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Ron Strickland on Bootstrapping a New Long Distance Trail

Ron Strickland being interviewed by Philip Werner from
Ron Strickland being interviewed by Philip Werner from

Ron Strickland is a character. He’s the founder of the 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) and the visionary behind the 7,700 mile Sea-to-Sea (C2C) Trail hiked by Andrew Skurka in 2005. His latest project is the foundation of a National System of hiking trails that links all of trails in the USA together, big and small, like the international trail system in place in Europe.

I caught up with Ron to interview him about this book titled Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America, which I’d thought was about the formation of the PNT. That description only scratches the surface of what’s in this book.

When we spoke, I’d read about half of Pathfinder, which I was to learn is Ron’s trail name. I’d liked what I’d read so far. Ron has the knack of writing about history by conveying the stories he’s heard from the people he meets during his projects and travels. When I asked him about it and whether he knew of Stud’s Terkels Oral Histories, I felt we made a connection. Terkel is one of Ron’s heroes.

We immediately fell into a discussion about literary hikers, as Ron pointed out the volumes of his favorite outdoor authors in his book-lined study: Guy and Laura Waterman’s’ Forest and Crag (just released as a Kindle book), Colin Fletcher’s Thousand-Mile Summer and Chris Townsend’s Walking the Yukon. I don’t get to have many literary conversations like this, so when I finished reading Pathfinder, I considered adding Ron to my hiker-writer parthenon.

So what is Pathfinder about? While it touches on the establishment of the PNT, it’s mainly a pragmatic guidebook, interlaced with personal vignettes about Ron’s life, that lays out the most important steps required to bootstrap new trails into existence. Ironically, having an actual blazed trail is the least important part of the process.

  1. First, you need a vision. Ron’s good at that.
  2. Then you need to survey a path. This requires a lot of bushwhacking, which Ron did for the PNT.
  3. Next comes a printed guidebook, so you can prove to political influencers that the trail exists. Ron again. He wrote the Pacific Northwest Trail Guide and he’s writing one for the North County Trail now. The NCT is the crown jewel in Ron’s vision for a National Network of Trails because it will provide the US with a transcontinental coast-to-coast trail and connect the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail together.
  4. Next you generate some PR by having a celebrity like Andrew Skurka or Michelle Obama endorse the trail and start hiking it. That helps get local trail builders involved who start to build sections of the trail, mainly so day hikers can hike it or bicyclists can ride it.
  5. Eventually, you need to link up the sections and convince any recalcitrent land owners to grant access rights across their property. There are various strategies for doing this, including buying them out.
  6. Finally, if it’s a long distance trail, you need to build some shelters or established campsites so that backpackers and campers know where to sleep. The problem points out Ron, is that the people who build trails and the people who hike them are different groups. Leaving out campsites, a current problem on the New England National Scenic Trail, is  equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot.

That, in a nutshell, is how to build a long distance trail. I can think of a few recent trails, like The Cohos Trail in New Hampshire, which have followed a similar development path.

At the end of my interview with Ron, I asked him whether there was any wilderness really left in America and he explained something to me that is rather profound. Wilderness is anything outside of your comfort zone. For example, for someone living in urban Boston, walking along the Concord River in Bedford can be a wilderness experience. That’s pretty good motivation to make the wilderness in America more accessible to everyone.

For more information about Ron Strickland and his vision for a National Network of Trails in the United States, visit Scenic Trails Research.

Written 2011. Updated 2014. 

One comment

  1. I really enjoyed this read. Because of trail visionaries like Strickland I feel fortunate enough to have experienced s lot of the beautiful places I’ve been. Thanks!

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