Recently I took part in the Florida Trail Association (FTA) Annual Conference. The FTA develops, maintains, protects, and promotes a network of hiking trails throughout the state, including the unique Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST). This event celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the FTA’s founding.
A Brief History
The National Scenic Trails were authorized under the National Trails System Act of 1968 that began with the naming of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as the first National Scenic Trails. The AT was originally founded by Benton MacKaye and completed in 1937. It’s over 2,000 miles long. Earl Shaffer was the first person to do a complete single thru-hike of the AT in 1948. Earl was a soldier returning from World War II who said he was going to “walk off the war”. More on this and its relevance to current day later.
The Florida National Scenic Trail another of the eleven National Scenic Trails is about 1,300 miles long and has its own originator, Jim Kern. The weekend was a well-earned celebration of Jim’s vision to establish the Florida Trail 50 years ago. Jim is also a co-founder of the American Hiking Society, and founder of Big City Mountaineers which takes under-served urban youth through wilderness mentoring expeditions.
Jim has become a friend and I am now assisting him as a Board Member of yet another organization he founded, Friends of the Florida Trail. Most people are not aware that the only National Scenic Trail that is complete from end to end is the Appalachian Trail. All of the other trails have hundreds of miles of gaps which require hikers to walk along roads and highways, limits access to sections, has access that can be withdrawn at any time and trail routes are constantly changing as a result. Friends of the Florida Trail is working to find a way to complete the Florida Trail.
Hiking and Population Health
So how does my interest in the Florida Trail and getting outdoors relate to my work in Population Health? Well its really quite simple and in fact the guest speaker, Fran Mainella addressed it in her presentation. Fran was the 16th Director of the National Parks Service under President George W. Bush and before that she was director of the award-winning Florida State Parks for 11 years.
As she said said and I am paraphrasing:
“At the same time that outdoor places and trails seem to be becoming less relevant to our youth with the advent of new technologies, the internet, online gaming, Facebook, Snapchat and messaging, we have become more aware that getting outdoors, walking and hiking have incredible health benefits.”
We have both seen the link that needs to be created between the healthcare system and these outdoor locations and activities to improve the health of our country. The healthcare system and the trail associations can come together in a mutually beneficial way. It’s a golden opportunity for health plans, hospitals and other providers to promote and create health in their populations while supporting a great cause, the awareness, use and protection of these outdoor assets.
Our long distance trails provide even more reason to be supported and this was clearly expressed in what I felt was the best presentation of the entire event. The presentation was given by Daniel Caballero and Ricky Cardona, two army veterans who discussed Warrior Expeditions and Warrior Hike. As mentioned above, Earl Shaffer thru-hiked the AT after WW II to “walk off the war”. Many of the men and women returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and other places, come back suffering from PTSD and other stress related issues. Warrior Hike, working with Georgia Southern University and other sponsors provides these returning veterans with the opportunity to thru-hike many of the National Scenic Trails to “decompress from their military service and come to terms with their wartime experiences” or as one speaker said “deal with these demons.”
This year, six veterans began a thru-hike of the the Florida Trail and five completed it. The two told incredible stories of their journeys on the Florida Trail and how these long distance hikes positively changed their lives’, providing them with some healing from the trauma they faced.
All of the National Scenic Trails are amazing places, not just because of their beauty, but because of their ability to impact our health, both physical and mental; they are more than just a “walk in the woods” they are about Well-being for us and future generations. We should do all we can to protect and complete them.
A Few More Conference Highlights
There are two other things I’ll mention about the conference.
Ben Montgomery author of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk gave an engaging presentation. This book, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist is worth a buy. It’s a great story about an amazing woman Grandma Gatewood, who was the first woman and just the 6th person overall to thru-hike the AT in 1955 at 67 years of age. How she did it was unbelievable and why she did it was something we as a society must work to eradicate. Having just completed the book, there’s much more to this story, but I won’t spill the beans.
In addition to the great presentations, in attendance was REI and Kara Montgomery. When REI came to Florida, they located their first store in Jacksonville. Since then I have been able to meet Kara and the excellent staff, purchase many items and introduce them to the FTA. REI has become a strong supporter of the Florida Trail including providing grants in 2014 and 2015. At this years annual conference they had a booth, provided classes on map and compass and received the Florida National Scenic Trail Volunteer Partner Group of the Year award. Congratulations to REI and Kara and thanks for all of the support you provide to the FTA and other organizations around the country.