Recent awareness of the lack of diversity in the outdoors suggests to many that it is a new issue, or that it was never a problem in the past. Many white Americans have been enjoying the outdoors since the trails we know today were established—even before that.
For those who have been blissfully unaware, the new attention to this issue may seem as if the media created it. Those people often say that “nature isn’t racist,” “the trail is open to all,” and the people there are the “friendliest” group they’ve ever known. But sentiments and statements such as those are evidence of the fact that lack of diversity is an issue, and one that did not just appear.
With the election of President John F. Kennedy, the 1960s was slated to be the “golden age” of America. But more precisely, this golden age was for white Americans. By the end of the decade, the U.S. was a country in turmoil and at war with itself.
The 1960s are most noticeably hallmarked by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Women’s Rights Movement. On April 4,1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Black civil rights leader, was assassinated. Five months and 28 days after King’s murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act establishing national recreation, scenic and historic trails. I’m not implying a cause-and-effect relationship, merely stating fact.
Truthfully, it’s no surprise to me that white Americans eagerly sought enjoyment and respite in the outdoors. Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the National Park Service’s position on segregation was that it would respect local laws. One of the most striking examples of that is Shenandoah National Park.
Shenandoah National Park established Lewis Mountain as a segregated area for African American visitors in the 1930s. (National Park Service photo.)
Even though the 1968 National Trails System Act passed four years after the Civil Rights Act, the outdoors didn’t suddenly become friendly to Blacks. In fact, many Black folks didn’t have the means to engage meaningfully with the outdoors. Whether or not the NTSA was created for this purpose, in essence, it was a way to placate desegregation.
So, while Black folks fought for equality, white folks were making strides to isolate themselves from Blacks. I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like if I had the privilege to escape the daily injustices of being Black.
Most National Scenic and Historic Trails are upheld, maintained and restored by volunteers. These are individuals who see the benefits of the natural world and hope to maintain it for future generations. Today marks the 53rd anniversary of President Johnson’s signing of the NTSA. However, most Americans still aren’t aware of the existence of the National Trails System, and statistically, those who are knowledgeable are mostly white.
The systems of oppression and disadvantages that excluded BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) from the outdoors is detrimental to the future of our trails and our planet. As humans, our experience with the land reflects how we treat it, a meaningful connection with Nature instills a desire to protect it and maintain her.
I think about the future of the trails and of our Earth. I know for a fact I want us to have both—and I want them to thrive. For that to occur, people must work to maintain our trails and protect Nature. This starts with relationships to the Earth and with one another.
Today I invite everyone to start a new relationship with a trail and a human. Walk a trail, attend a trail clean up, and get to know your neighbor in the process.
Crystal Gail Welcome on the PCT in the Sierra Nevada this summer. Photo by Crystal Gail Welcome.
Fires are ablaze throughout California, wreaking havoc on homes, businesses and wild landscapes. Folks from all walks of life are working endlessly to extinguish the devastating effects of the wildfires amidst a drought and scourging heatwave. I can’t help but empathize with Nature and see how much she is suffering. The majority of trail users are people who can insulate themselves from the everyday reality of environmental injustices—such as these wildfires—and can afford to focus solely on preserving the purity and sanctuary of Nature. I think of you who call California home, like my family out in Oakland, and it saddens me that you can’t just leave and go back to your homes; you’re already home.
I wrestled with these notions crossing Highway 108 at Sonora Pass into the High Sierra. Sauntering southward, I bore witness to the destruction of an earth thirsty for rain, some trees scorched to bare trunks others hollow pits where trees once stood. The lingering decay of soot in the air filled me with grief and an awareness that this destruction is a direct result of humans.
As of this writing, the U.S. Forest Service has closed every forest in California and asked that trail users exit all forest lands immediately. This order is an effort to utilize California resources efficiently and ensure the safety of those of us lucky enough to be here. Forest Service staff have an incredibly important job, and I appreciate the work they do. In my work to make Nature more accessible for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and the various intersections of my identities, when it’s all said and done, I want us to have a planet to live on. It got me thinking about my impact and use, and listening to Nature.
Upon exiting the Inyo National Forest, I talked with fellow hikers about the purpose for my hike and what the closures would mean. They expressed concern that I wouldn’t officially complete the Great Western Loop. They explained that in skipping the closed section it wouldn’t be an official thru-hike. I smiled and said “that’s fine by me.” I have come to understand, and I hope that others will too, that this notion of a thru-hiker is unattainable for most. Aside from the costs of gear, food and in-town lodging, there’s the cost of taking time off work. Then, when you add costs associated with bypassing closures, it’s even harder. For a lot of aspiring BIPOC thru-hikers, the additional uncertainties are additional barriers to accessing the outdoors.
During my final week on the PCT where it meets the John Muir Trail, I’ve met white hikers who struggle through injuries in their attempts to complete the trail. One fell over a cliff and another had a broken foot. This willingness to complete at all costs, when most people (primarily those who look like me) will never set foot on this or any trail is not only dangerous but a travesty. This lack of concern for themselves puts Nature at risk as well as the forest and park service employees who may be called to rescue them.
In the spirit of making the outdoors more inclusive and accessible, changing the “you’re not a ‘real’ backpacker unless you are thru-hiking” stigma is a good place to start. We need to eradicate the mindset that once on trail you have to keep pushing through even when it’s dangerous to yourself, others, Nature, or when the Forest Service mandates that you leave.
I am taking cues from Nature as I go along, and seeking a deep understanding of my mission to make the outdoors more inclusive for all—for generations. Maybe she is telling us to give her time to recover and grow. Out of respect for Nature and a desire to give her the time devoid of people that she needs to heal, I am now transitioning eastward toward the Arizona Trail to continue my Footprints for Change Hike of the Great Western Loop.
Nature has gifted me so much during our time together: astonishing sunrises, breathtaking peaks, and magnificent sunsets. Nature has removed all elements of self-doubt, shame, and most of the chaos life brings. I love this about Nature, for this is something she alone can provide.
During my weeks on the PCT, I have encountered folks from all over the world. Travelers from Europe, China, India, Arkansas, and even my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Whether they are day hikers, Forest Service employees, thru-hikers, trail crew members, towns folks, merchants or individuals who chose to give me a ride to or from town, these people make up my trail experience.
None of my encounters were overtly egregious. Whenever I talk about my reasoning for being on the PCT and my greater aspirations for bringing visibility to the larger trail systems, I’m met by a slew of questions. The number one question I’m asked on the surface is harmless, though packed with privilege: “How can you afford to do this?” This question is only asked by people that don’t look like me. In fact, of all the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) I’ve met throughout this journey the topic has never come up. When I’ve encountered BIPOC, they’ve asked, “How can I support you?” or “Can I send you something?” or “Sista, can I pray for you?”
The second most common question from people who don’t look like me is “Why do you think Black people aren’t on the trails?” But when asked, it is usually rhetorical. By turning the question around, the implication is that Black people could be out on the trails, but they just don’t want to be. This reframing of the question turns it into a statement, they get to speak to their awareness of the issue while at the same time indicating their desire to not hear my response or engage in meaningful dialogue. Both these questions by people who don’t look like me show the degree to which white privilege is overtly displayed on the trail and is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen this journey.
In 2016, I hiked 600 miles of the PCT, unsupported and on a very small budget. At times, it was a burden while on trail. What I learned from this experience is if someone sets up so many obstacles to prevent you from doing something, it’s worth doing. This time around, I funded my hike through service-oriented jobs and I am unashamed to state I am currently accepting donations. I worked as a literacy specialist service corps member in rural Minnesota during the era of George Floyd’s murder and nationwide protests over systemic racism. This job may be atypical for those my age, but not those whose social or economic backgrounds match my own.
As an educated Black woman, I faced a great deal of adversity and emotional anguish for my attempts to teach young folks to read. My issues went unaddressed by white supervisors and couldn’t be adequately addressed by my therapist, also white. My safe haven has been nature and I retreated to her every opportunity I got. There is an unmatched amount of beauty and joy that comes from a meaningful connection with young people. I wholeheartedly believe a caring adult can positively impact the life of a child. This is one of my goals.
My time as a literacy specialist ended in May 2021, after which I upheld a previous commitment to serve as a co-leader for a BIPOC Youth Conservation Corps crew in the Superior National Forest. The crew included eight refugees, seven from Thailand, one from Burma (incorrectly referred to as Myanmar refugees but were too respectful to correct others. I knew better, because I simply asked.) For three weeks we all worked to create and restore recreational opportunities for spaces we don’t visit, for parks we don’t have access to, for communities we don’t live in, and for lands we have no connection with. For three weeks we sweated, cried and even bled on land for the enjoyment of white folks. The white folks involved in the project praised our efforts for the most part. But during our three weeks on the trail, twice we were met with individuals who felt we didn’t belong. We weren’t viewed as stewards of the land, rather creatures who were foreign and shouldn’t be there.
I think of this notion of belonging as I saunter throughout the High Sierra. My crew members in Superior shouldn’t have to justify their right to belong in a space by working there. To go further, migrant farm workers’ experience of the High Sierra shouldn’t just be to labor in the fields. Throughout history, exploration and who belongs in the outdoors has come down to privilege. What right do you have to be here? What’s the price? What’s your currency? I believe that in changing the narrative of the outdoors, it starts with changing our narratives and how we engage with folks who are different.
I recently read an article about someone setting the record for the fastest known time to complete the PCT. After knowing the work that goes into maintaining a trail and knowing the “costs” associated with being in Nature, I think, what a shame to breeze by the glory that is Nature and not appreciate the craftsmanship of the crew that worked to maintain the trail. I suppose this is what many white men do, they find new ways to conquer Nature, to take her and the work that goes into maintaining her for granted. In the competition for who’s the greatest, fastest or whatever, the only thing I’m rooting for is Nature and her power to connect and unite people.
Connection is about being human. Humanity isn’t about how you can afford to belong. Let’s embrace the fact that we are both here. Let’s figure out how to get others here, too. I want humanity to flourish together. Here in the High Sierra, with every person that I meet, every interaction I have with humans.
In the spirit of connection, community and the opposite of conquering, I want this post to be an open invitation. I don’t want this to be a Black woman’s solo journey. That’s not community, that’s not connection. I want us to engage section by section, come through when you can, a mile here, piece by piece, let’s work together to change the narrative.
I’m not here to conquer. I’m not here to be the first, because this isn’t a competition, this is about change. Meaningful change. How can I afford to do this trip? With the support of a community of folks who want to share the healing power of Nature.
On-line community, trail community, BIPOC community, LGBT+ community, differently-abled community, let’s connect. If you can’t make it out on the PCT, connect where you can. Let’s work to connect, not conquer. The only currency is community and love, the objective is to heal humanity and restore Nature.
Taking up space means that you have the power of choice. You get to choose who to love, what to eat, what to buy, how you behave, how to spend your time, how to think and where to hike. On the surface, all these things are obvious. They are a given. However, as a Black woman, I was overburdened from birth with instructions about the appropriate way to exist.
I grew up in Florida, raised by a single father of four. I wasn’t introduced to the outdoors beyond the confines of our neighborhood playground—better described as a small graveyard devoid of playground equipment, let alone space for exploration. I had no nature-based experiences. My classmates shared stories of camping trips, visits to national parks and other journeys in the outdoors. Those classmates were white. I hadn’t heard stories of Black outdoorsmen and my family couldn’t afford those excursions. The underlying message was it wasn’t for Black people. It wasn’t for me.
In the winter of 2008, I attended an outdoor retreat for women survivors of sexual assault—an expedition I shared with six others, plus two field guides. The retreat provided challenging, structured activities, one of which was rock climbing. We belayed one another as we took turns scaling the rocks. It was my first time camping, the first time I’d slept in the woods, and I didn’t know that people went rock climbing for fun. I personally prefer to stay on the ground.
At the time, I weighed 375 pounds. The traditional safety equipment did not fit me. The field guide assisted me in tying knots to make a safety net of sorts. Wearing a makeshift harness, I scaled the side of the mountain. It took a lot of courage to reach the top, but once there, I fell in love. I gazed out over the jagged peaks with a sense of awe. It was clear in the mountains; waves of snow whizzed down the sides, crumpling at the base. The peaks stood tall, kissing the sky. There, in and with Nature, I found my strength. I climbed a mountain and discovered fearlessness.
Shortly after that trip, without provocation, I started to experience visual disturbances accompanied by headaches and migraines that could not be treated with over-the-counter medication. I attributed the problems to needing a new pair of glasses. I scheduled an appointment with an optometrist who transferred me to the hospital. A neuro-ophthalmologist diagnosed the brain disease pseudotumor cerebri. There is no known cause or cure. With pseudotumor cerebri, my body thinks and acts like I have a brain tumor even though I don’t. However, there is an increase in intracranial pressure, which causes swelling of the optic nerve.
In my case, a shunt was installed in an effort to improve my eyesight and reduce headaches. Months later, I learned that the shunt had malfunctioned, and I needed another surgery. I would have several more shunt surgeries over the span of a decade. Having this disease was a traumatic experience; the repercussions will likely last my lifetime. I spent a lot of years sedentary as my attempts to be physically active caused excruciating pain. Doctors told me that I was going to have to live with severe pain and be on medication for the rest of my life. More people telling me how I should exist.
Over time, realizing that I would be in pain regardless of what I did, I chose to be active. I spent time outdoors, participating in activities that involved exploration and inner strength, which, it turns out, I yearned for. One afternoon while walking with a friend in a nature preserve tucked away in a hidden crevice of Atlanta, we followed the trail down to a quiet stream. As I looked downstream, I noticed plants growing at the base of a large oak. Moving closer, I could see that the tree roots were working hard to hold the rocks and dirt in place. I knelt and hugged the tree. Intuitively I understood that in many ways, I was like a tree. My feet, like roots, firmly planted on the ground. My arms like branches and my fingers, leaves. Embracing that oak, I knew that Nature made up all of me.
That was the day I decided I belonged in the outdoors. At that moment, I was sure of two things: from a geological perspective, the bulk of trees and mountains in the U.S. are in the West; and in pioneer days, people migrated to the West for opportunities. Eventually, I would head there as well to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. I did this in order to challenge myself, reclaim the body that had betrayed me, and reconnect with the universe.
In silence and security, I have grown to love the way trees celebrate changing seasons. Standing as symbols of life’s evolving Nature, they bend and change shape and color as the seasons progress, yet they stand steadfastly safe and secure. They express Nature’s eternal life. Flora and fauna were plentiful along the PCT. The characteristics of each are as unique and pristinely bound to the geology as the mountains themselves. On the 7,124-foot summit of Pacifico Mountain, I stood in awe, peering out over the Mojave Desert on the north-facing slope of the San Gabriel range. Reflecting on my reasoning for my PCT trek, I thought of how I could gain a deeper, fuller understanding of who I was by reconnecting to Nature.
The desert’s various hues were a reflection of my shades, replicas of my skin. In Nature, I am a much healthier and more creative person. I believe that when we are out in Nature, our perspectives shift. We see shades and hues and rainbows and realize that the parts of ourselves that we judge—ever so harshly—may be understandable, even acceptable. Yes, the concept of Nature should be accessible for all, and while the notion that everyone can go to a trail is admirable, it’s far from reality for a lot of people. More precisely, the various intersections of my identity–Black, female, lesbian and a person with a disability, were barriers to the outdoors, or so I was told.
As a Black person who grew up in predominantly white classrooms, I was taught a version of history that negated my ancestors’ existence before slavery. I learned about the splintered achievements of the environmentalist John Muir, who held deeply racist beliefs—the ideologies that formed the basis of the exclusionary outdoors, Nature.
One uncontested theme of 2020 is “I Can’t Breathe,” whose intro, verse, chorus and bridge quickly became the lyrical mantra chanted not only in the U.S. but all over the world. After the death of George Floyd, a Black man slain by Minneapolis police officers, unrest convulsively fanned the U.S. This killing reflected long-standing disparities and inequalities faced by Blacks. Sadly, these deaths continue to send a message that Black Lives don’t matter.
So many Blacks have come to believe that we are the problem and that there is something wrong with us. The indisposition of Blackness can be stifling. To find wellness and restoration, we need to be soothed and nurtured. We can find that solace in Nature. I’m a firm believer that Nature doesn’t discriminate. In fact, I believe she is the ultimate healer. As a lover of Nature and an advocate for both environmental and social justice, on July 4, 2020, I began a 310-mile thru-hike along the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. My goal was to take up space—to assert my right to be in that space.
The moment I stepped foot on the blue blaze that marks the trail, my mind began to explore the depths of the various hues of blues that I’ve encountered throughout my travels in Nature—peacocks, hydrangeas, moor frogs, sometimes the sky and sometimes the ocean. As quickly as I ruminated on the beauty of the color blue, my thoughts were disrupted by the images of the “boys in blue.” Police officers are sworn to protect and serve. Just as the thought entered, I tripped over my feet. Quickly catching my balance, a blue jay flew overhead. Each time my mind wandered off to the negativity surrounding the killing of George Floyd or the countless incidents of violence inflicted upon Black bodies, a blue jay or its feather would find me.
Blue jays were very abundant and there were many connections between the bird that would become my guardian, my situation and the events that lead to my hike. The bird, a symbol of protection and fearlessness, became an iconic reminder that I was safe.
Near daily, I woke to a tent soaked with condensation. The inability to keep my socks dry made for lyrical rants using words I won’t go on record saying here. After a few nights on the trail, I awakened to the sound of my tent flapping in the wind. I listened as rain rhythmically drummed on my tent. From the comforting warmth of my sleeping bag, I came to realize that I had to accept what I was going through. Not just the wetness of the trail, but all things, and trust that Nature would only give me what I needed when I needed it and what I could handle.
In the morning, I ate breakfast seated next to my saturated tent. Overhead a blue jay circled and sang. The sun came out and stayed for a while. I completed the 310-mile hike in 24 days. It rained at some point on 21 of those days. Each day I discovered something new, both on trail and about myself. I witnessed the transformation of trees and colors as I traveled northward over the month.
Despite the grief and trauma—all the negative that has taken place and continues to take place—I’ve come to understand that what we need is peace. Nature continuously nurtures the spirit. She inspires and is a constant reminder that good things come when they come from a place of peace. But no matter how healing a brook, mountain ridge, or estuary may be, those spaces are for the privileged. As I’ve stated, they are not accessible to everyone.
Historically, Nature hasn’t been a safe place for BIPOC (Black indigenous people of color). BIPOC need to see themselves represented in Nature and understand that they have an inherent right to that connection. When we recognize ourselves as allies and co-creators with the earth and the natural world, our relationship to the environment can change, and healing can begin. We can take up space.
This will require a complete paradigm shift for backpackers and nature conservationists, as well as anyone who works with the general public in relation to the outdoors. Everyone deserves to have their own outdoor experiences. I ask you to consider how we, as a community of people passionate about the outdoors, can make this happen.
Reflecting on the ways Nature has allowed me to reconnect, create and grow, I have come to understand that to fully thrive, we need to take care of our roots and our ties to one another.
This summer, I plan to hike the John Muir Trail section of the PCT—the name, views, and beliefs synonymous with a racist. But despite his namesake amongst the various flora and fauna and High Sierra peaks, I will find the love that connects and accepts and will allow humanity to live and thrive. I hope that in hiking the JMT, I will encourage other BIPOC, young and old, and people like myself with intersecting identities to explore, reclaim, reconnect, restore and take up space in the vastness of Nature, in the middle of nowhere.
Nature, the great teacher, often reminds me, “Shhh….be quiet and listen.”
I am amazed by how much I’ve learned in my short tenure with Nature. I didn’t grow up with an appreciation for Nature. It evolved and expanded over time. As I gear up for my trek along the John Muir section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and continue to section hike the Great Western Loop, like many hikers I find myself devouring books, articles and videos about other hikers. I have learned a lot from the hiking community, such as the importance of Leave No Trace and navigation skills. Yet, there is limited information on how to mitigate being a Black female, lesbian, hiker with a disability. I need to know that I’m not planning my resupply in a town where I will encounter overtly racist or homophobic people, and I need up-to-date information about recharging my medical implant. If you think this is not an appropriate topic for outdoor recreation, you have two clear options: stop reading or remember the lesson I’ve learned from Nature: “be quiet and listen.”
To those of you who decided to be quiet and listen: starting my hike on the PCT has meant spending energy understanding the culture that exists along the trail. The PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) recently posted a blog supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization and on the trail. I’ve been a bit disheartened to read various social media comments to the post denouncing or dismissing the experiences of others. Many of those folks spoke words of hate and ignorance while proclaiming that the outdoors is “free,” “open” and “inclusive.” Don’t get me wrong, Nature is the most inclusive place I’ve ever been, but she is not devoid of people or their ideologies and mindsets. The same folks who spew hate, racist, homophobic rhetoric and enable others to do so don’t trade their beliefs for a pair of trekking poles. The trailhead isn’t a magical portal that frees one of their biases, nor is it a mystical road devoid of personal experiences. Wherever we go, we take ourselves and our baggage with us.
I would like to address the folks who want to say that politics has no place on the trail, the PCTA has no business posting articles like this, and “I don’t see racism, so it doesn’t happen.” Throughout history, parks and trails across the country have been conceptualized, created and managed by predominantly white men who held racist beliefs. People of color and marginalized folks were rarely considered major stakeholders in outdoor recreation. Historically, people of color have experienced segregation from a multitude of park agencies. First, you don’t have to experience or observe racism or discrimination directly; instead, you can trust those affected when they tell you it’s a problem. Second, it is impossible to remove these social dynamics from the trail. As many people commented, “trees aren’t racist,” but the parks and trails that people built are based on racist ideologies and practices. Meaning they are, at their core, institutional. I am a Black woman, a lesbian, and I have a disability. I am not “politics!” I find it absurd to hear that racism doesn’t exist in the backcountry, on trails or at our national parks because the trail is a legacy of racism. One might argue that these things happened a long time ago, and things are better now, and the outdoors is inclusive. Sure. However, that doesn’t reflect my experiences which have been echoed in various comments on aforementioned posts.
My formative years were spent as one of only a handful of Black students at predominantly white schools. I was taught history that excluded my ancestors before slavery and reduced them to a 28-day curriculum in February. I was never taught about York, a Black man who led the Lewis and Clark expeditions, or Matthew Hensen, who was both the first person and the first Black man to ever to reach the North Pole. During show and tell, my classmates would bring in photos and memorabilia from camping trips and visits to National Parks. I’ve known about camping and hiking, but none of the people I ever saw in pictures, textbooks or magazines looked like me. They were white, able-bodied and mostly males. I’d rarely see any women in the outdoors and never anyone of color. I associated Nature with whiteness. I didn’t have a teacher or anyone else to teach me otherwise. I have since learned that It’s not Nature who is discriminatory.
On record, my kin originate from the Deep South, the backwoods of Louisiana. My ancestors were enslaved and forced to work in cotton fields — later, in those same fields, my Great Aunts and Uncles would go to play before landowners would forcibly remove them. Little consideration was given to the fact that it was the one place they knew intrinsically. As a result, my kin never encouraged us to connect with Nature, at least not for recreation. I learned, however, the importance of being outside for celebrations. Birthday celebrations, cookouts and barbecues are ways that my relatives readily embrace the outdoors together. We understand the freedom that being outdoors affords.
One of my favorite celebrations is Juneteenth, June 19. Today in 1865, enslaved Black Americans were emancipated. I find it fitting that the way the newly freed Blacks rejoiced was by going outside. Inherently, people know that to find peace, we need the outdoors. But, in order to find that peace in the outdoors we need to have respect.
“Shhh….be quiet and listen” and believe other peoples’ experiences.
I was raised in white neighborhoods. I went to white schools, and later worked for white bosses. I never saw BIPOC exploring outdoor spaces – everything I saw indicated it was a pastime reserved for whites.
My dad and three siblings have been the only consistent Black presence in my life. But we’ve never discussed the outdoors, race, identity, and privilege in terms of our lived experience. As a result, I’ve only recently developed a vocabulary to share what it’s like to be a Black explorer in the out of doors.
I have gone on record as stating that “nature does not discriminate,” but it is important to keep in mind that people do. The fact remains that our outdoor recreational system was established by the same underlying system of oppression that still governs our society. Which is to say, the outdoor recreation industry is discriminatory. In fact, it’s disingenuous and destructive to pretend inequalities in the outdoors do not exist.
Growing up underprivileged, I’ve always understood the difference between a want and a need. In 2016, I decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I needed gear, but I had no knowledge of the outdoors and no one of color to ask, I knew if I wanted to hike I would have to figure it out myself because of that unspoken notion that outdoor spaces were only for whites. The culture of whiteness that existed on the internet indicated to me that hiking was outside of my means.
HIking seemed to be for folks who had the privilege to choose homelessness – temporary, the duration of a thru-hike, or whatever have you. For people who had an occupation where they could take months off from work simply to hike, spend hundreds, even thousands on backpacking gear. I didn’t fit the mold. During my first, second, third, and subsequent trips to gear shops, reality hit me hard… It’s expensive being poor. And while one doesn’t need top of the line gear to enjoy the outdoors, cheaply made items can be more expensive in the long run, due to needing to be replaced. Cheaply made items can also at best, be extremely aggravating and, at worst, life-threatening.
I signed up for gear giveaways, saved alumni cans, started a card writing service, and asked for sponsorships. I even had a Gofundme charity drive. If I were eligible to donate plasma, I would have done it: because if someone sets up so many obstacles to prevent you from doing something that others can do easily, it’s worth doing.
I did a ton of research and began gear shopping. I bought the hiking essentials for under $400. I felt good about my purchases. As it turned out, a lot of things failed within the first week, but many things didn’t. I gained a real understanding of what items I should have invested more money in and what items a generic version would work just as fine.
On the trail, hikers bragged about their gear – the high prices they paid. I was in awe – what some spent on a backpack I spent on rent, which I was still paying while on the trail. Others would look to me with suspicion as if I were plotting to steal their gear. Aside from the fact that Black people are less likely to steal because we are the first to get accused. I wish more people would think logically, especially about the intentions of thru-hikers of color. One would have to tote additional items, which would increase their pack weight. Plus, that suspicion goes to show the extent to which even in the outdoors – even with a common love of nature and a common goal of thru-hiking – BIPOC are still the usual suspects.
Hiking 600 miles on the PCT, and later on multiple trails throughout the U.S., made me realize the unifying language on the trail was gear. As long as I had gear equal to, not necessarily greater than that of white people, they felt safe around me. By greater than, I mean gear that wouldn’t raise questions like, how can you afford that, did you steal it? But I haven’t learned completely how to be safe around them, not in the outdoors. However, I found that as long as I’m “branded,” there’s a layer of protection.
No, the name-brand gear doesn’t make a hiker. It doesn’t mean I’d enjoy the trail any more with or without the logo. It’s a symbol, a token it means that I paid a price, and therefore I am privy to take part in and be present in a space. I’m by no means wealthy, but I now think about the cost of things, not just financially but on all levels. I know that a logo can be a de-escalation tool, a convo starter, or a friendly nod. So yeah, brands matter. Especially in the outdoors.
Rue Mckenrick is unlike any distance backpacker I’ve ever met. As The creator of the American Perimeter Trail (APT), he’s been forging his way around the perimeter of the U.S. hoping to connect the land, resources, people, and communities. For more information, you can read about the project here.
Rue’s APT journey brought him along the North Country Trail, which is located a few miles from my new home in Longville, Minnesota. Arrangements had been made for Rue to stay with me and my partner, Demi. On my way home from work Friday afternoon, I recall thinking, “I’m finally going to be a trail angel!”
Demi had plans to pick him up later that evening, but as most hikers know, it’s hard to keep a schedule. I found Rue trying to hitch a ride into town and picked him up. I’m not sure what he thought – a Black woman picking him up in the middle of nowhere. Undoubtedly he’d been passed by many whites and had likely not seen a Black person in several days.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Rue. His energetic spirit, kindhearted nature, and his passion for the APT project were apparent. He shared various highlights of his journey, and we played “Roll It’ (I won, beating him, and Demi!). We discussed gear. Demi and I tried desperately to convince him that Darn Tough socks were the best. He disagreed. I conceded this dude has been hiking 14 months non-stop, he knows his socks!
Of course, in sharing trail stories, I shared my most recent trek on the Superior Hiking Trail. For a 310-mile journey, as a Black person, I had to forewarn locals about my presence on the trail. I can’t take for granted that I’d been seen as a hiker, an explorer, and a lover of nature. I talked to Rue about his privilege during his journey.
Early explorers exploited people of color, destroyed the land, came in and brought diseases, and killed generations of Indigenous people. Obviously, Rue was not passing out smallpox blankets or killing Indigenous people, but the institutionalized racism in our country could have still pushed him in the direction of the exploitation of people of color. However, Rue’s mission is solid.
The journeys of white men carving out space in the landscape of this continent are part of the foundation of the U.S. Regardless of his intentions, as a white man, he is part of that cultural landscape. In the backpacking community (like society in general), privilege is being able to hike without thinking, “I should avoid this resupply stop or bypass this section of the trail because I don’t want to deal with racists or the police.” He, and other white hikers, do not have to ask themselves, “Will I be safe hiking through a klan town”?
As a Black person in the outdoors, you don’t get to go out and explore “unannounced” or “uninvited” without making an effort for people to know “who you are” and “why you are there”…, and that has to change.
In reading this, some people might misinterpret this and read that I’m saying Rue’s a bad person or that he shouldn’t be creating this trail. I’m NOT!Rue’s a solid guy with an infectious laugh and deep gratitude for the opportunity he’s been given. His actions are noble.
In this reflection, I’m hoping that folks will consider and perhaps acknowledge the struggles that BIPOC face in the outdoors. My hope upon completion of his project would be that Rue would reach out to communities of color and find out how he can connect with trail communities to make our trails more accessible and safe for all people.