Let's talk about urban hiking
Yes, you can go for a hike across a city or suburb
Last January, once the glow of winter holidays had passed and the reality of a long, bleak, socially-distanced winter set in, I started going for hikes across Boston at dusk. This was an effort to offset the long hours spent at home, working, shoveling, doing laundry, Doomscrolling, and ripping through the bag of cheddar popcorn that was supposed to last for 3-4 days. I would design each “hike” by picking a Boston-based landmark that I was curious to see—say, the city vista from the top of Parker Hill, the towering land mass where Donna Summer grew up. Then I would plug my landmark destination into Google Maps, weighing my options for getting there on foot and then returning home, over the course of a few hours. Should I take the most direct route, through residential neighborhoods? A passage through unfamiliar green spaces and parklets? Or a “bushwhack” across schoolyards and loading zones that might have fences? Fences that might be too high to climb, necessitating an even longer detour.
The concept of “urban hiking” is often confused with “walking.” And this week, as we recover from feasting and begin that initially wondrous transition into Winter Hermit Mode, I think it’s time to talk about the differences between going for a walk and going for a hike in an urban and suburban environment. Some of you have already discovered these subtle yet salient distinctions yourself, after spending more than a year close to home amid pandemic precautions and periods of travel restriction.
During the most high stakes chapter of the U.S. pandemic experience—March, April, and May of 2020, when stay-at-home orders kept millions of us confined to our zip codes—long foot journeys around town became a tonic for all the anxieties we were dealing with. I wrote about this for The Boston Globe, at a moment when city residents were being asked to resist their instinct to flee to rural regions with small hospitals. But just like the other simple yet ecstatic pleasures that Covid-19 brought into vogue—say, meeting friends to drink wine in a park instead of blowing twenty bucks at a crowded bar, or sitting in sleeping bags in a friend’s backyard and watching Speed in December—urban hiking shouldn’t be considered a pandemic novelty. It deserves to be recognized as a cousin of backcountry hiking. A cousin that you can “visit” anytime when traveling to the mountains or woods is too time-consuming, expensive, or risky.