Kristi McLeod Fondren is accustomed to navigating forks in the road, both literal and metaphorical. While pursuing her Ph.D. through the educational psychology program at Mississippi State University (MSU), Fondren encountered a divergent path that would significantly impact her career and area of study. “I was taking [an] environment and society [course] due to personal interest and love of the outdoors,” she explains. The subject matter recalled family camping excursions from Fondren’s childhood, as well as early work experiences just outside of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. “It was in this class that I thought, ‘You mean I can do what I love in sociology and have it work for me?’ That semester I applied and was accepted into [MSU’s] doctoral program in sociology.” Almost a decade after earning her credentials and almost 20 years into her personal exploration of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), Fondren focuses her work on the “leisure subculture of long-distance hiking/backpacking.” Her recently released book, Walking on the Wild Side: Long Distance Hiking on the Appalachian Trail, explores motivations and experiences of extreme hiking in a natural environment and earned Fondren the 2016 Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Award for Excellence in Recreation and Park Research, for which she will be recognized during the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. We asked Fondren to elaborate on her work — following is a portion of our conversation.
Parks & Recreation magazine:What inspired you to write Walking on the Wild Side: Long Distance Hiking on the Appalachian Trail?
Kristi McLeod Fondren: I recalled there being a unique community [on the AT] and thought that while I was hiking I should interview long-distance hikers about their experiences on the trail, as well as their relationships with fellow hikers — both perfect areas of study for my discipline. The main reason I wanted to interview long-distance hikers (thru-hikers and section hikers) in particular was because most of the academic studies on the AT at the time focused primarily on hikers’ attachment to the AT. These studies found that thru-hikers are more attached than other user types; however, thru-hikers would be omitted from data analysis because they only made up about 2-3 percent of users. While I understood this, I found it strange that in studies of place attachment, place identity and behavioral loyalty, those who had the stronger social and emotional ties to the AT would be omitted. With the book I aimed to give voice to a group of hikers that otherwise had been left out.
P&R:Much of your work addresses the significance of place on our well-being and sense of self. Talk about how this relates to our interactions with nature and the outdoors.
Fondren: Within the discipline of sociology, when speaking of the development of the self, sociologists generally focus on a socially situated self that is constructed in relation to significant others. Largely missing from this body of work is the notion that we are also place-situated beings, forming identities in relation to significant places, not solely from attachment to others. The approach I take here also reveals that beyond exploring the social self, it is vitally important to examine the place-situated self. Aside from specific places, there are many benefits for those who have a meaningful connection with nature…[including] reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and obesity, healthier immune systems, increased life expectancy…reduced depression, stress-relief, improved quality of life, higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, tranquility and belonging.
P&R: How diverse did you find the leisure subculture of long-distance hiking to be? Assuming it was relatively homogenous, why do you think that is?
Fondren: To an extent, class, race, gender and age are selective of those who participate in this extended recreational activity. For example, the typical long-distance hiker is a white, educated, middle-class male in his 20s or late 40s or older. Why more men? Theories suggest that women may lack the time and money required for participation, or that gender socialization has made some women wary of outdoor recreation due to concerns over their safety, competence in outdoor settings or the ability to retain their femininity while participating in such activities. In terms of age, many are hiking after high school or college or after retiring from their jobs. And while many hikers will tell you, “prince and pauper are the same,” or “it doesn’t matter what type of gear a person has,” one typically has to have money or be able to take time away from work to be able to hike long-distance. So, to an extent, one’s social class does matter.
P&R: If you could say one thing about the importance of supporting local parks and green spaces where people can access nature, what would that be?
Fondren: For many, their exposure to nature starts locally. Everyone, regardless of age, should have the opportunity to experience nature or green spaces regardless of where they live.
— Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine