The HikaNation Story
by Jim Kern
Our second board meeting (of the American Hiking Society) was in Washington, D.C., where we discussed how our new hiking organization could make a publicity splash. Bill Kemsley, always full of ideas, suggested a hike across America. Everyone liked it. We'd start in California and end up on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., with a welcome by President Reagan.
I have always loved big ideas, so I volunteered to coordinate the hike. Nancy Miller, my longtime assistant in the real estate business, became my indispensable helper. As I look back on the project 30 years later, I am amazed that we pulled it off, and doing it part-time, too, because we still had a real estate office to run and a wildlife photography business. Fortunately, many volunteers across the country caught the excitement of a walk across America and pitched in to help. Many along the way joined the hike.
Because so many wanted to participate, we started a newsletter to keep everyone informed on our progress. We had no budget, so we charged $3 for a year's subscription to cover postage and paper.
We also had a hotline phone number so people could call for information and the location of the hikers along the way. By the time the hike began, we had 1,000 names on our mailing list. Thanks to another contest in Backpacker magazine, the hike got a catchy name: HikaNation. I also searched for corporate sponsors, but after dozens of letters and calls, I came up empty-handed.
Laying out the route of the hike was a crucial part of the planning. I assumed in the beginning that hikers would start from Los Angeles because more Californians lived in that area and because the hikers could enter federal land faster. But then I got an offer from Glenn Seaborg that I couldn't refuse: "If you start the hike in San Francisco, I will organize the route in California." He lived in Berkeley and felt confident that he could get hikers to the Nevada border on a route they would enjoy. I quickly accepted his offer.
If you asked me what was the most important element in an effort like this, I would say, "Get the word out, and then read your mail." You can depend on the unexpected to happen, but you can't predict what the unexpected will bring. It will bring great ideas and it will bring crazy ideas. How to tell the difference can make or break your project. One couple wanted to bring their baby; one hiker wanted to bring his dog. Another wanted to bring a llama. What do you say to each?
One letter was from Monty Montgomery of Macomb, Illinois. Monty was retired from the Air Force (good), a hiker with time on his hands (very good) and he owned an Airstream trailer (very, very good!). He offered to follow the hikers, bring them mail and supplies, drive ahead and find camping spots for them, bring new hikers from the local bus station and take hikers off the trail as needed. Monty was a miracle I had not yet prayed for!
There were many other volunteers, of course. We wanted a departure celebration somewhere in San Francisco and needed a chairman for that event as well as for our arrival celebration in Washington, D.C.
Just working out departure details was a major challenge. Glenn and I agreed that Golden Gate Park was the ideal starting spot before crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge and heading east. The problem was that the Oakland Bay Bridge had no sidewalks.
Thanks to Glenn Seaborg's skillful pulling of strings, the California State Assembly passed an act allowing two lanes on the bridge's upper level to be closed from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, April 13, 1980. It was the first time any group had ever been allowed to walk across the Oakland Bay Bridge since it was built in 1936.
Our lucky streak continued when Mike McReynolds, who lived in downtown San Francisco, agreed to be our departure celebration chairman.
Now all we desperately needed was money! I had gotten nowhere despite letters to camera manufacturers, soft drink and energy food companies, plus every large company in the outdoor industry. Then General Foods called to say perhaps Postum might be interested. Postum? It's a coffee substitute, and we were going through Utah ... Mormon country. (Mormons eschew coffee.) Serendipity again. They were great sponsors and contributed $9,000 to the hike, plus lots of goodies including T-shirts and other swag. In return, we gave them good publicity. But we needed a lot more money.
About this time the California State government said there was a hitch in our agreement to use the bridge. We needed a $2 million liability policy! Where was I going to get that? And what would the premium be, even if I could find a company to sell us a policy? At the time we had no budget! I had been flying by the seat of my Miami pants for weeks before the hike, when a broker in Minneapolis called to say he had a policy for $2,000. I grabbed it!
Lady Luck had yet to desert us. I had made a plea for financial help to the Dunspaugh Dalton Foundation in Miami. One of the trustees, Bill Lane, agreed to see me. He wanted to be a part of our project. A socialite and urbanite, heavyset and gray-haired, he didn't look the hiker type. But he had special ties to San Francisco. Even better, he said he would contribute $10,000. At once, our essential out-of-pocket expenses were covered.
Our departure celebration chairman, Mike Reynolds, was busy doing press interviews, printing and distributing flyers and organizing volunteers. He also had to find a central location for the 100 or so walkers to meet each other and be welcomed the night before the hike. Mike finally secured the basement of a downtown Methodist church.
On the night before the hike, I welcomed everyone, made introductions and laid out the route and plan. There were lots of details to convey and lots of questions.
Glenn had sent over a medical team from the University of California, Berkeley to give quick physicals to all the hikers. The medics wanted to document any differences in before-and-after physical conditions. I watched one older man doing jumping jacks, and thought, Please don't have a heart attack, mister, right here in the basement of the Methodist church. Another senior citizen, John Stout, was 68. He would be 69 when he finished the hike. There were 18 hikers at the end who were identified as long-distance hikers by walking at least 1,500 miles of the 4,400-mile route. John was one of them. In fact, he had walked every mile except for two miles across the Mississippi River. Since no one could walk on water, everyone, including John, had to ride the ferry across.
One other incident that evening sticks in my mind. At the end of the meeting, a little lady came up and wondered if I could arrange to get her back to her hotel room. It was dark and Marce Guerrein was from the East. She looked delicate and soft. I thought, This hiker can't get to her hotel, but she intends to carry a pack across America? As it turned out, Marce was also one of those long-distance hikers!
As the fog lifted the next morning, the hikers assembled. Astronaut Randy Schweickert welcomed the group, as did Glenn and I. Scottish bagpipers played. And the hikers followed the pipers down to the Pacific Ocean where they could wet their boots in the surf.
At six the next morning, Glenn Seaborg was ready to lead us across the bridge. The sky was miraculously cloudless, and every hiker in the Bay Area seemingly turned out so they could say they were the first to walk across the Oakland Bay Bridge. Just at sunrise, hiking hordes rushed past me as a Postum executive handed me a check for $9,000. Not a moment too early! The next morning a huge color photograph of hikers on the bridge was on the front page of every paper in the Bay Area. The newspapers estimated the crowd at 5,000 to 7,000. It was a great day for the American Hiking Society.
Excerpt reprinted with permission.
© 2012 Jim Kern. All rights reserved.
Videos related to the origins of HikaNation:
April 2016 Interviews with Jim Kern by Paula Guerrein