The fountain of youth is movement. Science has proven this so many times that most of us glaze over when we are urged to get out and about. Neighborhood walks often fill the prescription for staying healthy, but they can get boring.
Often done individually and on the same route month after month, the natural joy of walking can begin to fade. And come winter, many prefer to gaze out the window rather than don the fleece jacket and hit the pavement.
Hiking clubs might be a cure for the exercise blues; they embody the two most important keys to longevity and mental well-being: exercise and social connection.
The lack of social relationships is as much a risk factor for death as smoking or obesity. People with limited social involvement or who feel lonely have a 29 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke.
An obvious but underutilized path to wellness is to stay active within a community of like-minded folks.
A stellar example of this powerful connection of body and mind are thru-hikers who each year embrace the challenge of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
The AT is the most iconic of long-distance mountain footpaths. Stretching from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, it rises and falls along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains for 2,192 miles.
Three million hikers annually spend some time on sections of the trail. Some 4,000 committed outdoor enthusiasts attempt to complete the entire hike in one season. It typically takes five to six months. Only one in four succeed.
But anyone who attempts the journey will become part of a “tramily”; a group of hikers who start their journey about the same time and bond as they seek to complete the entire trail.
The AT speed record stands at 41 days. Karel Sabbe reached the trail’s end at Mount Katahdin last August completing the AT faster than anyone before him. Forget reaching for the calculator. That’s an average of 53 miles a day.
Another AT giant is Warren Doyle, who completed the entire AT hike 18 times. That’s 39,000 miles. After graduating from college and earning his master’s degree, he realized, “I had to do something no one was telling me to do—no rewards, no cheerleaders, no scholarships, something I was not going to get paid for,” Doyle said.
Recently a young thru-hiker stayed overnight at the Gravel Spring shelter in the Shenandoah National Park and left these comments in the shelter’s log book: "The inexorable march of time drags us along in its wake. We are allotted a small measurable span in which to leave our own stamp upon this sphere. Humans, in general, are pressed to rush and strive; a race to see who has the most when they die. But in taking the trek on the Appalachian Trail one can meander, smell the roses, and find oneself. What you walk away with from your quest depends upon your daily decisions and timeline. Make the most of every day and avoid mindless marching. Immerse yourself in the experience doing all possible – practically. One wouldn't want to gaze back through the years wishing one could have seen and done more. So, eat drink and be merry with your extended ‘tramily’ making memories to span a lifetime! Square Peg (trail name). June 25, 2019.”
These are sensitive and heartfelt words by an individual who likely will spend a life involved in hiking with friends. But the vast majority of today’s active seniors are not seeking to conquer the Appalachian Trail. They may simply be looking for a group of like-minded hikers for exercise and camaraderie.
Blue Mountain Hiking Club
There are numerous hiking clubs in the DC Metro area with the premier organization being the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The club maintains more than 1,000 miles of trails in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Our tri-county area is fortunate to have a local organization that is popular with a group of some 270 hikers; many of them seniors. It’s called Blue Mountain Hiking Club and it sponsors numerous monthly hikes in addition to backpacking, skiing, and cycling excursions as the seasons dictate.
Typically, each hike has about 10 attendees, offering the opportunity to get to know your fellow hikers and establish enduring friendships. The distance averages 5 to 8 miles; there are no marathons for these folks.
Each hike is led by an experienced trail maven, so attendees do not have to plan routes, carry maps or even be concerned about transportation. A small day pack with a snack and a couple bottles of water is the only investment necessary to become linked with this convivial group of “mountaineers.”
At the end of each outing, the hearty band gathers at a local tavern or restaurant to “rehydrate” and break bread. The organization embodies the spirit of a shared, health-centered experience.
The founder of the club is Andreas Keller, a retired international banker and native of Switzerland. Keller's enthusiastic personality defines the spirit of the club. He is eager to introduce trail newbies to the joys of hiking and is affectionately known as “Special K” to his friends.
At the completion of one of his backpack trips, he reflected on the interesting group of people he met on the trail. “It was a highly inspiring night and as I reflected on this by the campfire, I felt bonded to all there and I realized our commonality was a deep love for nature and for spending time to explore it,” Keller said.
Most Blue Mountain hikes depart from Clevenger’s Corner on Route 211, 8 miles west of Warrenton or from the Marshall Food Lion.
As the famed naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
To become a member and learn about upcoming hikes, visit www.meetup.com/Blue-Mountain-Hiking-Club.