“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.
In 1921, MacKaye was grieving the suicide of his wife, a radical suffragist prone to nervous breakdowns. He sought solace by synthesizing his politics with outdoor exploration. That year he published “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. The article was a breakthrough in planning circles, which usually focused on urban areas, not rural wildlands.
MacKaye opened his article by condemning capitalism, just as the country was heading into the Jazz Age. He bristled at the “hecticness of the . . . economic scramble.” The long trail that facilitated escape from this hecticness would travel the “main divides and ridges of the Appalachians” all the way up to northern Maine, forming a “continuous belt of under-developed lands.” It would be dotted with “shelter camps . . . equipped always for sleeping and certain of them for serving meals—after the function of Swiss chalets.” These would be public establishments, fending off “the profiteer.” The trail would help transform American culture—pushing it away from self-indulgence and toward communitarianism by celebrating “public recreation purposes.” He explained in his somewhat clunky prose, “The actual partaking of the recreative and non-industrial life—systematically by the people and not spasmodically by a few—should emphasize the distinction between it and the industrial life.” It would have political consequences and might even, MacKaye hoped, “put new zest in the labor movement,” as workers would demand more leisure time in their collective bargaining agreements. He ended the paper by referencing the philosopher William James (a professor he no doubt was familiar with from his Harvard days) and the recent savagery of the First World War. MacKaye embraced James’s idea that it was important to seek out initiatives that brought people together the way war did, but without the violence. The trail “appeals to the primal instincts of a fighting heroism, of volunteer service and of work in a common cause,” MacKaye wrote.
Mumford, a fellow believer in planning and a public polymath, later explained what made MacKaye’s proposal so radical for its time. In an introduction penned in 1962 for a reissue of MacKaye’s book The New Exploration, Mumford championed his call for people to “possess the whole landscape, not by act of legislature, but by the process of use and wont, whereby the people of England once upon a time acquired their right to the common lands, and to this day keep their title to the common footpaths that run across the fields.”
If he wasn’t so indebted to Mumford for popularizing his ideas about planning, MacKaye would likely have bristled at such radical and romantic talk. He was, after all, a planner with an advanced degree in forestry, not a revolutionary who wanted to unleash a populist takeover of public lands. But to call him a planner doesn’t mean he was a cold technocrat. He emphasized the role that local associations, particularly hiking clubs, would have in building and maintaining the trail. Indeed, it was already being built by volunteers (especially active in Vermont at the time); he was simply casting his eye upon what was coming to fruition through the work of others. He saw himself not engineering from on high but assisting an energy coming from below.
MacKaye’s vision became a reality over the course of a few years. The AT was completed in 1937, built and maintained not just by local trail associations but also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which some called the “Tree Army.” The trail represented a conservationist ethic and public leisure—these elements working in tandem. It was the essence of public work: not for profit but a common good.
Sometime in the early stages of the Great Depression, Bob Marshall, a renowned environmental activist and writer, reached out to MacKaye, initiating a discussion around wilderness preservation. Marshall was younger than MacKaye, but the two men shared similar backgrounds. Like MacKaye, Marshall had a prominent, well-known father (a pioneer in civil rights law). He received an elite education, starting with New York’s Ethical Culture School, but he spent much of his time in the Adirondack Mountains, where his family owned a cabin on Lower Saranac Lake. He was a pioneer of long hiking and was said to cover forty miles a day during his trips, an enormous backpack towering over his head. Like MacKaye he studied at Harvard and then took a job with the Forest Service, which sent him out West, where he not only assessed the state of forest life and searched for potential wilderness areas but also allied with the Industrial Workers of the World in their struggles to organize workers in logging camps.
If they talked about MacKaye’s plans for the AT, Marshall would have chafed at the idea of setting up Swiss chalets along the trail. Such permanent, human-made structures would ruin the wilderness qualities of Appalachia. Marshall was more of a purist than MacKaye. But the two bonded in protesting the construction of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, for the road being built to accommodate automobile travel would certainly displace the AT (as it did). Though Marshall would earn the ear of Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his protests could not slow down or stop the building of this road. In 1935, one year after Skyline Drive was opened to the public, Marshall helped found the Wilderness Society with MacKaye and others. It would advocate for wild areas and oppose roads in primeval public lands—like that of Skyline Drive.
When Marshall set out his ideas about wilderness in his overlooked 1933 book, The People’s Forests, he used environmental language gleaned from his studies at Johns Hopkins, where he had completed a PhD in plant physiology. He condemned the rapacious settlers of America who destroyed ecosystems as they slashed and burned their way to the frontier. But Marshall also used the language of socialism when he, like MacKaye, called for the Forest Service to prioritize recreation over logging. “The forests which are reserved for recreation must in almost all cases be publicly owned, because practically no private individual could afford to maintain such non-revenue-producing forests,” he wrote. Marshall made an ethical case for the protection of wilderness, sounding just as much like Victor Berger as the romanticist John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Marshall explained, “The time has come when we must discard the unsocial view that our woods are the lumbermen’s and substitute the broader ideal that every acre of woodland in the country is rightly a part of the people’s forests.”
After Marshall passed away in 1939, at the early age of thirty-eight, MacKaye took his arguments for wilderness preservation to heart. There’d be no more Swiss chalets built on trails; instead, he started to think about ways to link long trails with wilderness areas, buoyed by Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964. In 1966, by then in his eighties, MacKaye got his partial revenge for Skyline Drive. That year, three National Park Service officials visited his home to present him with a Conservation Service Award. As MacKaye recounted, “I handed the gents copies of my spiel and scheme for combining nationwide wilderness Trails with nationwide wilderness Areas.” Not only that, he presented a hand-drawn map that showed the nearly finished PCT stretching from California to Canada—which, like the AT, was built with the aid of local associations. To the east of the PCT, MacKaye sketched what he called the “Cordilleran Trail.” It would travel through the Rockies, from New Mexico to Montana and into many wilderness areas along the way. Stewart Udall, then secretary of the interior under LBJ, beamed with happiness at the proposal, because the trail, in fact, was already being planned, though it went by the name of the Continental Divide Trail. MacKaye was once again not engineering from above but just reporting, this time unknowingly, what was shaping up at the grassroots. Two years later the CDT received support from the National Trails System Act. It eventually laid a path that traversed across the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a roadless, million-acre area in Montana.
One of the fondest discussions I had on my family’s long-trail travels was with a twentysomething from Belgium (if I remember correctly). He told me how he could take three months off work to hike the PCT. When he returned, his job would be waiting for him, no questions. When I asked if people he met in the United States were pissed off at him, spotting him as a pampered European with too many socialist benefits, he quickly said no, just the opposite; they were envious. I’m certain that MacKaye, if he were alive to hear that, would have nodded his head in affirmation. He wouldn’t have been surprised that a young man from a country that’s more of a social democracy than ours would connect his art of hiking to politics.
As we hiked past a snow-covered mountain and babbling brook, my conversation with the young man widened. He admitted to jealousy over how many public lands there were in the States, something I heard from other Europeans traveling these trails. He explained the importance of long vacations on long trails—a practice that cut down on burnout in his place of employment and that, besides his plane trip, left a relatively small carbon footprint. Instead of the ruthless individualism he expected to face, he was surprised by how easy it was to hitchhike into a town, which accentuated a feeling of solidarity with others. Plus there was all that sharing of food or gear with other hikers (what could be called a potlatch culture). When my son pointed out that he was going to volunteer as a trail builder after our trip was over, the twentysomething praised him, saying he wished he could join a trail crew and do work to preserve what he was presently enjoying. These lands had to be defended, he said.
I realize that conversations like the one I had with this young man have been drowned out today by a noisy right that incessantly attacks the whole concept of public lands. Marshall’s first principle of public ownership, no surprise, infuriates the right. In 2014 Cliven Bundy provoked an armed standoff over the fees for grazing his cattle on acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management. He argued that the federal government had no constitutional right to regulate and police his use of the land, that ideas about public ownership and management were bogus. (More recently, his son Ammon defied Idaho’s stay-at-home orders.) When the federal government shut down in 2018–19, vandals trashed national parks in one of the more perverse attacks on public ownership. To this day, Donald Trump tries to take revenge on Barack Obama and Bill Clinton by scaling down the size of national monuments designated by the two Democratic presidents and opening public lands to oil drilling. All of this is fueled by a depiction of environmentalists as elitists who want to take away working-class jobs in logging and mining so they can use their hoity-toity backpacking gear. (I really wonder what our truck-driver friend from the PCT would think of that accusation.) You hear that every time the right complains that public lands have been closed to development and motorized travel, especially from drivers of all-terrain vehicles, whose voices—and machines—are loud.
The history of these trails should remind us of a vision based on public ownership, wilderness protection, the right to recreation, and the necessity of planning in order to combat sprawl. We should think of these long trails with wilderness areas as akin to Medicare and Medicaid or Social Security: public goods for all, not for you and me but us. I imagine some of those I chatted with while traveling national trails would be the first to recognize this. In meandering slowly by foot down a trail, those young people were dodging what MacKaye called the “hecticness of the . . . economic scramble” nearly a century earlier.
My family and I stopped thru-hiking five years ago. But the discussions I had with fellow hikers stay with me. I keep thinking about the politics of thru-hiking. I think about long vacations and how much leisure can help alleviate the stress of the economic scramble, and I wish Americans had a right to a vacation. As I watch unemployment rates skyrocket at the time of this writing, I think about the idea of a Tree Army—and the concept of public works more broadly—that might resonate now, the way it did during the Great Depression. A huge expansion of AmeriCorps could repair trails built by earlier CCC troops. As oil consumption plummets—one of the few benefits of our bleak times—leisure looks better for the environment, maybe even slowing down global warming. And as we suffer a presidency both impulsive and erratic, MacKaye’s idea of planning responsibly—with its ethic of thinking about the future more consciously—looks a lot more appealing than before. The long trails may be empty as I write this, but they still offer us not just the opportunity of recreation but the chance to rethink what’s important in our lives, especially those things we share with one another.
Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and is author most recently of We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America.