Famous Hikers on Hitting the Trail

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There are only a handful of people who have become famous because of their hiking exploits. Climbing? Yes. Trail running? Yep. Mountaineering? Sure. But hiking – not so much.

We all hike to some extent, avidly or casually. Though for the most part, society stops celebrating your walking achievements after you’ve passed 12-14-months of age. When you break it down, hiking is basically walking on an unpaved surface, right?

Not exactly.

Neil deGrasse Tyson may prove us wrong, but we contend that world slows down on a hike. It doesn’t matter how quickly your feet are moving or how many problems your brain is working on as you walk. At some point, through the crackle of autumn leaves under your shoes, or the low amber of October light filtering through the empty trees, everything but that moment – that awakening to your surroundings – disappears.

Whether it’s found laughing with friends, smiling at the dog as he double-backs to check on you, or in feeling like you momentarily have your priorities straight by closing the computer and taking advantage of the day, that moment of unfettered presence is what differentiates a hike from any old walk.

Perhaps the hikers below achieved “fame” due to their capacity to extend that presence. Or in the case of Ed Abbey, maybe it was his direct and unsubtle admonishments to stop analyzing and start doing. Even if you’re not seeking fame from your favorite five-mile loop, here’s hoping you find the curiosity, the Zen or the fresh air you’re after.

“I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill – then what’s beyond that.”

– Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood was the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She did it alone, in 1955, at age 67, with gear that consisted of Keds, an army blanket and a plastic shower curtain as her “backpack.”

“Hiking is not the only way to relax. Painting, gardening, tennis, fiddling, these are all means to the same end. But for me hiking is the best of all.“

– William O. Douglas was not as famous for his hiking as he was for being a Supreme Court Justice (serving from 1939 to 1975). He sat on the board of the Sierra Club and famously argued for the rights of trees, rivers and mountains to have standing in court.

“It only had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”

– Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, solo-hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail at 26-years-old.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”

John Muir made this statement long before smartphones, the Internet, and even before Word War I. His legacy as founder of the Sierra Club and preservationist is well established – and as this quote points out – quite timeless.

”[I wanted] to walk the army out of my system.“

– Having just served in in World War II, Earl Shaffer found recovery in “walk[ing] in the woods and sleep[ing] on mountaintops.” In 1948, he became the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. There were no trail guides and maintenance on the Trail had stopped during the War, so he used a compass and logic.

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”

– Edward Abbey with his typical curmudgeon-with-a-wink opinion.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

– We’re going to go out on limb and call Henry David Thoreau one the original famous hikers.