Volksmarchers walk to their own beat

Members of the Nittany Nomads walk on the Penn State campus on Sunday, March 8, 2015.
Members of the Nittany Nomads walk on the Penn State campus on Sunday, March 8, 2015. CDT photo

There are a lot of ways to see the world, but for some State College volksmarchers, the best way is to put one foot in front of the other.

That’s how Harvey and Ruth Holter, both 84, have seen Europe, all 50 states and every Canadian province, not to mention the nooks and crannies of Centre County. The Holters are longtime members of the Nittany Nomads, the local club of the American Volkssport Association.

“We’ve walked in places in the world that we never would have dreamed of walking,” Ruth said.

Volkssporting — noncompetitive walks, hikes, bike rides and swims — started in Germany in the late 1960s. In the United States, local clubs started sprouting up in the 1970s. There are now more than 200 across the country, where walking — called volksmarching or volkswalking — is the most popular and common activity.

There are a few different types of volksmarching events. Traditional events most closely resemble the European prototype, with planned walks on weekends or around special community events. Seasonal events are planned by local clubs and have a start and end date. For example, a Nittany Nomads-hosted walk in Black Moshannon State Park kicks off in May.

Then there are year-round events that can be found in cities all over the world.

“The original idea in Europe was weekend events and then the year-round events started,” Nittany Nomads club president Beverly Molnar said. “They’re pretty much self-guided tours that you can take anytime of the year.”

Here’s how it works: In every city that has an active club, there’s a location that houses a “walk box.” In State College, it’s at the Super 8 on South Atherton. In the box, a walker will find a map and detailed directions and instructions for several walking routes that are rated for difficulty and type of terrain.

You don’t have to be a volksmarcher to do a walk, but if you are, you earn credit from the AVA for participating in events.

“If you go to any city in the country and look it up at ava.org, you find out where the walks are, and it’s also a way to meet people,” said Ann Shepherd, a longtime Nittany Nomads member and past president.

Fred Welch, a founding member of the Nittany Nomads, said that the routes a local club selects are meant to show off the area.

“It’s not just a walk, it’s a good walk,” he said. “They want to impress the tourists.”

Welch should know. He and his wife, Pat, have been on volksmarches all over the world. Prolific volksmarchers keep record books of walks and can earn rewards for participation for volkssport events worldwide. The Welches have a room full of certificates, patches and pins, 81-year-old Fred said, and their record books log more than 2,200 walks since 1988.

“We were volksmarching before we had a club here,” Pat said.

Decades ago, when Pat was a teacher in Bellefonte and part of a wellness committee, she went to a conference and learned about the volksmarching movement. She and her husband were immediately interested and got friends interested, too. Nittany Nomads was chartered in 1991.

But in recent years, interest in volksmarching has been on a decline both locally and nationally. Because the concept was originally brought to the United States by veterans returning from service abroad, Molnar —  who at 53 is the youngest member of the Nittany Nomads — said the challenge has been in replacing aging members and marketing to younger generations.

“I think younger families just don’t know about it or it’s not a priority for whatever reason,” Molnar said. “But walking itself is a family activity, and I think people need to see it as something that a family can do together to keep healthy and active.”

Last year, more than 400 people participated in Nittany Nomads events or year-rounds, according to Harvey Holter, who serves as treasurer of the club. While that shows interest in the activities, Molnar said that the year-round events can’t continue without the volksmarching clubs and members to maintain them.

Of the year-round walks hosted by the Nittany Nomads, one passes the Penn State Berkey Creamery, another goes through the Penn State Arboretum and the third leads to Boalsburg and the Pennsylvania Military Museum.

For more information on the Nittany Nomads, contact Molnar at 234-0750 or bgs3@psu.edu.