- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

American health experts would love to see everyone getting regular exercise by going on scenic walks. But they may have to see it in Europe.

Trail networks such as those in Switzerland and Britain leave the United States’ trails in the dust. And the European dust is stirred constantly by hikers.

“Our cities are set up for people to drive,” said Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society, which is trying promote trail development in the United States. “They live in the kind of cities and towns where walking is really encouraged.”

American trail-builders are developing new places to walk. Communities are converting railroad rights of way into places for walking or biking, marking out walks through local historic areas, or creating connections off hiking routes such as the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail.

“We don’t do it like the Europeans do it,” said Dr. Gerald F. Fletcher, a cardiologist with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a national spokesman for the American Heart Association. Walking and biking, which American health experts encourage as beneficial aerobic activity, are part of the European lifestyle, particularly in Switzerland and some other areas, he said.

Switzerland cares so much about its paths that it enshrines them in its constitution, which says the federal government can set standards for trail networks and must replace any trails that it closes.

Switzerland has 38,525 miles of marked trails, said Marcel Grandjean, director of the Swiss Hiking Federation. The private group receives money to maintain them from the cantons, the Swiss equivalent of states.

These paths cross some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. In the spring and summer, hikers walk through flower-filled meadows, under ranges of snowcapped peaks, and above and below waterfalls fed by the melted ice of glaciers. In the winter, some trails are clear of snow, and others can be crossed on snowshoes or skis.

The Swiss have always walked, and like it, Mr. Grandjean said. Switzerland does not keep statistics on how many people walk because “everybody goes hiking, from our top politicians to blue-collar workers,” he said.

In the old days, walking was how the Swiss got from one village to another. Modern Swiss built their hiking trails on those paths and cart tracks. The public has the right to walk the paths even when they cross private land, Mr. Grandjean said.

Since the 1930s, the Swiss have been marking their trails with signposts. Where Americans generally content themselves with colored blazes to show the way, the Swiss also give directions to towns and villages. And where the United States’ few signposts give distances in miles, the Swiss give them in an easier-to-follow measure — the time in hours and minutes that it takes walkers to make the trip on average.

Along well-traveled trails, Switzerland’s signs often point the way to restaurants, hotels and guesthouses. Walkers can hike from breakfast to lunch to dinner, similar to Britain’s pub-to-pub rambles.

The ability to stop for snacks or a drink on a hike makes hiking more of a nice walk rather than a backcountry expedition, Miss Sloan said. Groups such as senior citizens clubs often go on those walks.

“I’m not suggesting people put more pubs in their mountains, but in Europe it has turned into a community experience,” she said.

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