Cruising down the Baxter Creek Trail, Becky Smucker stops to shush us. “Listen,” she says, “That’s a black-throated green warbler.” Twelve gabbing, stomping hikers have stopped on a dime, and there’s silence except for the warbler’s zee-zee-zoo. If I’d been hiking by myself, I would never have heard this bird—let alone identified it.
Smucker, who is president of the Carolina Mountain Club and the leader of today’s outing, created a complicated shuttle hike. From Asheville, we carpooled to Big Creek in the Waterville section of the Smokies, consolidated in about half the cars, and drove up the dirt road to Sterling Gap. We all hiked up to Mount Sterling, a steep climb that left a 20-minute spread between the first hiker and the last. On the way down, about half the group took the Baxter Creek Trail, while the other half bushwhacked down an older, more challenging route that isn’t maintained. The early arrivers returned to Sterling Gap to fetch all the cars.
Most hikes are not that complicated. But if all those logistics made my head swim, I didn’t have to worry about it—I was on a club hike, after all. Becky and her co-leaders did the planning and the scouting; I just walked, socialized, identified flowers and listened to the birds.
The first time I went on a club hike, I brought all the wrong things. I was in my 20s and had just settled into a job in New Jersey when I saw a hike advertised in the local paper. My first reaction was: “Adults do that? Without kids? Sounds good to me.”
I called the leader to confirm the meeting place. And as we congregated and got into cars the following Sunday morning, I soon noted that I was the youngest person there—by decades. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. I didn’t carry rain gear and had only a thin sweater in my daypack. By the time we stopped for lunch on a mountaintop 1,000 feet higher (OK, a hilltop—this was New Jersey), I was freezing. But I loved it and have been hiking with clubs ever since.
I’m even convinced that hiking clubs have been good for my marriage. While our son was growing up and still too young for an adult pace, Lenny and I took turns going hiking with the club on weekends. You don’t need two people to drive your kids to soccer or run to the grocery store. A club gave me an outlet for my energies.
Pros and cons
I always hear about needing solitude in the woods, but a lot of hikers love group trips. Ruth Hartzler of Asheville says group hikes enable people to “go places that you wouldn’t think of going by yourself.” Pisgah Forest residents Tom Bindrim and Joan Lemire, married 22 years, met on a CMC hike. “Newcomers,” notes Tom, “can connect with like-minded people with whom to share the activity. They can find out what hiking opportunities exist in the area. With time, the club can become part of their social life.”
Marriages and other relationships have flourished in hiking clubs. Looking in from the outside, some people seem to think outdoors groups are really singles clubs. I scoff at that, yet if you’re looking to meet active people, you’re in the right place. At least you know the folks you’re walking with have gotten up early and put themselves together on a Sunday. They’re physically fit and less likely to smoke or have other unhealthy habits. That’s already a pretty good start for a relationship.
Jude Wood lived outside Waynesville and hiked with the CMC every week while on a one-year work assignment from England. “I wanted the security of hiking with others and the benefits of learning from those who are knowledgeable about local trails,” she explains. “As a new arrival to the area and living alone, it was safer to hike with a group. I’m not particularly concerned about madmen on the trail, but in a group there would be someone to help me if I tripped and banged my head on a rock. No one knows trails like a local. I’ve been taken to wonderful trails, shown amazing waterfalls, been taught the names of countless wildflowers and educated in local history and country lore.”
I’m always suspicious when people say they “hike with friends.” Usually that means they start at 10 a.m., walk for a couple of hours on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and then end up having brunch downtown. When Tom Godelski GODLESKI??? from my writing group—who spends many evenings playing with his band, Buncombe Turnpike—heard that the club meets at 8 a.m., he was incredulous. “Eight o’clock?” he gasped. “In the morning?”
Admittedly, group hiking means you sometimes get trapped by talkative people. Paul Benson, a regional planner who lives in Asheville, says, “You can’t always hike at the pace you prefer and can’t stop whenever you want on hikes. Some people aren’t enjoyable to be around.” True; it’s not a solitary experience. And with more than a couple of people, you’ll never see a bear.
A lot of outdoor organizations aren’t hiking clubs. The Sierra Club, for instance, focuses on environmental issues. Local chapters may occasionally offer day hikes, but their primary purpose is advocating for environmental protection. And though the Appalachian Trail Conservancy dedicates itself to preserving and managing the A.T., it doesn’t lead hikes. Generally speaking, naturalists and hikers don’t walk well together. Hikers want to move and cover ground; naturalists stop to observe, photograph and discuss what they’ve seen.
But what about trail breaks/separations/pit stops/bush breaks/bush stops? (They’re all euphemisms for the fact that there are no toilets in the woods.) In an ordinary group, you can go off in the woods discreetly, but then you have to catch up. Many hiking clubs, on the other hand, opt for announced trail breaks every couple of hours. The leader will say, “Men around this corner, women go in the woods down the trail a little.” I prefer this organized system.
So if your spouse isn’t interested in hiking, your kids would rather hang out with their buddies, and your pals don’t get up until noon on weekends, come on out and make some new hiking friends.
[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at email@example.com.]