New York City isn’t exactly the first place that most outdoorsy hobbyists picture when they think of a hike. After all, it’s an urban landscape; one built with concrete, crowded with skyscrapers, bustling with people — and distinctly lacking the peaceful woodsiness that most people associate with long treks. Some thru-hikers, however, see the city as just as much a place for hiking as any natural expanse. They plot trips along its sidewalks and staircases with as much enthusiasm as they would long-reaching mountain trails and switchbacks, and view bodegas and coffee shops with the same relief that they would a woodsy rest stop at the end of a long day.
For fast-paced, be-there-yesterday New Yorkers, embarking on a thru-hike and slogging through the city’s streets when a perfectly serviceable subway trip is available might seem like a bizarre waste of time — and it’s true, thru-hiking requires a perspective shift. Walking miles through the cityscape is meant to slow the walker down; to make them think about and experience the city in an entirely new way. Urban thru-hikers are forbidden from backtracking or using public transportation, although they can plan their routes to coincide with convenience stores, restaurants, AirBnBs, landmarks or whatever else they might need or be interested in seeing.
Bob Inman, the creator of the Inman 300 thru-hike in Los Angeles and author of Finding Los Angeles on Foot, describes these urban hikes as about “perforating the barriers within communities that car culture creates… about finding what is notable, historical, quizzical, and beautiful in this great city while walking.”
Inman frames thru-hiking as a feat of exploration. Other thru-hikers, however, have taken his philosophy a step further and made urban foot travel almost an act of social commentary; an in-depth investigation and celebration of what a city does and does not have to offer at the pedestrian level.
Consider thru-hiker and activist Liz “Snorkel” Thomas’ work in New York City. An avid hiker, Thomas is best known in the hiking community for her accomplishments in more stereotypical hiking landscapes. In 2011, she walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 80 days and 13 hours, temporarily earning the title of the fastest woman to ever do so. Throughout her career, she has accumulated over 15,000 miles on long-distance trails — including several hundred on New York’s urban terrain.
In New York, Thomas wasn’t on the lookout for winding woodland trains; instead, she sought out playgrounds. Earlier this year, the avid hiker spent several months collaborating with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to design a nine-day hike that would weave through public play spaces. Her trek was meant to highlight the work that TPL’s New York City Playgrounds Program has done to ensure that all city residents can find green space within a ten-minute walk. Since its establishment in 1996, the Playground Program has transformed over 200 unused paved lots into community playgrounds. Thomas’ 225-mile route stops at a full half of the converted spaces.
For Thomas, the hike itself wasn’t as crucial as immersing herself in the communities she traveled through and drawing attention to the importance of having accessible green space. “If you’re trying to teach a kid how to ride a bike, you can’t just stick the bike in the back of the car and drive to a park like my dad did when I was learning to ride,” she told one reporter for Adventure Journal. “These schoolyards are not just there for the school; they serve such an important function to the community that lives around it.”
Thru-hiking is, in this way, an act of advocacy and public service — a way to not only appreciate and learn more about the city but to press a cause with an appreciation for work that has already been done.
Liz isn’t the first person to explore accessibility and social causes in New York through hiking, either. Consider Curbed reporter Karrie Jacob’s walk to the notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly La Guardia as an example. Jacobs planned her trip in part because Google Maps informed her that the trek was nearly impossible on foot — and even if she did make it, the path would drop her on the wrong side of the Grand Central Parkway.
“It was an expedition,” she writes, “like Magellan circumnavigating the earth or Lewis and Clark trekking to the Pacific Ocean, except we were heading to a place that had already been thoroughly discovered—by some 30 million passengers a year—and is only five miles, as the crow flies, from midtown Manhattan.”
And yet, the discoveries Jacobs found weren’t the ones she anticipated. She found that rather than blazing a wholly new trail, she realized that she was walking a well-trodden — if poorly-designed and challenging to traverse — path that countless airport workers use every day. She writes:
“I thought we were explorers, discovering an unknown route to the airport, but it turns out that roughly 120 people go that way every day. And I realized something that should have been obvious from the outset: For those employed at LGA, it’s as much a neighborhood as the Financial District is for those who work on Wall Street.”
This realization says something significant about urban thru-hiking and, really, urban exploration in general. We have preconceived notions about what our city is — what it has, what it lacks, what it feels like to travel through it. When we look down on our communities from an elevated train car, we barely have a chance to see them, let alone understand them. We lose our ability to gain a real understanding of what communities — ones that we may not even realize exist — need, as well as our ability to appreciate the small, beautiful qualities that can only be seen on foot.
Perhaps more of us should follow Liz Thomas and Karrie Jacobs’ examples — if only for the chance to better understand and care for the city we call home.