Hiking as Historical Research

Barbara Cutter, University of Northern Iowa

In the acknowledgments for “’A Feminine Utopia’: Mountain Climbing, Gender, and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America,” I mentioned taking “research” hikes. As the quotation marks indicate, this was supposed to be a bit of a joke. After all, I knew that hiking was not really historical research, but rather a break from it, and like other leisure activities, acceptable in small quantities, but dangerous if it took too much time away from my scholarly agenda. I have been thinking about the meaning of this seemingly offhand comment ever since, and the more I think about it, the more I believe those hikes were part of my research and have added something important to my scholarship.

It has taken me years to come to this realization, in part because hiking is recreation, so it could not possibly be related to work (just ask my family!), and also because, as all good historians know, historical research is based in primary sources, and my hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains are not a primary source for late nineteenth-century female (or male) climbers. In addition to (and because of) changes in gender ideology and historical contexts, many other aspects of hiking have changed since the 1870s. There is the high-tech clothing and gear, the presence of exponentially more hikers using trails, different forms of transportation and lodging available to hikers, and changes in land ownership that shape how trails are protected, maintained and managed. The trails themselves–when there even were trails–have also changed. Some have been linked into national networks. Virtually all have been altered in some significant way: by being eroded, rerouted, extended, or eliminated, by the construction and removal of bridges and other built structures, by logging, forest fires and reforestation, by major storms, and more recently, rising temperatures. Thus, in many ways, when I hike today, I am not really even hiking in the same place as people who climbed the same mountain on the same route a hundred and fifty years earlier.

Finally, I’ve tried to pay attention to the warning of historian Joan Scott about the “fantasy echo:” that is, historians’ tendency to see parallels between their own experiences and the experiences of the historical figures they study. Accordingly, I have frequently reminded myself that my experience as a white middle-class American female hiker is very different from those of white middle-class American female hikers a hundred and fifty years earlier, and it does not give me special insight into them.

Knowing all this, how could hiking relate to my historical research? It was not until I started analyzing my primary sources, putting them together in a narrative, that I began to see how hiking was in a real sense part of the work of this article. First, my hiking experiences gave me the close familiarity with place that deepens all historical research. My knowledge of many (though not all) of the places described in my primary sources helped me to better craft a narrative, simply by knowing approximately how far locations were apart, what sort of terrain and vegetation a specific route would cross, and what difficulties traversing such a route might entail. Hiking provided me with a mental map of regions and made it easy to understand locations and trips described in primary sources that contained only vague or obscure reference points. By walking on trails, I also learned to read the historical landscape itself, including evidence of rerouted trails, changes in vegetation, pieces of old bridge foundations, the remnants of logging camps and old roads.

I realized eventually that these things I learned hiking actually made me more aware of differences between my experiences and those of nineteenth-century climbers. They also helped me better analyze primary sources. For example, when Appalachian Mountain Club officer William G. Nowell proudly noted in 1877 that “several ladies” had taken a difficult new trail up the headwall of King Ravine to the summit of Mount Adams, my familiarity with this trail helped me more fully understand what he meant to convey. This would have been the most difficult trail in the region at that time and it is still considered one of the more challenging hikes in the White Mountains. It has probably changed less than most trails in the last hundred and fifty years, because the difficult section is less a trail, and more of a marked route through a boulder field and up a headwall of boulders and loose rock (scree). Crossing the boulder field can be slow and requires some jumping between rocks and scrambling; the headwall is quite steep and full of more boulders and unstable small rock. It was knowing the trail that led me to conclude Nowell brought up this example to assert that women were capable of taking the most difficult trails and could be just as good climbers as men.

Hiking can’t give me (or any other historian) special insight into the lives and thoughts of nineteenth-century female climbers, and I can’t replicate their experiences with my hikes, but I do think hiking has provided important context, background information, new questions to ask about sources, and new frameworks to consider for analysis. I’m not suggesting giving up a critical distance between one’s self and subjects of one’s research here. But I no longer believe that maintaining this critical distance means my hiking experience is irrelevant to my scholarship. I am also officially rejecting the idea that hiking is “just” recreation, as long as I continue to work on this project. Given all this, one question still remains: how to get funding for my next hiking trip.