John Olmsted and 1980’s HikaNation

When a parent leaves or when both parties realize the marriage is untenable it’s rarely a good thing. But what about when your father leaves you to go build wheelchair nature trails and film a bunch of hikers across the USA in 1980?

My father was John D. Olmsted. Son of Rhodes’ Scholar and UCR founder Jack Olmsted and cousin to the one and only Frederick Law Olmsted. The roots run deep in this one.

In 1980 I was a shy and unsure kid growing up fatherless in Sonoma, California. One Saturday, probably in between Atari 2600 video gaming my mom turned on the television and said “well there’s your father — hiking across the bridge.”

And she was right.

Dad walking with Rob Lee (in wheelchair) down to Ocean Beach on April 12, 1980

Make no mistake, I’d already gathered that my dad wasn’t like the other kids’ dads, not being around wasn’t even what gave it away. It may have been the owl in the freezer I found one day after school, when mom answered with “oh your father was passing through and dropped it off, it’s in good condition so he probably saved it to show his class.”

Which class was that? I thought.

It could have been any number of them, classes of the kids in the ‘earth bus’ shuttled from Bay Area schools to sites along the Lincoln Hwy. aka Interstate 80. It could have been classes of kids in Mendocino or maybe Nevada City, where he regularly led hikes out to the amazing spots in Northern California.

It also could have been the beard.

My first skateboard and a rare visit from dad circa 1983

It could have been the thrift store clothes.

Or it could have simply been the incessant interest in things I had no knowledge of.

Things like John Muir. Hetch Hetchy. Bridgeport. Joe Day.

Things that to my mind were well, weird.

I wasn’t a crusader after all, I was just a skinny kid trying to fit in on the schoolyard.

AT Museum

That I would be speaking at the beautiful Appalachian Trail Museum in September of 2022 about my father and that now-famous hike across the U.S., well nothing could have been further from my nine-year old mind, but here we are.

Dad got involved in Hikanation (great website here) unlike any of his other projects, which were mostly serendipitously self-discovered. Jug Handle State Reserve near Mendocino was 103 acres of wildland that included a forgotten farmhouse and sat adjacent to Jug Handle Creek and across PCH from a planned motel and development.

Of course dad stopped that development.

The Independence Trail was also an abandoned piece of wild land, in the foothills of Nevada County North East of Sacramento. The land was “steep and cheap” as dad liked to say, but included an abandoned 1860’s mining ditch, the Excelsior canal. Based on a chance meeting with Gay Blackford, an Oakland college student and early ADA activist who requested of dad to find her a level trail, dad turned the old canal into an inspiring and beautiful wheelchair-accessible nature trail. First in the nation actually.

In between saving Jug Handle (1968–’75) and building The Independence Trail (1969–’86ish), 1980’s Hikanation dropped from nowhere almost literally on his doorstop, beginning in Golden Gate Park (the site of his first job after college) and ending 14 months later at Cape Henlopen, Delaware.

And dad had zero to do with it.

Except that he somehow filmed the damn thing.

John Olmsted and his 16mm camera, Virgina circa 1981

I heard someone say

It’s nice that he idolizes his dad.

Idolizes? Apparently they never watched my first documentary.

Honors? Yes.

Idolizes? No.

My dad was a crusader of the first degree, who placed trails and causes above family.

Does that sound harsh? It’s because it is. And it was harsh to live through.

However. If one is going to leave their family and BE a crusader, it’s hard to be quite so disappointed if they do something noble and worthwhile on said crusade.

Like save a beautiful beach and pygmy trees from reckless development.

Or build a wheelchair nature trail out of an old mining ditch.

Or re: the topic at hand, film 80 ish hikers trekking across the United States.

And that’s what my dad did.

And the footage is amazing.

*Turn on subtitles to read-along using Marceline Guerrein’s Hikanation journal.

It was none other than

Marceline Guerrein’s daughter Paula who coerced me* into this speaking engagement. Like me she had a parent involved in Hikanation, her mother Marce in fact was one who completed the entire hike, though unlike me she actually got to participate in a portion of the hike — as a college student in between semesters.

I’m a smidge jealous.

*Of course nobody pushed my gas pedal from Nashville up to Pennsylvania other than me so yes I’m only teasing.

We had a decent crowd of 25-ish in a beautifully shaded setting at Pine Grove Furnace State Park (appropriately the 1/2 way point on the AT Trail) to hear my explanation of who John Olmsted was and how he came to film this amazing hike.

If you watch the film clip you’ll see one of the more interesting characters of the hike — a man and a woman pushing a wheelbarrow with a one-year old across the country.

His name is Gomer. Gomer Pyles.

Not surprisingly dad and Gomer kept in touch.

I will be posting the video of the talk soon but I’ll pat myself on the back and share that holding Gomer until the end was a good choice. To hear the background of John’s life, of the hiking movement in the U.S., to see the footage he shot, and THEN to reveal that one of the hikers — and one of the more curious characters — is in the audience, was a lot of fun.

Gomer shared about meeting dad the first day of the hike, and about various interactions along the way, like Gomer taking jobs to continue feeding his family and dad giving him rides in his truck to meet back up with the hikers.

I can only guess but I think the talk went well. It was a short but casual Cliff Notes’ summary of John Olmsted, his transformation into John Muir, and the hike that caught his attention enough to devote weeks and even months filming it.

It’s my opinion that a film like this, not only showing the hairstyles and fashion of the day, but combined with actual audio from the hikers and bystanders of some of the states they traversed is the closest thing we have to time travel.

To wrap up I’ll answer the biggest question with yes, although I’m disappointed my dad wasn’t around (because I really needed him), I can still be glad he was off doing something amazing.

And I can be proud of him for that.

And I am.

John Olmsted celebrating with members of Hikanation at Cape Henlopen, DE | May 27, 1980

Stay tuned right here or subscribe to my YouTube channel and look for the talk to be up in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, go take a hike.

— Alden

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.