At times, I write for a mainstream hiker blog. Which sometimes means having words poked and pecked, sometimes rejected or devoid of historical context. The post below has sat in review with no response. During which time, Rue had a run-in with law enforcement officials; however, his encounter doesn’t undermine this post. While an unfortunate experience, Rue is alive and able to continue his journey as a freeman. I wish him the best and hope that he can complete his project without any complications.

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.

Photo credit

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!

Photo credit

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.

Link to published article

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter (Gollie, look at that water)

The deep streams of the  Calcasieu Rivah are restrained by bayous with their enormous Cyprus trees, moss, shell reefs, and its lakes which envelope by impassable marshes. I was born in Calcasieu Parish nestled upon the banks of The Calcasieu Rivah. Which gathers its strengths from the powerful Mississippi RIvah. 

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter  

My mom’s amniotic sac burst, rippled in waves just like the Calcasieu Rivah, and she gave birth to me. Long before that, the mighty Mississippi gave birth to the Atchafalaya Rivah. When I was a kid, we’d drive across it four times a year: twice in December, once in June, and again in August to and from visiting with kin. It’s approximately 18.2 miles. Driving across the swampy basins of the Uh-cha-fuh-lie-uh Rivah, looking out the rear passenger window I’d see gators, fishermen, and miles of mucky trees. One night while driving, I remember thinking “I hope we don’t run out of gas… it’s a long walk through all that worter  and trees”. 

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter  

I often speak of time and its ability to alter 12 months, 365 days, 52 weeks, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes “how do you measure a year? (Rent)” I could write a book about all of the beautiful things that have happened in 2020, yet many of those pages would be stained with tears. Droplets frothing over the words, “I can’t breathe” – turning into a hymn that  quickly became amerikkka’s new national anthem. 

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter  

In 2020, the Calcasieu Rivah alongside the major waterways in Louisiana surged.  In unity and perhaps in allegiance bodies replenished with worter swelled in power. Living near worter is wonderful, except of course, when there’s a flood. Man made systems were erected to prevent the worters from rising and the rivers from flooding quickly began to falter. Within me, a natural levee created by the earth fights to escape. Good lawd, looka here if a levee breaks, the consequences can be disastrous.

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter  

On my date of birth, I find myself on the bank of the powerful Mississippi, in Minnesota. The rivah begins as a brook, with a row of larger slippery stones to walk across. Crossing the Mississippi, on that cold day in November. I vow to be more like worter- satisfied. strong as a glacier. soft as a raindrop. mutable through and through. Yet, powerful as the Mississippi that births both the Atchafalaya and the Calcasieu Rivahs, giving life to the surface of worter.

Gaw-lee, lookatat worter

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. 

link to original article

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. 

 

There’s a large and, for the most part, an overlooked opportunity for outdoor gear companies to help low-income individuals, in particular BIPOC, safely explore the outdoors. I’ve allied with Big Agnes, Cnoc Outdoors, Darn Tough, Guthooks Guide, Gossamer Gear, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Sawyer Products and SlingFin that are actively working to make the outdoors accessible for everyone. And Yes, some of these brands might still be out of reach in terms of pricing, But my hope is over time, that will change.