A strange and wonderful hike across America
Cumberland Falls, Kentucky

A strange and wonderful hike across America

Cumberland Falls, Ky.
By Tom Dillon

To our readers:
This is the second of two stories dealing with trails in North Carolina and the nation in advance of National Trails Day on Saturday. On Sunday, we had a story dealing with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina and how it came about. For information on how to get involved, see the story below.

The year was 1980, and the project the 3-year-old American Hiking Society had come up with was audacious. It was a proposal for a walk all the way across the United States, from west to east, to publicize the need for more hiking trails.

It was bold, but somehow it caught on.

By the time the society's organizers dipped their feet in the Pacific Ocean on April 12 and headed for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 7,000 people had joined them. It was the first time in decades the bay bridge had been closed to traffic, and the pictures of that crossing are memorable.

The event was called HikaNation, and its legacy is only now, 20 years later, beginning to be understood. It has bequeathed marriages and families, lifelong friendships, probably hundreds of scrapbooks and legends -- and one new trail opening this year.

Up the slopes of the Sierra Nevada the hikers went, quickly whittling themselves down to a core group, and then across the deserts of Nevada and Utah, the high mountains of Colorado, the plains of Kansas and Oklahoma and the Ozark hills of Arkansas and Missouri.

Ferried across the Mississippi, they tromped through snow in Illinois and Kentucky and into Virginia, and then headed up the Appalachian Trail through Virginia and down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to Washington, D.C. From there it was an easy hike across Maryland and Delaware to the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.

"I remember I wore my bathing suit under my clothes the last day," said Jeannie Harmon, a Californian now in her 70s but still walking. "I knew they'd throw me in the ocean if I didn't go in on my own."

She had only intended to make the part of the trek across California, she said. But something clicked inside her, and she walked across the country. The coast-to-coast trek took 13 months, ending in the late spring of 1981.

Only several dozen people made the entire trek. Those were greatly outnumbered by people who hiked bits and pieces, a day or a week at a time. But HikaNation somehow struck a chord in everyone.

And when the group held its 20th anniversary reunion 12 days ago at this scenic state park in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest, the Virginia route-finder gave the hikers some of the best news they could have asked for.
Reese F. Lukei, Jr., a Virginia Beach accountant, still had the wanderlust after HikaNation was over, and to cure it he took five years off from his job starting in 1985. He and his wife participated in several of the hiking society's volunteer vacations, traveled and did the things they wanted to do.

Then he went back to work, but not as an accountant. He became the national coordinator for the American Discovery Trail (ADT), an attempt to link together hiking trails, city greenways and rail trails to make a true hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, etc., trail across America.

Since then he and others have talked, traveled, cajoled, lobbied, written and ridden across the country in support of an idea -- that it's possible to have a totally non-motorized route across the country connecting cities, towns, wilderness areas and rivers into a network that trail supporters call "the backbone for the national trails system."

While they've received no federal money -- they don't want it -- they did get authorizing legislation from the U.S. Senate last November and hope to get it from the House of Representatives. And they've received enough grant and foundation money to proceed with designations.

So, on Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colo., they'll observe this year's National Trails Day by declaring the trail officially open. The ceremony will be repeated Sept. 2 at the Presidio in San Francisco. At the same time, task forces all across the country will be putting up designation signs along the route.

An east-west trail

The trail links more than 200 local and regional trails, 15 nationally designated trails, 14 national parks, 16 national forests and more than 10,000 sites "of historic, cultural and natural significance," in the words of the American Discovery Trail Society. It's the only coast-to-coast trail, linking such better known trails as the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails.

It's decentralized. Local trail associations and local governments set all the rules, which means that there will be different guidelines and different rules all along the trail. But you'll be hearing more about the trail as time goes on.

And to a great extent, it all goes back to that ragged but glorious group called HikaNation.

Oh, sure, the route's different. The American Discovery Trail hits more cities, reflecting the growth of city greenways and the development of rail trails (trails on abandoned railroad rights-of-way) over the last 20 years. There are also two routes -- one northern, one southern -- between Cincinnati and Denver.

Too, there are some people involved with the new trail -- for instance, the editors of Backpacker magazine -- who don't recognize the HikaNation contribution. HikaNation never turned into a book, while two books about the Discovery Trail are already out. Much of the HikaNation story is told in urban legends and family histories (though there is a World Wide Web site at hikanation. tripod.com).

But just the same, Lukei told the hikers last weekend at Cumberland Falls, what they did was pivotal and one more way of stitching together this country. "Had HikaNation not happened, I don't think we've have been successful with the American Discovery Trail," he said.

In short, Lukei was asking people to look past the mounds of M&M's and dirty socks, past the ratty backpacks and threadbare tents and past memories of 20 years ago into the future of outdoor recreation in America. And he was asking the country to recognize the achievement of what the Web site calls the "strange and wonderful people" of HikaNation.

Times-News reporter Tom Dillon hiked part of the route across Virginia in 1980-81.

American Discovery Trail

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