Linda Nyman has visited 45 states, four Canadian provinces and Mexico. As far as she’s concerned, there’s only one way to experience a new place:
On the march. The volksmarch.
“It’s good exercise,” said Nyman, 66, of Colorado Springs. “You get to see different scenery. You get to meet different people. You challenge yourself to figure out where you’re going.”
Volksmarching essentially is going for a walk on a pre-measured course, armed with a map, directions and a German sense of order and efficiency. The sport hails from the Fatherland, brought to the U.S. in recent decades largely by emigres and service members who have been stationed in Germany.
Susan Medlin discovered volksmarching while there with the Army in 1985.
“Every summer, every little village and hamlet in Germany seems to have one of these,” she said. “We realized this was a great way to get off the Autobahn and visit these little villages you would otherwise never go to.”
It translates to “peoples’ march.” On courses of 5, 10 or 20 kilometers, people tramp through woods, fields and towns, following clues and directions that end with a festival. Think sausages, beer tents and blasting tubas.
The American Volkssport Association was formed in 1979, and the Falcon Wanderers, the local club, came together at the Air Force Academy two years later. It has more than 300 members today. Members have charted 15 courses in the Pikes Peak region that people can hike on their own, and there are more than a dozen group volksmarches each year. Newsletters and membership dinners keep people in touch between marches.
It’s for all ages – the youngest member is 8 and the oldest is in the 90s. Participants can stroll or jog, walk a dog or push a stroller or wheelchair. Many courses are flat, on paved paths or sidewalks, while others are in more rugged terrain. Trails are rated on a five-point scale for their scenic beauty, incline and terrain accessibility.
On a recent Thursday, more than two dozen volksmarchers invited a reporter along on the course through Garden of the Gods, one of the better known in the country, rated 4 for scenery, 3 for incline and 3 for terrain accessibility.
Starting at the park’s trading post, Medlin called the official time, and the group was off.
And that was it. Nobody ran or hurried. It was a polite hike along roads and trails, with lots of conversation and occasional stops so the slower members could catch up.
There are no winners because, said Medlin, “The trouble with having winners is there’s usually only one and you have a lot of losers and we are not about that.” Participants receive pins, badges and patches for different trails and events and for reaching mileage milestones. Nobody boastfully posts their marching times online.
The relaxed nature of the sport has made it popular among people in their 50s and 60s, many of whom travel the country to experience other volksmarches. Colorado Springs resident Russ Kester has marched 25,000 miles in 25 states.
“You’re seeing things that you wouldn’t normally see. And there’s always something out there,” the 56-year-old said. “The walks are set up by people who know the area and you’re learning what they know already.”
It seems every volksmarcher has a story of wandering around a strange city trying to find the right starting point or turn-off, sometimes winding up in a bad neighborhood or the boondocks.
“And ye shall know them by their colored maps and baffled looks,” Medlin said jokingly during one map check in Garden of the Gods.
Though GPS technology would make the sport much simpler, courses aren’t laid out by coordinates. Maybe it’s the older, less tech-savvy nature of the participants or the wildcard of uncertainty that would be lost.
The youngest person on our hike was 20-year-old Travis Medlin.
“Susan’s my mom so she pretty much drags me everywhere,” he said. But he acknowledged enjoying the walks.
“I don’t really see the difference between just a long walk and volksmarching, but it’s definitely nice because you get to meet a lot of people,” he said.
So how can this greying sport be made to appeal to his generation?
“If more parents dragged their kids here, we’d get that younger generation, whether they liked it or not,” he said.
There are numerous hiking clubs and lots of social clubs for people in their 50s and 60s. But volksmarch enthusiasts say what sets theirs apart is the connection to a global network of others who enjoy the thrill of the march.
“It’s not just us. Our friends from Pueblo come up. Our friends from Denver come down,” Susan Medlin said. “We all go to their walks. We all help each other out.”
*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2013 by The Gazette.
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