This 85-year-old hiking club is a great matchmaker, refuge from politics

|     Debra Bruno     |

WASHINGTON – On a bus ride last year with Wanderbirds Hiking Club, which bills itself as the oldest hiking club in the Washington, DC, area, Mike Ollinger apologised for having been away. He explained that he had gotten married – to a woman he met a decade earlier on a Wanderbirds hike.

“It was better than Match.com,” newlywed Anna Ollinger said in an interview.

The couple had married in a small ceremony, but considered their true celebration the hike they led that July, said Mike Ollinger. Afterward, they treated hikers to soft drinks.

This was not unusual for the Wanderbirds. Members can point to at least 10 marriages in recent years in which the couple met through the hiking club, a Washington institution that celebrates its 85th anniversary this year. The nonprofit, all-volunteer group has about 250 members and meets weekly year-round, rain or shine, for hikes in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Spending that much time together, the club’s regulars have experienced many of life’s milestones together, off the trail and on. More than one member has had an on-trail fatal heart attack, and others have broken bones, twisted ankles, sprouted blisters and gotten lost. There have been encounters with black bears and rattlesnakes. In 1983, a hiker fell asleep at a lunch stop, and no one noticed his absence on the bus ride back. He had to hitchhike home, the club’s history notes.

The Wanderbirds hiking club gathers at Leesylvania State Park in Virginia on a Sunday

Bruce Babbitt, who served as Interior Department secretary under President Bill Clinton, was a regular. Babbitt, 80, said he’s been out with the Wanderbirds at least once in the past few years. He said hiking was a great interlude from the usual Washington chatter and what he calls the “Washington political class.”

Those people “are always about learning everyone’s status and what they do,” he said. By the end of a long day of hiking, “people didn’t have a clue that I had been secretary of the interior. They didn’t even care.”

Each week, between 30 and 50 people hike with the club, paying USD20 for a chartered bus that takes them to a national park or forest or state park. Hikers can choose between a moderate hike (eight to 10 miles with some elevation) or a long hike (around 14 miles with more elevation). There are also hikes that are just a couple of miles and then back to the bus.

Wanderbirds is far from the only hiking group in the DC area with an enduring legacy. The Capital Hiking Club was formed in 1937; the Center Hiking Club started in 1939; and dozens of others are organised through MeetUp, an online site connecting social groups. Those include Outdoor Muslims, the Merry Footsters, and Wandering Soles (which rates hikes by the number of blisters accrued).

Wanderbirds got in the game early. According to a club history, which was first published in 2004 and has since been updated, the idea for a hiking club came about when a freelance journalist named Robert Shosteck asked The Washington Post in 1934 if he could write a regular outdoor column in exchange for The Post’s sponsorship of this new group named Wanderbirds. The sponsorship included publishing the week’s hike schedule and lasted until 1936. Early photographs show male hikers wearing fedoras and neckties.

The group’s inaugural hike on April 1, 1934, was a 12-mile route that today would be full of traffic and fences.

One longtime member, Jack Jalickee, wrote a Wanderbirds songbook, also published in 1934. Early bus rides had members singing songs with titles like Wander, Let Me Wander and The Ballad of Jeremy’s Run to the tune of Clementine.

Marsha Johnston and Emil Friberg, who met through Wanderbirds, used the club’s trail-marking red arrows during their wedding ceremony six years ago in San Diego. Friberg held up a red arrow and talked about “the journey” in his remarks to guests, he said. A few Wanderbird hikers attended their wedding, but the couple also hosted a “pre-wedding romp” for the club at a campsite in a national park in Virginia .

Friberg said he was “probably” too shy to ask Johnston out the first time until another club member who was watching the two of them, said to him, “Just do it!” So he did. But after they’d planned their first date, he worried that he had erred in the activity he selected.

“Our first outing was to a hiking disaster movie: 127 Hours,” he said, laughing.

After that, Johnston invited him to go shopping with her to pick out new hiking boots, which, he said, felt “very intimate.”

Another couple who also met through Wanderbirds, Laura and Adam Darkins, placed the hiking boots they were wearing when they first met next to the fireplace where they said their wedding vows nine years ago.

The camaraderie of Wanderbirds extends far beyond match-matching. While hikers do sometimes talk politics on the trail, it’s never too intense, said Wanderbirds President Bob Malkowski. “This is probably the only place where people can still remain friends after talking politics,” he said.

People show up to be outside in nature, he said, not to talk shop. “We get away from it all on the trail,” he said. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post