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.

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