by Shelby Smith
Many don’t realize that they can dive into nature, right from their urban dwelling in North Philadelphia.
There’s a harmony about Philadelphia in terms of the manmade and organic cohabiting. You can start a jog next to a skyscraper, and end in the woods in less than a mile. I’ve always preferred outdoor exercise to working out in a gym, but my move to Philly has piqued my interest for urban/park exploration. Runners and bikers line Kelly Drive all day, but there is so much more space in Fairmount Park and beyond that is untapped. Philly’s best kept secret might just be its vast network of trails, so here is a guide to information on hikes that are off the beaten path.
No stranger to Philly, Brian Schwarz moved to Brewerytown with express intent on getting the neighborhood involved in his hikes. Certified by the Delaware Valley chapter of the Appalachian Trail Club, Brian- under organization name Hiking Megalopolis, knows the best spots to sneak in a hike just a stone’s throw from the city’s central hubs. The advent of his hiking initiative is his personal health journey, a journey he is adamant about sharing with those around him.
Weighing in at 420lbs in 2008, Brian made a career and lifestyle change by moving from North Philly to Miami so he could spend time outdoors getting active year round. Meal consciousness and a new interest in walking and swimming afforded him a 165lb weight loss that he maintained when he subsequently moved to Boston. As a man with a history of making excuses not to work out- to avoid the intimidation of the gym, and to evade potentially awkward or uncomfortable situations- Brian frequented the two mile loop circling Walden Pond in the 80 Acre Woods. Nervous to push his limits and feel vulnerable out there in the elements, one day Brian climbed Cat Rock and despite his hesitation, proved to himself that he could hike, and that he was capable. From that point on, he rode the high of that first great climb as motivation to pursue bigger and tougher ranges.
No longer at risk of critical medical conditions due to obesity, Brian made a move to Albuquerque, where a childhood dream of his came true. Having associated Sandia Mountain with his grandfather his whole life, Brian hiked all seven miles and 4000 feet of elevation to the top of “Grandfather Mountain”, as he affectionately called it, to show respect for the recent passing of his grandparents. This particular hike carried a sentimental value that brought a spirit of family and community into his inspiration for getting in shape, and ultimately giving others the confidence to have a similar experience.
Returning to Philadelphia in 2013, Brian found what the city lacked in mountainous terrain, it more than made up for in watershed parks and gorges, such as the Wissahickon. Philadelphia proper also offered a historical value that was unparalleled elsewhere. The nationally registered properties of Strawberry Mansion, Sedgley Woods, and East Fairmount have a deeply specific American tradition to share, but they sit out there on the famous Boxer’s Trail largely unacknowledged. Sharing this history with people who have lived here their whole life is important because many people focus on developing their family history alone and miss the nuance of the landmarks around them since they’ve grown familiar with their environment, and if there was any sense of novelty about the attractions nearby, it’s worn off.
I went on one of Brian’s hikes on a Saturday morning where I met Melony Burnom, a Brewerytown resident of five years. We started at the Sedgley Woods disc golf lot, and walked the Boxer’s trail all the way up through the Strawberry Mansion steps and back to the lot by way of 33rd. Along the way, Brian shared insight about the Smith Playground, trail erosion, and hike etiquette. This was Melony’s third hike, having originally found out about his free hikes through Nextdoor- a local resource connection app. On the first two hikes, she brought her mother and sister-in-law, and all three of them loved their experience. Melony commented on how Brian is very knowledgeable and takes hiking very seriously, but that he also offers a sense of inclusion and encouragement for those of all fitness levels. Melony said, “It’s a very good form of exercise that isn’t typical and mixes things up with learning history. Brian brings a learning aspect about a territory that no one in this generation in this neighborhood has explored—the real Fairmount Park.” She said that it’s a shame people don’t seem to know about the intricacies in their own backyard. She went on to say that she would recommend the hikes to anyone and that friends and family are responding very positively to pictures and posts about her adventures.
The biggest platforms of Hiking Megalopolis are accessibility, acceptance, and education. “The mission is to learn, educate, lead, and rise up new leaders from within communities,” shares Brian. The accessibility piece comes into play because Brian feels strongly about residents getting to hikes by public transportation. These hikes should be available to all who are willing, not just those who have access to a car. These hikes are also free. Acceptance is at the very crux of Brian’s initiative because he doesn’t want anyone to be afraid of fitness the way he was for so many years. He spent formative years feeling ostracized and discouraged from trying to become athletic, and he doesn’t want anyone to feel like they can’t work toward a healthy lifestyle. Even down to the gear, there is a clear-cut push to welcome all who sign up for hikes as long as they are dressed appropriately and with safety in mind. In almost every case, plain sneakers are just fine and there is no need to turn someone away who doesn’t have boots or specialty hiking shoes. To stay hydrated, you should always have water, but a bottle is just fine. There is no need to run out and buy a Camelbak hydration unit. Acceptance also applies to age. While certain hikes pose a particular liability to children because of conditions or elevations, all are welcome. People of all ages and walks of life are invited to get outdoors and explore. Education is what propels the future of hiking in Brewerytown and beyond. Brian, a self-proclaimed nomad, moves often but not before teaching his students to become leaders. He stresses the importance of adults teaching their children the value of exercise and obesity prevention. The hope is that the people who call Brewerytown home will get entrenched in the most natural aspect of their local culture.
Signing up for a hike is simple. The Hiking Megalopolis Facebook page is active and consistently updated with the week’s hikes and activities. That is the simplest way to find out what’s coming up. Google searching Hiking Megalopolis will also bring up info about past hikes and what can be expected for future hikes. Information is also shared via Nextdoor, which is essentially a facebook for the neighborhood. You can download the free Nextdoor app on your smart phone, like Melony did, to see the most recent news as well. Reach out on Instagram @fitlifechronicles to see pictures and connect with Brian more personally.
Though he has a penchant for changing his scenery more often than not, Brian Schwarz has made it clear that he will be calling Brewerytown home for a good while, and who could blame him? There are 100 reasons not to get up and get out into the woods, but once you discover the reasons why you should, it transforms your city and makes all the difference.