Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
The last time I saw my friends in Los Angeles, we hiked. This is a misleadingly wholesome fact regarding the dynamics of my friendships, but it’s true. In L.A. hiking is one of the standard social activities, equivalent to grabbing a drink in terms of commitment and parking ordeals. By the time I left in late May, hiking was the only thing we could think to do. Even when the big parks and canyons closed, there were the lesser-traveled, dinky but gorgeous hikes strewn around almost every neighborhood. And besides the bandannas sagging around our necks, hiking has a shockingly normal feeling. It’s unchanged. As you heave up a mountain, staying six feet from your friend’s butt is a very natural distance apart.
Hiking, as a summer hobby, is ascendant. “Early summer turnout has been higher than normal,” Kindra Ramos, of the Washington Trails Association, tells me. AllTrails, the favored app for cataloguing routes, told me their data shows people “hitting the trails at three times the rate of previous years.” On May 23, the Saturday before Labor Day this year, AllTrails had “the most people using the app out on the trail in company history,” up 163 percent compared to last year. The thronging is visible. National Park Service employees in Utah, Tennessee, and North Carolina report that when trails opened, hundreds of cars backed up on surrounding roads, ignoring barricades. To hedge expected overcrowding, Zion National Park requires reservations this year. “There actually has been a 200 percent increase in trail usage in cities across the country during the pandemic, starting in the late spring,” Kate Van Waes, of the American Hiking Society, tells me. As if responding to the continually surprising popularity of hiking, California keeps initiating a squirrelly dance, closing and reopening and closing parks as go-getters surge onto the trails each time they open.
Go-getters, and all the rest of us, face a summer with lots of limits. We can’t misbehave at July weddings, enjoy the cold wash of air-conditioning at a movie theater, rent a shared beach house, have salty cocktails by a shallow patio-party pool, celebrate summer-child birthdays in new flouncy outfits. We can, in uncrowded conditions, go outside and hang with some trees and local deer.
This summer’s turn toward hiking could be because there isn’t anything else going on. Or it could be that there is so much else going on, too. Hiking can be a classic recharge. Lundi J, a hiker who lives in Brooklyn, has been out on trails every weekend lately. Last week, he did a Hudson Valley route as part of Black Hikers Week. “This year alone hiking has been nothing but therapy for me, from dealing with the pandemic to police brutality all across the country,” he tells me. “The essence of hiking is still the same.”
Hiking feels ancient. Of course “hiking” is a construction — plenty of people call it walking, which it is, and its origins are rooted in the Romantic movement’s opposition to industrialization, the same forces that developed the concept of “nature” — but social history can really miss the point sometimes, because there is truly something that feels instinctual about just taking off into a forest, up a mountain. It’s unmediated, it can feel beyond language, or just primal.
People hike, mostly, the way they always have. While scurrying around a sidewalk has been a new dance, we’ve always had to respectfully move out of each other’s way on narrow trails. In a way that’s both striking and so blessedly normal, hiking also feels like a leap back to the pre-pandemic time. I can see my friends in a way that’s not upsettingly different. The locked-down world under pandemic is freaky and weird, and it feels really nice to walk away from it.
Hiking is an inherently removed activity. Distance is at the very essence of it. But, going way further out can be compromising, Daniel White, an accomplished distance hiker, tells me. White was planning to do the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, but reconsidered given the pandemic. “I don’t want to bring anything to these small towns and get a population sick,” he says. Also, if you get into danger in the backcountry, you’re also putting EMTs in danger. White’s staying in Vancouver, Washington, doing day hikes from there, and planning a 30-to-40-mile section of the trail that he can complete in one shot, without stopping in any towns for new supplies.
Hiking, like everything else in this forsaken and fragile time, is not a free-for-all. This is a summer for conquering all your local paths, not for flocking to far-out gateway towns. Hiking affiliations, like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, urge thru-hikers to reconsider their treks this summer, and asks day hikers to avoid weekends and holidays, when trails are the most crowded. The last Saturday morning that I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail, I was regretful and jittery the whole time. My little furies peaked when a group of nine (nine!) unmasked jaunters merrily passed us, red-faced badges of dangerous selfishness, each and every one of them. But don’t worry, I’m confident that the viciousness of my glare over my mask would teach them a lesson. Maybe too much time in the woods has awakened the outdoors recluse in me. I just want simple solitude, and I’m judgmental of everyone else who doesn’t also want this simple solitude.
Because hiking, even now, can be so simple. One foot in front of the other, following wooden signs or blazes on the trees. You could get caught up on gear lists — packing up water bottles, bug spray, snacks, jackknife, Band-Aids, anti-chafe sticks, hand sanitizer, a rain jacket, a Go Girl, sad squares of toilet paper and a sad plastic bag to pack them in.
Or you could just go, keys in your pocket. If you’re out in the woods for a couple hours, you may not have all the things you need, but I promise you will be reunited with these things shortly. You might be rained on, which could be fine. You might have to pee, and then you can drip dry, baby. (Many park facilities’ rest areas are closed temporarily right now). And I understand this is complete modern heresy — and I pray my boo never sees this — but you can just drink your water when you get back to the car.
You don’t have to indulge my minimalism obviously, it’s your backpack. I just hate lugging stuff, and I’m prone to thoughts like Our ancestors weren’t carting all these sprays and nut mixes around! But I don’t actually know what they were doing. I do suspect their world was also freaky and weird, for different reasons, and they liked walking away from it for a bit, for the same reasons.