As conventions go, the American Hiking Society's annual gathering last weekend was tame as a squirrel in a city park. But then, you wouldn't expect the graybeards of American hiking to be as rowdy as a convention of amalgamated stone crushers.
You might expect, of a hiking convention in a hardwood forest, at least one official hike.
"We scheduled some hikes at one of these a few years ago, but we didn't get any participation at all," explained Susan Butch Henley, secretary of the AHS, which hosted the Hike-In in Prince William Forest Park for 100 people, from as far away as Florida, California and Washington state. "People come here for a lot of reasons . . . but not to hike."
Eavesdropping on conversations between representatives of hiking clubs, you heard less about beautiful vistas than bureaucrats. Federal excise taxes, zoning regulations and lobbying techniques were some of the hotter topics. At times the commitment to hiking sounded like a declaration of guerrilla war.
"Every year thousands upon thousands of acres of land are bulldozed and developed. The urban sprawl is spreading so fast, the people in the city, especially the poor, are being trapped," said Tom Yoannou, president of The Urban Trail Conference, an organization that has battled developers and bureaucrats the last 11 years for more hiking trails in New York City. "We have started to make the local government bend. But I still do not trust them. They are tricky."
It was hardly all strategy sesssions. There were an auction and square dance Saturday night and programs on poisonous snakes, edible plants and wilderness medicine during both days. From the reaction of the participants, who collectively have walked enough miles to keep a school of podiatry endowed, it was obvious they would have enjoyed more talk of the wild and less about politics and fund raising.
"The problem is, we're the only national voice for the hiking community," said William Kemsley, the founder of Backpacker magazine and one of three men who formed AHS 10 years ago. "If we don't put pressure on Congress and try to influence agency decisions made by the park and forest services, nobody will."
With fall settled in, the best hiking of the year is at hand. Most of the blood bugs have disappeared, along with the heat that sometimes made a long hike seem like a forced march through Death Valley. Soon the trees will put on a technicolored show beside thousands of miles of wooded trails in this area.
All of us enjoy the view; few put in the labor to guarantee it. Folks like the ones at this year's Hike-In deserve the credit that is rarely given. Tom Floyd, for example, the past trails supervisor for the Potomac Appalachian Trails Club, has spent most of his weekends during the last 11 years improving, or blazing, paths that others will hike.
"There is a lot of satisfaction in the work," said Floyd, a personnel official with the Department of the Interior. "Especially when you're building part of the Appalachian Trail. You stop and say, 'Just think, we're building something that will be here 100 or 200 years from now.' "
Today, being proficient at trail improvement is not enough. Because trails are a dwindling resource, hiking leaders have had to become proficient at legislative arm-twisting. With dozens of other recreation groups, such as bikers, snowmobilers and four-wheel-drive clubs, competing for rights to the same trails, those political skills must be sharp.
"It's hard to organize hikers. Most of us are individualists," said Jim Kern, president of the Florida Trail Conference and another AHS founder. "And the big conservation organizations just aren't interested in trail preservation. They're interested in pollution and atomic wastes."
An obvious reason for the loss of hiking territory is development. But there are other causes, including the change in firefighting techniques in national forests. With more emphasis on attacking fires from the air, there is less need to keep fire lanes open through the forests. As a result, those dirt roads are soon overgrown.
Three years ago the AHS sponsored a walk across the United States to emphasize the problem. Sixty-seven hikers left San Francisco in April 1980 to begin the HikeaNation. Thirteen months later, 36 of that group arrived in Washington, D.C., after a 4,000-mile hike over mountains and across great plains, in temperatures from 109 above to 12 below zero.
"It was a marvelous way to see the country and the people," said Henley, who took a year's sabbatical from a job in Alexandria with a direct-mail company to make the hike. This weekend, standing in front of a map that traced the route, Henley was the embodiment of a hiking passion strong enough to keep her indoors.
"I would like to be out there right now," she said, before turning to the work at hand.