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.

Counting our steps

We bought pedometers for everyone in our family a few days ago. I’m not generally into exercise gimmickry. I have been shocked, however, by how much the simple act of counting your steps can transform how you spend your day. I’ve also been shocked by how many steps our daughter takes in the course of a normal day. The kid is about as active as a hummingbird (with an equal enthusiasm for sugar).

We started off with the goal most people have of walking 10,000 steps a day. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to hit that goal with little effort. So then we bumped it up to 20,000. Then it turned into a competition to see who could get the most steps in. Suffice it to say, we’ve all been extraordinarily active this week.

Elise seems to love her pedometer more than anyone. She shows it off to everyone she sees. And a ton of people have whipped out their own pedometers to compare steps with her.

She was so accustomed to being the stepping champion of our household that comparing steps with her riding instructor completely devastated her. At 9 am, her riding instructor had already amassed over 4,000 steps just from mucking out stalls. Elise wanted to go to work on barn chores to level the playing field.

“You should have seen me before we had the new fencing installed,” she said. “I walked over 15 miles a day retrieving horses from the woods!” I imagine that would have been less fun without a pedometer.

Our neighbor sent me a text message at 10 pm last night with a picture of her pedometer. “Show Elise that I beat her 22,000 steps.”

A couple on our street who recently moved here from New Jersey pulled out their pedometers to show Elise. She probably has them pushing up their daily goal now too.

The only member of our household who does not like the competition is our rough-coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock. As you can see, he found a patch of shade while we were out walking in the intense Florida sun (yes, it is still hot and steamy here in October) and put the brakes on. We had to pick him up and carry him home because he was not budging. It reminded me of that line from Amadeus. What’s wrong with this hike? Too many steps!

It’s good for the soul to get outside.

Our piece of the Intracoastal Waterway

We are blessed to live on the Intracoastal Waterway here in Florida, and moreover to have a several mile long esplanade to walk along every day. We try to make it out there in the early mornings or evenings (or both), and enjoy seeing a lot of wildlife. Dolphins and manatees are regular visitors. Fishermen catch snapper, sharks, crab, and many other things. We’ve met people from all over the world while out on our walks. (Incidentally, we have a ton of people from Russia in our neighborhood.) One lady stopped me recently, screaming “I know you! You are the lady with the crazy gardens! I love driving by your house!” It made my day, to be honest. I love to joke that my garden aesthetic is Versailles. I just need to install some fountains.

I have spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains, having lived along the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Appalachians in the Bluegrass region. Hiking through wetlands is now one of my favorite wild experiences. I am glad that Floridians do so much to preserve the natural environment. Our daughter has learned incredible things out and about.

One of the best things about living in Florida is the state is in bloom all year long. Even in the “winter” months, plants everywhere are blooming. That’s actually how Florida got its name. Florida was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon on Palm Sunday on April 2, 1513. He named the land Pascua de Florida, meaning “Feast of Flowers,” claiming it for Spain. And Florida truly is a feast of flowers. This is what autumn looks like here.

Sometimes I could do with a little less wild, however. We watched this danger noodle along our trail tonight. (Yes, that’s a copperhead. We see cottonmouths from time to time too.) I took the opportunity to explain to Elise that this is why I yell when she tries to play in the palmettos.

Playing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains

So Hurricane Dorian moved through where we live in Florida at a snail’s pace last night and this morning. Based on pictures from our neighbor who did not evacuate (he works at an area hospital and was required to stay), our house is quite fine. I think my gardens are going to need *a lot* of tender loving care when we return, but that’s about it. We received five inches of rain during the storm, but there wasn’t any flooding. We watched the storm surge at Flagler Beach on the weather channel, however, and it was quite impressive. It will be interesting to see how bad our beach erosion is when we return. Our neighbor said a few year ago, the ocean brought us a bunch of sand of a completely different color after a hurricane.

I feel blessed that our house is okay, but honestly, I’m just so thankful the whole miserable ordeal is over. “Evacuation fatigue” is a real thing, y’all. Last night, I was thinking, “Do whatever you want, Mother Nature. Just please, for heaven’s sake, do it already.”

My heart breaks for the folks in the Bahamas though. We would love to donate all of the supplies we purchased for hurricane season to them. If anyone knows of a good charity or community effort where we can drop them off somewhere, please let me know. Or any reliable nonprofit that handles hurricane recovery efforts there.


Yesterday, we decided to get away from the lake house and go explore the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oconee County in South Carolina is now one of my new favorite places to visit:

Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word “Ae-quo-nee” meaning “land beside the water.” Oconee was a local Cherokee town that was situated on the main British/Cherokee trading path between Charleston and the Mississippi River in the early 18th century. Its geographic position later placed it at the intersection of the trading path and the Cherokee treaty boundary of 1777. In 1792, a frontier outpost was built by the SC State Militia near the town site and was named Oconee Station. When Oconee County was created out of the Pickens District in 1868 it was named for Oconee Town.

We started off going to Chattooga Belle Farm to pick figs. Folks who know me know that figs are my all-time favorite treat. I can’t wait until late summer for figs to be in season. Chattooga Belle Farm had more fig trees than I have ever seen in one place. I was so happy. I also picked up some canned goods from the orchard, including moonshine jam, which is indeed made with corn whiskey. I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but I also couldn’t not buy it. When in Rome.

The orchard is also home to Belle’s Bistro, which is a good place to stop for a quick lunch if you are exploring Oconee County. They have a burger topped with fig preserves, goat cheese, and applewood smoked bacon that is out of this world.

From there, we drove a few minutes to the Chattooga River, which is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River. It bisects the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, which includes three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the ChattahoocheeNantahala and Sumter National Forests).

But you most likely know it as the river from the movie Deliverance.

The Chattooga River is a wild river with serious rapids that make it popular with the whitewater crowd. We found a spot to play that was relatively safe, but we could still see rafters negotiating class 4 rapids above and below us. It was an incredibly beautiful place, and Elise loved chasing the minnows around in the shallows.

After playing in the river, we decided to start visiting the myriad waterfalls in the area. There are dozens to visit, if you have the time. (Here is the Oconee County link for All Trails.)

Be forewarned – some of the roads to the waterfalls are quite treacherous (and should probably be hiked). We found ourselves driving down a one-lane gravel path snaking through a steep valley, with cliffs on both sides of the car, and precious few places where you could turn around if you started questioning your life decisions. I was trying to imagine what I would say to Rodney when we had to call him to come get us. “Where are you?” “I’m not sure exactly, but apparently Deliverance was filmed here.”

I thought this was pretty cool. At one of the parks we stopped at, they had created a kiosk where parents could borrow a life jacket to put on their kids while they played in the river.

You know you are in a daring part of the country when the special rescue units are using your trail to practice rappelling down the cliffs and getting a target out of the water.

After our adventures, we returned back to the lake house, where Elise’s Papa took her out inner-tubing behind the bass boat. With the Labor Day crowds gone from Lake Hartwell, we had the water mostly to ourselves. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Elise how to do this without worrying about her getting run over by a jet ski. Our fearless child had no problem, and was standing up and bouncing behind the boat on her first try. I think she’s probably ready to learn how to water ski.

Finally, we had dinner at the Galley restaurant on the South Carolina side of Lake Hartwell and watched a cotton candy sunset over the sailboats in the marina. I don’t think we could have packed more fun into a single day if we tried. Needless to say, Elise did not fight her bedtime.

Soon we will be returning home to Florida.

Hiking through Linear Park

We’ve had Elise doing some intense school work this week. We decided to take her on a long hike this morning so her day would not be completely dominated by school. We woke up early, walked down the Intracoastal Waterway, and up the trails into Linear Park, which is a patch of forest through the interior of our town. It took us two hours, round trip. It’s definitely a lot more fun to walk all these trails when the weather is cooler, but you have to leave the air conditioning sometime.

I love all of the ancient, sprawling oaks covered in resurrection ferns. It makes you wonder how much history these guys have seen.

Hiking to the ruins of a plantation burned by the Seminoles

Lily pads blooming in a pool of water that
had accumulated in the plantation ruins.

We love hiking and biking around our little beach town south of St. Augustine, Florida. From our many adventures out and about, I was surprised to discover that we have the ruins of two sugar plantations in our immediate area, both of which had been torched by Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.

Elise and I finally had the opportunity to hike through the jungle to tour the ruins of one of them – the Bulow Plantation Ruins in Flagler Beach. (The other is the Mala Compra Plantation Archaeological Site, a few miles north on the A1A.) It was a neat experience in itself, but made infinitely richer by the fact that I have spent the past couple of evenings reading books about the Second Seminole War. Because I had done this reading, I really had a sense of what we were looking at.

We had studied the history of St. Augustine a great deal before purchasing a house in the area. The city of St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565, is the oldest European settlement within what is now the United States. (Many American children grow up learning about Plymouth Colony in school, when in fact there was a well-established city far to the south. It is a sad testimony to how ethnocentric curriculum is.) But I really had no idea that we were purchasing a house with what are effectively battlefields all around it, and how many American leaders cut their teeth on conflicts in our backyard.

A Little History

The Second Seminole War was sort of like the Afghanistan of the early 19th century. I think this is a useful analogy for several reasons:

(1) The war was an epic money pit and the extent of its required appropriations cemented military political influence in Washington, DC. Appropriations for the war ranged from $30 million to $40 million, which in 1835 was an incredible sum. As you can imagine, the war was popular at first and then… not so much.

(2) The options for the young American government in executing the war were limited because of the behavior of countries that had controlled the area in earlier decades.

(3) It’s hard to talk about either side as heroes because both the Seminoles and the American government deliberately attacked civilians (hence the burned-out plantations around us). The second half of the war was mostly fought using guerrilla tactics. Although many people think of guerrilla warfare as a modern phenomenon (e.g. Vietnam), it is a song as old as time.

(4) The American government had a difficult time negotiating any resolution to the conflict due to the decentralized nature of the Seminole system of governance (not unlike the tribal nature of folks in the Middle East) and corruption among the agents tasked with carrying out such negotiations (not unlike modern military contractors). The federal government would issue allotments to agents to take to tribal leaders in the hopes of brokering peace. These agents would sell what they were supposed to give to the Seminoles and pocket the money. Then they’d tell political leadership in DC that the Seminoles did not want peace.

The Seminole Wars started when the United States government acquired the land that is now Florida following the War of 1812. It became formal United States policy to remove the Native Americans in the region to what is now Oklahoma. Among the “Five Civilized Tribes” in the region (essentially the tribes that practiced something akin to modern agriculture), only the Seminoles chose to fight the US government outright over their claims to the land. The Cherokee – who in terms of culture, were as sophisticated as any European country – attempted to fight the government in courts and failed. Some members of the Seminoles made a trip out to Oklahoma and decided that the land out there was more fertile than Florida, and would be ideal for growing crops and raising livestock. They were attacked by other Seminoles for this. It was a mess.

Unlike the other Native American groups, the Seminoles had not been living in Florida for very long before the conflict with Americans. (The others had been living in the region for centuries, at least.) The Seminoles were the descendants of other tribes in the Gulf region and Georgia, who began to move south into Florida and develop a distinct culture around the same time the Spanish were conquering the land.

The Seminoles did not have some monolithic view of Europeans. They grokked the varied and nebulous political and economic motives of the specific nations they encountered. They were allies with the British during the American Revolution (so the animosity between them and the US was well-established). In fact, the British were the official arms dealers of many Native American tribes before and after the American Revolution, as the Native Americans were a useful source of internal political resistance (and thus military and economic headaches) for the young country.

The Spanish were another story. The Spanish had been so successful at looting gold from the New World that they created hyperinflation in their own country and devalued their own currency with their immense spoils. Because of this, the Spanish were not able to invest much effort in nation-building in their Florida territory. Apart from their port cities like St. Augustine, the Spanish pretty much ignored the rest of the land. Sure, they’d send scouts and explorers around, but they weren’t constructing any more cities. This also meant the Spanish left the Seminoles to do whatever they pleased.

The Seminoles liked their laissez-faire arrangement with the Spanish. The Americans did not like this arrangement at all. The Seminoles would routinely raid and plunder the plantations in Georgia and then run back into Spanish Florida, where they would experience zero consequences. Remember, at this time in the nation’s development, these plantations were thoroughly rural, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, essentially self-sufficient little cities owned by some wealthy landowner and slaveholder. It was like attacking a castle in medieval Scotland, but less fortified.

To make things even worse for the folks the Georgia, the Seminoles welcomed runaway slaves into their tribes. Many of the “Black Seminoles,” as they are called, retained practices and beliefs from Africa, but melded them with the practices and beliefs of the Seminoles. Suffice it to say, many Southerners hated the Seminoles and their exploits achieved an almost mythological status in pro-slavery publications.

As I said earlier, war with the Seminoles began almost immediately after the US picked up much of Florida territory following the War of 1812. The US government encouraged settlers to move south into Florida, onto land that the Seminoles already regarded as theirs. The First Seminole War was over relatively quickly. The US government committed to providing the Seminoles with wealth and the means to modernize their farming enterprises, and the Seminoles agreed to move onto a reservation in the swampy wastelands of the Florida interior.

Then came President Andrew Jackson. Jackson supported only one policy toward Native Americans, and that was removal. He was not even remotely going to consider the interests of a group that sided with the British in the Revolution and later conflicts. And he was incredibly popular. (Incidentally, it was Jackson who initiated the practice of every new president filling up government appointments with highly partisan loyalists. You can thank him for the “swamp” in DC.) Congress ratified a series of treaties with portions of the Seminoles who were willing to leave for Oklahoma, but extended those treaties to the entire membership of the tribe. Many remaining Seminoles – remember that the Seminoles had a thoroughly decentralized system of government – did not think these leaders represented them or had any authority over them.

The War in Our Backyard

This brings us to the beginning of the Second Seminole War and the burnt-out plantations in our backyard. The Second Seminole War began with the “Dade Massacre,” when Seminoles attacked an unprepared caravan of US troops heading from Tampa to Ocala in the week after Christmas in 1835. It carried over to the plantations along the east coast of Florida.

One of the things I find absolutely fascinating about the Seminole Wars is how little connection to the actual land many of the people involved had. The US was still a relatively new government. The settlers the US was sending into Florida were new to the area. Most of the US army was made of immigrants to the US or militia men shipped southward from other states. And the Seminole themselves were new to Florida, having migrated down there from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

The Mala Compra plantation I mentioned above was owned by General Joseph Hernandez, who was commander of the Florida militia during the Second Seminole War. (“Mala Compra” is Spanish for “bad deal” or “bad bargain.”) Hernandez left his mark all over the St. Augustine area. His parents came to the region from the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean Sea. (If you ever visit St. Augustine, Minorcan clam chowder is all over the menus here.) When the US acquired Florida, Hernandez – a savvy businessman and diplomat – anglicized his name and embraced his new country. He owned a large swath of land south of St. Augustine that included Mala Compra. (Mala Compra is now a wildlife preserve and public space with a ton of impressive mountain bike trails.)

Mala Compra Park

It was Hernandez’s idea to have the military take control of the various plantations in the area as they moved down to fight the Seminoles. “We must occupy the plantations for their own good,” he wrote to Major Benjamin Putnam.”The settlers will be no match when the Seminoles come to kill them and take their livestock.” (See The Wild West in the Deep South: Second Seminole War by Dwayne Walker.)

Indeed, that was the impression many plantation owners had. They abandoned their properties in drove and traveled with their families to lush, wealthy, and urban St. Augustine for protection. They’d leave their overseers and slaves behind to handle the day-to-day operations of the plantations. They were regarded as disposable.

Bulow Plantation

Bulow Ville Plantation, in present-day Flagler Beach, had been built by Major Charles Wilhem Bulow, in 1821. Well, technically, 2,200 of his 4,675 acres were cleared by Bulow’s slaves (he owned over 150 slaves) and they also constructed and operated his mansion and sugar mill. The Bulow Ville Plantation grew sugar cane, cotton, rice, and indigo. Bulow died at age 44 and left the whole operation to his son, John. John increased production, eventually making the plantation into the largest sugar plantation in Florida.

John Bulow kept his plantation running through well-established and lucrative trading with the Seminoles and did not at all support Jackson’s policy on removing the tribes. When US forces arrived at the gates of his plantation, he fired on them. That idea went about as well as you might expect. Bulow was taken prisoner by US forces until they were temporarily done fighting the Seminoles in the area. After he was released, Bulow fled the area like other plantation owners. (He ultimately died at the age of 26.)

The Bulow plantation house before it burned down.

The plantation was situated on a saltwater marsh, where flat-bottomed boats (that could accommodate relatively shallow water) would carry the processed sugar and molasses (a by-product of refining sugar) to Ponce Inlet, where it would be transported to St. Augustine and Savannah (and then to the rest of the world).

You can take a kayak out on Bulow Creek from the location of the plantation ruins. If you want to… there is a very persuasive warning sign about the alligator population there.

After it was abandoned by Bulow, the Seminoles torched the plantation so it would not be of use to US troops. They had done this to many of the plantations they came across. The fire was so massive it could be seen from St. Augustine. It’s somewhat ironic that Bulow’s plantation would be burned down by people he actually had a decent relationship with and defended. But war is war.

Exploring the Bulow Plantation Ruins

All that is left of the plantation today are the coquina walls (a sort of natural cement made from clam shells from 12,000 years ago or earlier) of the mill itself, which have been taken over by the jungle. Since much of the mansion was made of wood, it was destroyed with the exception of its coquina foundation.

This is what remains of the springhouse, a building that used flowing water to keep provisions cool.
(Essentially an early refrigerator.)
This is all that is left of the foundation of the mansion.
You would not know what it was without historical records.