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Urban Hiking:
trend of the future?

by Jessica Lawson

I hold a Masters degree in Recreation and Park Administration, and have worked for the
National Recreation Foundation and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Writing credits include the online
magazines Stories For Children and The Chick Lit Review.

The average cost of a gym membership in the United States is $50/month. The average cost of walking in public spaces is a user-friendly $0. According to the American Hiking Society, when a 150-lb person hikes at a comfortable 2 mph, they will burn 240 calories per hour; not bad when you factor in the scenery. The AHS also claims that hiking reduces cholesterol, specifically HDL, lowering the risk of heart disease. Let’s be honest though—how many people truly have access to trails? Not many compared to suburbanites and city dwellers that are barraged with billboards and commercials advertising places to get fit and be seen by the opposite sex.

Gym workouts also have an element of safety to them—just ask my father, who recently suffered a nasty bout of Transient Global Amnesia (as defined by the Mayo Clinic) at his local gym. He sat on a weight bench for hours staring at nothing, having no idea where he was. They let him sit there because, hey, he had paid for a membership and was entitled. Eventually he wandered over to the service desk, and politely asked where the hell he was. An ambulance and my mother arrived around the same time, the former full of concern, and the latter belittling the bewildered man for joining a gym in the first place.

According to my mother, going to a gym is like being in a bubble world, where the only elements one has to battle are faulty fans and waning towel supplies. She believes in exercising naturally, by which she means pushing shopping carts through Target and taking occasional walks, or “hikes” as she calls them.

As an avid Colorado hiker and outdoor recreation enthusiast, I was surprised and pleased during our weekly phone conversation when she mentioned that she had paid bills, made some banana bread, and gone for a hike.

“A hike,” I said. “Really? Where did you go?” My parents currently live in Des Moines, Iowa, and I knew nothing about the trail system there.

“Oh, just around the complex,” she replied. They live in a condo community, so I was a bit puzzled.

“Um…do you mean you went for a walk on the concrete sidewalks?”

She paused, as though giving consideration to the question before answering, “No. No, it was a hike.”

This is where my experiential background gave me a snobby physical shudder. I loathe people who get dolled up in their REI and North Face gear to take 1.5 mile walks around paved areas and gush about it as though they’ve been out perusing Everest base camp. I couldn’t let it slide.

“Hate to correct you Mom, but I wouldn’t really consider that a hike. A hike must be on a natural surface and have some level of elevation change.”

She seemed unscathed by my blatant blow to her ego. “No,” she repeated. “It was a hike.”

I attempted to veil my irritation. “Okay, then. What made it a hike?”

Again, she paused before replying. “I like to think of a hike as a determined walk—like a deliberate interaction with the world. You’re exposing yourself and going on a little adventure. Anything might happen. It’s thrilling, really.”

I pictured her brazenly jaunting around the condo systems exposing herself, ready to respond to a rampant pride of lions or alien attack. After getting off the phone, I thought about her attitude and came to a realization. Strange as it may sound, perhaps she has a point. Why be pompous about the word “hike”? If using the term will justify changing one or two workouts a week to a long walk around your city streets or neighborhood, bring it on. Besides, further research on the AHS revealed that they based their “hiking lowers cholesterol” fact on the on the evidence that mail carriers have good cholesterol, and they walk a few miles a day.

Everyone can be a hiker! People will be “hiking” to work from their subway stops, “hiking” to Gate 17C at the airport, and “hiking” around the Upper East Side searching for the perfect panini. After all, with the popularity of Seinfeld’s urban sombrero, how could the urban hiking movement possibly fail? REI may even invest in a line of heavy-duty stilettos.

So go forth and hike, whether in mountains or malls. With a slight redefinition of a single term, we can all embrace our inner hiking god/goddess and revel in our ability and willingness to expose ourselves to the world. And remember, anything might happen.

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