On the history of American hiking

Theodore Roosevelt hiking with John Muir

I just finished reading the book, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin. If you love hiking and conservation (as I do), this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities.

Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats. Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. Darcy takes this as evidence of Elizabeth Bennett’s autodidact-aesthetic and intelligence.

In post-Civil War American society, however, the popularity of walking grew out of the anxiety of increased industrialization and the sense that “progress” might not be commensurate with certain notions about a life well-lived:

On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society. Nineteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral ideal, or “middle landscape,” as an alternative, more desirable vision.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. (I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was, talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa.)

But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. (During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.)

This improved the quality of life of the working class significantly, as they took advantage of new greenbelts and public parks in droves:

One of the most remarkable – and least known – examples was the canal-turned-greenway in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell’s canal system consisted of several short canals that provided waterpower to the city’s famous mills. The Boston Associates – the wealthy group of investors who owned most of Lowell’s mills – became concerned about the town’s stark appearance. Beginning in the 1820s, they embarked on tree-planting and landscaping projects along their canals and in their factory yards. The first plantings were adjacent to the company’s boardinghouses, home to the young women who worked in the mills. Although the land between the street and the canal had been used as an informal promenade for several years, the new landscaping evoked a parklike setting that encouraged more people to use it as a public walk. Textile workers were encouraged to publish their poetry, short stories, and other writing in a monthly periodical called the Lowell Offering…

When the Northern Canal along the Merrimack River was completed in 1847, city residents could follow the Merrimack, Western, Pawtucket, and Northern Canals in an approximately four-mile circuit of the city that took them through the rural countryside west and north of Lowell. By design, canals are relatively flat, so these four-mile jaunts were hardly strenuous, but they did offer an opportunity to experience walking in a natural setting, especially outside of town.

From such projects, a sports craze developed, with the introduction of professional pedestrians:

As a formal sport, pedestrianism emerged from the British aristocratic practice of placing bets on how far and how long their footmen could walk behind their carriages or around a circular racetrack… By 1809, the stakes, audience, and prestige of the pedestrian had grown. In July of that year, Captain Robert Barclay, a wealthy Scot with royal blood, completed his well-choreographed and widely celebrated “thousand miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas.” Barclay, who along with a small team had planned and strategized his approach for more than a year, circled a track for nearly six weeks straight, walking at least one mile every hour. When he completed the task, he earned, along with side bets 16,000 guineas, or the equivalent of 320 years of income for the average artisan who composed his audience of thousands. American newspapers picked up the story from London…

By the mid-nineteenth century, reports like these had inspired a small group of celebrity pedestrians in the United States. In the winter of 1861, a professional pedestrian named Edward Payson Weston walked between Boston and Washington DC in eight days. The walk originated in a casual bet with a friend: Weston promised to walk to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration if Lincoln were to be elected.

In the end, Weston had gained such notoriety that he had the opportunity meet President Lincoln. Lincoln offered to pay for the man to ride back to Boston on a train. (He walked instead.)

In the 1860s, social groups emerged not only to take nature walks but to take on aggressive hikes (like climbing Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). I found this development interesting for a couple reasons: (1) you would not think about recreation being an all-consuming pursuit for people during the middle of the Civil War (it almost goes to show you how removed some northerners were from the Civil War as a political concern with a direct impact on one’s ordinary life) and (2) women were included in these hiking groups from the very beginning (perhaps because city infrastructure gave women the chance to become physically athletic too).

Nowadays, female athletes make a big deal out of “trailblazers” like Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who had her bib number ripped off of her by organizers mid-race. But women were climbing some of the highest peaks in the Appalachians in hoop skirts a century earlier.

Anyway, the book from that point transitions into accounts of the founding of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Sierra Club, and similar groups, along with the fights to establish state and federal parks. The further you get into it, the more it becomes a sort of directory of early members and their pet causes, and the tension between people who were in hiking for the sake of sport and people who turned it into political activism – which is interesting, though way too much for a blog post.

A fun, though very esoteric read.

California has much, much bigger problems than wildfires

Last weekend, I was out shopping for a new smartphone. As most people who live in Florida were not originally born here, the Millennial behind the counter asked me where I was from. I told her that I have lived in several states, but I grew up in Southern California.

She shrieked with delight at this news. “I love Los Angeles,” she said. “Don’t you just want to move back?”

Nevermind the obvious point that we did have a choice of where to live, and we clearly chose to buy a house on the beach in Florida. But asking me if I am yearning to move back to Los Angeles is a bit like asking me if I am yearning to move to Pyongyang or Tehran. Nope doesn’t exactly cover it.

I’m not so in love with the Kardashians that I want to pay more than half of our household income to taxes at every level of government. To stare at homeless camps and dirty needles in the gutter while sitting in traffic. To listen to lawmakers congratulate themselves on mandating that abortion pills be passed out on college campuses while millions of people in the state are without electricity. “Try to find a cool place to store your insulin” is not the kind of government regime that I am eager to live under. The libertarian customs of Florida may lead to a lot of bizarre and entertaining headlines, but the government here is aggressively functional and not unnecessarily expensive.

The last time I heard about mandatory rolling blackouts, it applied to Puerto Rico – a US territory that ended up going bankrupt and was incapable of managing a natural disaster in the years that followed, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. They couldn’t keep the power on under normal circumstances, so they were certainly unprepared to deal with a hurricane. Puerto Rico taxpayers had accumulated tens of billions of dollars of debt for infrastructure projects, but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the decrepit state of their infrastructure. Where did the money go? It went to endless corrupt deals, that’s where.

Now California is witnessing basically the same situation unfold. The California electorate has become increasingly batshit, and they send increasingly batshit people to Sacramento and to the city councils of the state’s largest municipalities. As a result, they’ve taken a paradise and managed it into dysfunction. There is far more concern over policing how people think and talk in California than there is in actually providing essential government services. If you are a middle class resident of California, you are forfeiting the opportunity build any sort of nest egg so that you can live like the poorest people in the Caribbean or Central America. There’s no glamour in that life decision, sorry.

The rolling blackouts in California is not a climate change story. It’s a perfect storm of bad management decisions and rent-seeking green energy contractors.

California gets a lot of well-deserved grief for not clearing publicly managed lands of organic debris, thus ensuring that the state is an epic tinderbox every year. This is something that does not happen here in Florida. Florida ecologists and wildlife officials supervise controlled burns throughout the state to ensure that there’s not a situation where a wildfire among the mangroves poses a threat to a major (or even a minor) city. It also protects the state’s tourism industry, which is a significant component of the state’s economy.

But that’s not where the rolling blackouts came from. California’s investor-owned utilities have dealt with the increasingly batshit people in Sacramento by taking an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude in lobbying. And that’s what you are seeing backfiring now.

PG&E went all-in on the green energy projects that California lawmakers and their constituents love. So much so that the company was actively choosing to invest in new green projects rather than make the necessary safety upgrades to its existing transmission systems. Those investment decisions are how California got the deadliest wildfire in state history last year. They had shitty equipment that was past its useful life.

The company now has so little faith in the safety of its equipment that it decided leaving millions of Californians without power during natural cycles of high winds and dry conditions was worth the risk that people might die or be otherwise injured without power. That turning major intersections into four-way stops for days on end was a better idea than burning a large fraction of the state down. Their decision isn’t stupid. The decisions that created this dilemma in the first place were stupid.

The investment bank Credit Suisse estimated that contracts with green energy companies is costing PG&E $2.2 billion more than rates can support EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Over two billion dollars to nurse their liberal political connections, while the utility cannot afford even to inspect their 100,000 miles of power lines, let alone make repairs to them. The utility claims that inspecting the lines alone would require quadrupling their rates. That’s how long they have let their system rot in the service of liberal fantasies.

That’s the opportunity cost of turning your government over to AOC-esque personalities. Your whole system of providing essential government services is screwed beyond repair. The cumulative financial cost of bringing these systems back to normal pretty much ensures the government is going to watch its tax base walk out the door. And that’s going to create a downward spiral in the provision of all kinds of essential services. You are already seeing the warning signs that this is happening in California real estate prices and in the financial struggles of the state’s largest school districts. If you want to see governments that are further along on this trajectory, look at Puerto Rico and Chicago.

Thanks to the tens of billions of dollars in liabilities from the wildfires last year, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. The utility’s bankruptcy has been a source of absolute chaos. It looks like PG&E shareholders will likely be completely wiped out. It is unlikely that any new controlling party will bring the utility back from the dead. So Californians should not discount the possibility that being without power is their new normal. No one seems to know how the utility is going to survive at this point, and that’s a big problem for the millions of people they support.

The incredible irony in all of this is that the green state of California has been keeping the lights on during this period with privately procured generators running on… wait for it… fossil fuels.

I am all for conservation of the natural environment. But people have to be pragmatic in making decisions as important as how infrastructure is to be managed and maintained. This is one thing the climate hysterics cannot think clearly about, and that’s why they should never be placed in leadership positions and they should not be able to control narratives about government.

The economic value these folks are capable of nuking is unreal.