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.