Known as “Backpacker Bill,” William Kemsley Jr. is often spotted on trails with his poodle, Stanzi. Photograph by John McCauley.
PEOPLE DIDN’T “HIKE” WHEN WILLIAM KEMSLEY JR. was growing up in the 1940s. They walked, and it was just a thing he’d always done, starting with the mile-long trek to his elementary school. Kemsley was working a high-stress job in New York City and retreating to the mountains for respite when more people started walking in the woods. He saw that with them came their garbage. In 1973, he founded Backpacker magazine to educate novice hikers in principles like Leave No Trace and to find a job that wasn’t nudging him toward a heart attack. The work spilled over into lobbying Congress and co-founding the American Hiking Society to promote and protect trails. To the Taoseños among whom he’s made his home for three decades, he’s known as “Backpacker Bill,” often spotted on trails with his poodle, Stanzi. He’ll be 93 this month.
I GREW UP in Detroit, and there are no mountains there. My senior year in college, at Columbia University, I found out there were the Catskill Mountains, only a short distance from New York City. The Catskills were beautiful.
I’D GO UP INTO THE CATSKILLS on the weekends, and I’d never see anybody. I never found anybody to hike with, and that’s why I solo hiked, and I still solo hike.
IN THE SIXTIES, I began to see people on the trail and I began to see trash. A lot of them had never hiked before, so they thought, Well, I’ll just throw my orange peel here or my gum wrapper here.
I THOUGHT IF I PITCHED A MAGAZINE toward the experienced hiker, it would make the newcomers want to emulate them. I could produce stories about good hiking habits and that would attract people who were new to the trail, and they would want to do the same thing as the more experienced hiker.
“LEAVE NO TRACE” spread from the magazine. Now, on the trails here, I never see a piece of trash.
WHEN WE WERE TRYING TO PUBLICIZE the American Hiking Society, we called for a group of people who wanted to hike across America. We’re all going to go out, dip our toes in the Pacific, then start hiking across the country and dip our toes in the Atlantic. Then we’re going to go to Congress and tell them to pay more attention to trails.
WE HAD 10,000 HIKERS cross the Oakland Bay Bridge on a Sunday morning, closing off one full lane.
EIGHTY-SEVEN PEOPLE started HikaNation, and about 20 finished. It inspired the American Discovery Trail, the only coast-to-coast trail across America.
AFTER MY LAST KID graduated from high school, I had no reason to stay in the East.
TAOS IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO LIVE, because I can hike in the mountains, I can hike in the desert, and I can hike in the canyons.
FURTHERMORE, I CAN GO UP TO COLORADO and climb high peaks, and I can go to the Grand Canyon, all within a day’s drive.
IT ISN'T MUCH OF A HIKE, but I still get out every day. There’s a training route, which is just a little over a mile long, and I do that every single day.
THESE DAYS, I only go on rougher trails if I have somebody to go with, because I’m a little bit wobbly in the legs.
THREE YEARS AGO, I went on a backpacking trip with my brother. We went down into the Río Grande Gorge for three nights right around the full moon. He and I both say it was the best backpacking we’ve ever done—the temperature was right, we were in the right place, we had great company. Everything was just perfect. Why not quit on the best backpacking trip you’ve ever had? So I think I’ll do that.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
William Kemsley Jr. writes about hiking, spirituality, and family on his website.