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Thoughts about the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club April 4, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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This was taken on a trip to LeConte Oct. 18-19, 1924, when these hikers agreed to establish the SMHC. Click for zoom.

This was taken on a trip to LeConte Oct. 18-19, 1924, when these hikers agreed to establish the SMHC. Click for zoom.

Those wonderful hats! What a difference from today! The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club has changed so much over the 91 years since it was organized. And those changes reflect deeper developments in society. But are those changes in the club good ones? And can we do anything about it, if society at large is moving in a certain direction?

I first joined the club in 1983. I’d recently moved to Knoxville with my former husband, Chris Hebb, who was entering the graduate program at U.T. in clinical psychology. Browsing in a bookstore, I found Harvey Broome’s classic, Out Under the Skies of the Great Smokies. All of a sudden, through Broome’s words, I plunged into a world of rockhopping up remote streams, scrambling up rocky slopes, and exploring deep into the wild inner recesses of the Smokies. Broome often mentioned the SMHC, and I decided I had to join this adventurous group. Soon thereafter, Chris and I had completed the three hikes then required for membership, and we were in.

I was very fortunate in those days to have certain wise and knowledgeable folks to guide me as I learned the technique of off-trail hiking in the Smokies. These included O.K. Sargeant, Bruce Ketelle and his son Dick, Bill Neal, Charlie Klabunde, Ray Payne, Paul Threlkeld, and Al Watson. In their company I felt secure and happy—even when the hike leaders were pondering maps and disagreeing about the routes. Since I showed such enthusiasm, I was asked to join the club’s board of directors as newsletter editor. Eventually I became the vice president, which usually leads to becoming the president. But in 1989 I moved away for personal and professional reasons, and I didn’t come back to the area until 2009. Missing those 20 years made the changes in the club stand out to me more, as I hadn’t experienced them as a gradual evolution. Over those years, the following things happened:

  • Family time became more strictly programmed, as the two-income family had to plan its leisure-time activities. These activities were no longer spontaneous, and free time became more limited. Result for SMHC: less time for people to lead hikes; more trouble in recruiting hike leaders.
  • People felt less able to commit themselves for an event a year away, as is needed for the annual printing of the SMHC handbook. The idea of saying, “Yes, I’ll lead a hike next September,” seemed unfamiliar and difficult. Result: more problems in recruiting hike leaders.
  • Our society became more conscious of liability. Result: people were less willing to lead risky hikes. The number of challenging hikes on the program steadily declined.
  • Our society evolved toward the concept of ease and convenience for everybody, never a moment of discomfort or difficulty. Result: more easy hikes, fewer of the old experiences of people cheerfully backpacking in the rain. In fact, we never do off-trail backpacks any more.

As I go over these points, I begin to understand better. The changes for the Hiking Club are parallel to other changes in society. Take education as an example. In my opinion, the big problem with education is that kids growing up no longer have an idea that learning is something valuable—that they might actually need to measure up to something outside their immediate wants and concerns, or that they might honor and respect the body of knowledge of our culture. In the same way, folks engaging in any leisure kind of activity, such as hiking, are more inclined to ask, “What’s in it for me?” as opposed to “How can I learn more and follow the example of these inspiring pioneers?”

The changes in the club go beyond the hikes themselves, to peripheral matters such as the mechanics of carpooling and the way the hikes are presented in the newsletter. For example:

  • Carpooling times. If we say “meet at 8:00,” does that mean we actually leave at 8:00? In my opinion, yes, it does. People should show up on time. If they arrive late, too bad! It used to be that people automatically noted the times of appointments and figured out how to get there on time. But nowadays, people don’t impose that kind of discipline on themselves. Doctors’ offices have to call to remind people of their appointments. That was not necessary in the past.
  • Newsletter presentation. Should our “Short, Easy” hikes be put in chronological order in the newsletter so that no one could possibly miss them? Or should they be listed as a separate item, together with the Wednesday hikes, as they are not part of the regular program? I feel that the regular program hikes go first. If people can’t trouble to turn the page and see these short-notice hikes, too bad.
  • Carpool meeting place addresses. It was requested that the street address be listed so that people could plug it into their car GPS units. I reluctantly agreed to this, thinking, “They can’t follow the directions? Or maybe even look at a map?” But maps are becoming a thing of the past. I am one of those oddballs who enjoys maps.

I want to say that the current members of the SMHC board are hard-working folks who generously donate their time and efforts for the good of the club. But I feel that we are gradually being beaten down by something pernicious in our culture, a demand for life to be convenient at all moments.

I know that I must be coming across as pretty harsh. But I would like to invite any readers of this blog, especially SMHC directors, to imagine the more positive side of what I am talking about. Imagine that a club exists that has its own traditions and its own history full of interesting incidents. This club is open to new members, but it does not feel the need to make everything easy for them. You hear about the club’s past, and you think,”I want to be part of this. I will do whatever it takes to go on these adventures.” In short, the idea of the club inspires you.

SMHC - Checking the map



1. Kent Hackendy - April 4, 2015

I really wish I had discovered hiking earlier in my life – not at this late date as my body is starting to fall apart a bit from all the years of long-distance cycling. It seems to suit who I am more than any other activity. I do believe you’re right, there has been a definite paradigm shift in society to “ease and convenience for everybody” and what we’ve lost is what can be gained by challenging ourselves in adverse situations.

Thanks for sharing a little more of your background and philosophy, Jenny. And thank you for being an inspiration for me in my pursuit of off-trail hiking.

Jenny - April 4, 2015

Thank you Kent. I’m glad that my thoughts resonated. And I wish you the best in your off-trail exploring.

2. Jim Cornelius - April 5, 2015

Gawd, what a mess. I don’t get it. All of the satisfaction, all the JUICE in life comes from doing things that are hard and meaningful. If you want to learn a martial art, you’ve gotta be willing to get hit. If you want to play an instrument, you have to be willing to put in the practice. I remember backpacking trips in the rain more than the ones on bluebird days. A shot made with arms a-tremble from jacking the kettle bells is more satisfying than those made untested.

“…kids growing up no longer have an idea that learning is something valuable—that they might actually need to measure up to something outside their immediate wants and concerns, or that they might honor and respect the body of knowledge of our culture.”

AARRRGGGG!! Makes me want to rage at the moon. But my daughter ain’t that way, so I’m grateful.

You have experienced the wussification of a great tradition and that’s damn sad. Pernicious, indeed.

Jenny - April 6, 2015

Thank you for your understanding of and sympathy with my point, Jim.

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