News

Students Trek Pacific Crest Trail, Research Place Attachment

by Bill Giduz
Micah Brown ’16 and Noelle Smith ’16
Brown and Smith fording a stream in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Davidson students Noelle Smith '16 and Micah Brown '16 have gone off the grid to do some scholarly research this summer.

The duo laced up their hiking boots and hit the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California on May 20. They headed north into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, intending to backpack more than 700 miles of the Canada-to-Mexico route in about eight weeks.

And while they aren't undertaking the trek solely in the name of science, they've found a way to make the journey scientifically valuable. Both students are experienced hikers, and have learned wilderness camping skills as trip leaders for Davidson Outdoors. They also had taken environmental studies classes from Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jeff Rose, and learned about his considerable experience with camping and hiking.

Smith and Brown committed to the Pacific Crest Trail hike last fall, then asked Rose for ideas for incorporating a research project into their plans. He helped Smith develop a proposal and get college funding to study the concept of "place attachment" among fellow hikers by getting them to fill out a survey along the trail.

"Place Attachment"

Place attachment refers to the social and emotional bonds people form with locations. It may be a landscape or town, or it may be a room in a house such as mom's kitchen. Rose said, "These are places in our lives that have an impact on us for whatever reason, making them meaningful and memorable. Noelle's and Micah's research is aimed specifically at determining how people hiking this trail connect to that long distance environment."

Micah Brown ’16, Noelle Smith ’16 and Professor Jeff Rose
(l-r) Micah Brown ’16, Noelle Smith ’16 and Professor Jeff Rose

While place attachment isn't a new subject of investigation in the discipline of human geography, researchers have primarily looked at it in terms of discrete, bounded landscapes. It hasn't been studied in association with extended routes such as the Pacific Crest Trail. The students wrote in their research proposal, "Therefore, there is a need to understand the ways in which people form social and emotional bonds to places that, while distinct and identifiable, extend across traditional boundaries, landscapes, and eco-regions."

The research project also is unique in its immediacy. Rather than mailing a survey to hikers following their experience, or giving them a copy to mail back later, Smith and Brown loaded their survey questions into an iPhone as a mobile app so that data is immediately recorded while respondents are immersed in the place.

The survey includes basic demographic information such as age, gender, ethnicity and income. Respondents provide the length of their hike, past hiking experiences and feelings about the current trip. They are asked to offer words or phrases to describe the landscape immediately around them, and the overall landscape of the trail. They are asked to express their degree of agreement or disagreement with 20 phrases such as "The PCT is very special to me," "Visiting the PCT says a lot about who I am," "I get more satisfaction out of visiting the PCT than any other place," and "I have a special connection to people who recreate here."

The Davidson team hopes to gather 300 responses. Smith also is keeping a journal with the intention of examining the evolution of her own attachment to the trail. "As I hike alongside the people I study, traveling as they travel, having many of the same experiences, I will not be merely an outsider observing an unfamiliar place; rather I will become embedded in the place I study, becoming a participant observer," Smith wrote.

Groceries In The Mail

Their route is mostly through wilderness areas beyond the reach of cell phone coverage and far from grocery stores. To keep themselves supplied on the trail, they pre-mailed boxes of supplies for 10 to 12 days to selected outposts along the route that help out hikers by holding such boxes for their arrival.

Because they are out of cell phone range for much of the trip, Rose can only keep up with their progress every few days, when a "Spot" GPS device they carry sends family and friends its location and a standard text message. As long as the message doesn't change from the standard "We're alright" to "Help!" Rose knows all is well.

The Spot also allows Noelle to pinpoint the location of each survey, so that she can correlate that information along with factors such as major geographic features, weather, number of days on the trail and proximity to civilization. "If you're just a mile from a town and a hamburger, you may feel more or less connected than if you're way out in wilderness eating freeze-dried eggs!" Rose offered.

Rose connected with the hikers for three days and about 40 miles near Fresno in central California. He reported that they were in great shape and making good time, covering 15-25 miles per day at elevations of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. "They had some blisters, mosquito bites and sunburn, but were in good spirits," he said. "It's stunning landscape, and along with the spectacular physical setting, it's a great social setting for connecting with other hikers."

Smith will leave the hike in early August to prepare for departure for a semester in Argentina. Brown will hike for an additional two to three weeks in hopes of making it to the California-Oregon border.

The Davidson trio anticipate the research results will be worthy of an academic journal such as Society & Natural Resources or Environment and Behavior.