, as company makes all things better.