Economics of the Trail: AMC & the Socialist Dream

The problem of living is at bottom an economic one. And this alone is bad enough, even in a period of so-called “normalcy.” But living has been considerably complicated of late in various ways – by war, by questions of personal liberty, and by “menaces” of one kind or another. There have been created bitter antagonisms. We are undergoing also the bad combination of high prices and unemployment. This situation is world wide – the result of a world-wide war.
It is no purpose of this little article to indulge in coping with any of these big questions. The nearest we come to such effrontery is to suggest more comfortable seats and more fresh air for those who have to consider them. A great professor once said that “optimism is oxygen.” Are we getting all the “oxygen” we might for the big tasks before us?

An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning
by Benton Mackaye 1921

Mackaye was the first visionary voice behind the Appalachian Trail – in his 1921 essay he describes a system of trail making that opened up a wilderness experience to the working classes which helped offset the damaging effects of WWI and the industrial revolution on the human psyche. What he was really considering was a kind of socialist utopian paradise, where the workers could effectively use leisure time in self improvement, both through a system of shelters which offered educational courses, lectures and meeting places, but also through a rigorous yet accessible outdoors experience.

The AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) operates the closest to this mandate of any of the regional clubs that maintain parts of the AT. Operating in the dusk of late Capitalism, it’s interesting to see how the dream has played out…

The AMC Hut system offers shelter throughout the White Mountains – for $90 to $110 you stay in their rustic facilities, dinner and breakfast are included, and the  staff offers courses on naturalism, composting, and other topics of outdoor interest (not to mention packing in and out all of the consumables and waste!). While this seems expensive, especially for budget conscious thru-hikers, the Huts also offer at least 2 work-for-stay positions each night, where hikers can receive food or lodging for 2 hours of work. Many hikers, having been denied work-for-stay, have an adversarial relationship with the AMC, and $100 a night sounds expensive even by many standards… however, seen in the light of the Socialist dream, the system seems to be a veiled jewel.

When you consider that someone working for a union making prevailing wage can accurately budget $100 a night per person for a family vacation, most food included, this starts to seem like a better deal. When you realize that you don’t need to purchase or carry a tent, stove, or other expensive and heavy camping equipment for an outdoor retreat it sounds even better. It’s difficult for us to see this value for what it is – a truly accessible outdoor experience, in one of the most beautiful and rugged places in the Northeast. It sounds expensive, but considering that some mountains offer private gondolas and helicopter only service, the AMC Hut system actually levels some economic barriers.

That said – interacting with the hut system significantly alters / frames the wilderness experience. For us, mostly because of our dietary restriction as vegans, the huts didn’t offer much. They represented the only “legitimate” way to stay in the White Mountains – unless you read the law carefully and camp outside 1/4 mile of the huts and more than 200′ off trail you risk a significant fine. It’s easy enough to find stealth camp sites throughout the Whites, but knowing there is an “us & them” makes the experience almost adversarial for many hikers.

Overall, Mackaye’s vision is carried out most fully by the AMC, yet its codification within a Capitalist structure makes it harder to see it’s value. Its hard not to see the AMC as ‘the Man’ even as they open the wilderness for many groups who would otherwise never have a chance to see the splendor of the Whites, and promote a value system of conservation and stewardship. It’s hard not to think of the Hut experience at privileged, even though the reality is that the Free Market is driving down wages and cutting back free time, making these self actualizing experiences luxuries rather than necessities. The question Mackaye asks is still relevant: how do we battle the corrosive effects of urban living, of industrialization, and the increasing anxiety caused by our mediated lives?

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