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.

Originally posted

I started the Pacific Crest Trail earlier in the season to account for my slowness. To my surprise, it turns out I am fleet-footed when it comes to hiking. For the sake of slowing down my hiking pace a bit in an attempt to outsmart mother nature (impossible), I took the train from Tehachapi, CA to Oakland, CA. There I met with friends and family for a week.

During that week, I was hoping to waste enough time to begin my trek safely from Kennedy Meadows into the High Sierra. Oakland was a bit of a cultural shock. I’d never been there before my hike. Being the first densely populated city I’d encountered in weeks, it was overwhelming. I had a very good time, though.

Upon my return to the trail, I hiked slowly, to ease myself back into my groove. I felt uneasy, but I assumed that I’d grown lazy during my trail break. I pushed on. I walked a total of 5 miles the first day before setting up camp for the evening. My entire being ached that night as I lay in my tent and slept.

The next day refreshed and renewed I set off to increase my distance from the before. I made it two miles before I couldn’t stand. Nothing is scarier, in my opinion than feeling dizzy and lightheaded while hiking on the side of a windy cliff. Fearing for my safety, I stopped at the first makeshift campsite I could find.

I thought about heading back to town, thinking I just needed more time to acclimate from being at sea level, before continuing my entrance into the Sierra. For miles, all I could see were mountains, surrounded by more mountains. Though incredibly beautiful, I was becoming ill, and I knew it.

Being so close to town, I had cellular reception. I got a few pep talks from friends and family, and I slept it off that night. Admittedly, I woke up weary, no longer excited from the support rally that took place the previous day. I packed my bag and stood to return to town. That’s when I met a woman who follows my blog, and she told me I was an inspiration to her.

She said that she admired the way I took control over my health and inspire others to do the same. She reminded me of why I started hiking. With a new sense of dedication, I set off, forcing my body to move. I hiked 22 miles that day, suffering for most of those miles.

Suffering is not the intent of my journey. The altitude mixed with the various barometric pressure changes caused me extreme discomfort, dizziness, and vomiting. My Medtronic neuromodulator, though amazing, offered no relief for the symptoms.

The following morning while breaking down my tent, I leaned forward and fell head-first on a small rock. (The science of things: my leads are subdermal, any impact causes discomfort, contact sends a stinging pain throughout my head). As I lay there, physical pain mixed with negative emotions and swelled inside of me. Determined not to fail, I gathered myself and finished breaking down my site.

I thought about the hiker I’d recently met. Suddenly, I knew that pushing myself through something painful is the exact opposite of health and well-being.

Of courses being a badass, I wanted to go on record as saying I did not need my ACR Personal Locator Beacon. Furthermore, wanting to say, “I never turned back,” I insisted on hiking myself down the valley to past the PCT mile marker 600. With a hiker a few distances in front and another following from the rear, I hiked to the road to the waiting trail angels.
More than anything, my hike is about reconnecting with myself. Seven weeks, 6.5 sections, and 614 miles on the PCT are what it took for me to connect. Again, I took control of my health and decided to end my journey with a few tears, bruises, and fond memories . . .
600 miles hiking the PCT with a neuromodulator, and one headlight. I mean headlamp, seriously, did you catch the reference?  It’s been a long journey, and there are miles to go . . . However, for me, those miles will not take place on the PCT.

Finally in tune, connecting I can hear myself speak, and my voice is filled with pride.

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After my Intracranial Hypertension (IH) was in remission, and I had the last shunt removed, I found that I was still having headaches. My neurosurgeon, Dr. Boulis, offered a trial of a different medical device: a neuromodulator to help with the headaches.   Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive, but I trusted Dr. B; he was the only neurosurgeon I’ve ever had who asked me what treatment I thought was best.


After what would hopefully be my final brain surgery, my Medtronic neuromodulator was implanted, and my life quality of life improved significantly. One of the many ways my life changed was was that I was able to be active again. I did so with the hopes of becoming a Medtronic Global Hero, which I accomplished. Following the Medtronic Twin Cities in Motion run, I decided to improve my mental health like I had improved my physical health. I opted to hike the PCT.  

To date, I have hiked 406 miles. This is a major accomplishment, considering less than two years ago I suffered from debilitating headaches. The hike offers a fair share of ups and downs, and I love the up days. I am approaching both colder temperatures and higher altitudes. This is a difficult combination for a lot of people, but for me, it is a lesson in perseverance despite hardship. I have a basic knowledge of how my neuromodulator affects my body, but I don’t fully understand why changes in barometric pressure cause me a great deal of pain. I know that with the help of science, I am living a full life, I’m hiking the PCT, but the upcoming portion is one that I’m starting to mentally prepare for…  

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I think of Lao Tzu’s quote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” As I hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I know that my journey did not begin with one step. Instead, it started as a battle many years ago. Of course, I am taking the Tzu quote literally.  

The journey of 374 miles has been marked by hours of inexplicable jubilation. I’m enthralled by the beauty of everything that surrounds me. More importantly, the blessings within me. There is bliss in the notion that reliance on my own powers and resources is far greater than seeking that strength in others. I now understand that every step is essential, and within those steps . . . is the journey.   

 

 *Due to a fire closure, I bypassed roughly 40 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I spent four very long days on the trail confusing people, no doubt by my birth name, Crystal Gail. I’d introduce myself as such, and of course, I would be asked any of the following: “What song did I sing to get that name, “Was this before you shaved your head,” or my favorite, “Please tell me how that became your trail name?” My response was simple: shortly after my birth, I was given that name.

Though many people here on the trail call me Crystal Gail, CG, Welcome, or a mix of whatever they can remember, a few hikers have chosen something different.

After being stung by a bee a few hours into my first day, two British hikers wanted to name me stingy. Nope!

The following day, after waitressing in exchange for housing, I was called ‘awesome.’ There was no way anyone would believe I didn’t come up with that name out for myself, especially since I refer to myself as awesome all the time. I reluctantly said no.

After declining that trail name, someone suggested I be named ‘Server.’ There are so many negative connotations with that title. I vetoed the title, tried to explain why it was inappropriate. I can’t say for sure that the hikers well received my explanation that suggested the title.

The following day several people needed help with various things: directions, shakedown questions ( I’ve been shaken down so much I think I’m a master now – my base weight is 13, that’s including my neuro patient programmer that’s 1.5 pounds), and logistical questions about shipping items home.

I started to offer suggestions to help my fellow hikers, ultimately finding solutions to many of the worries that most hikers faced.

A young man from the night before said to me, ‘You’re right, Server doesn’t fit, you’re a giver. You’re “The Giver”; thus, I am “The Giver.”

I’ve been informed that ‘The Giver’ is an excellent read. After all, it’s worthy enough to be listed in the top 100 books of all time. I have not read “The Giver,” but I plan to someday.

gear

ɡir/

noun

noun: gear; plural noun: gears

2.
informal
equipment that is used for a particular purpose.

If you are following this blog or reading it for the first time (thank you and welcome) I am preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  Currently, I am seven days away from the start of what will be an epic journey.

 

I’m filled with a lot of nervous energy, putting the final pieces together. I have packed, repacked then packed, and repacked again. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, regarding gear I’m all set.

 

Without further ado, the long-awaited Gear List:

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It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. – Pema Chodron

doubt

dout/

noun

noun: doubt; plural noun: doubts
a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.

 

Thirty days until . . .
Those ellipses that linger after the countdown speak volumes. Yet, it means uncertainty. The feeling of uncertainty naturally leads to a sense of doubt. Doubt is starting to creep into my mind. All of the what-ifs . . .

What if ill-prepared?
What if my gear isn’t adequate?
What if I get chased down a cliff by a wild Markhor?
Yes, this has been a fear.
Yes, I know Markhor’s don’t live in North America, let alone on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The absurdity of this epic chase always leads to me being bit by a deer, falling into a river, and riding a manatee.

Uncertainty leads to fear, fear of the unknown, which leads to doubt.

I spend a great deal of time trying to establish a level of control regarding this hike.

I’ve calculated my speed.
I’ve mapped out stopping points (somewhat crucial in my case because of my need to recharge my neuromodulator batteries).
I’ve even gone as far as planning a family get-together in Portland, Oregon, on a specific date.
I realized this need for control is me not embracing the uncertainty.
My journey isn’t about following a strict schedule or knowing everything now.
It’s about releasing, letting go, and surrendering to the power of the unknown.
Accepting the . . .

The opening of this post may seem odd, but I’m pretty sure it will become clear if you read it in its entirety.

I’ve had many setbacks throughout my lifetime: depression, obesity, and rare brain disease, to list a few. I am also a childhood survivor of sexual abuse. The impact of abuse is long-lasting. The abuse violated my understanding of and relationship with the world.

In 2008, I attended a survivor of sexual abuse retreat at the Women’s Wilderness Institution in Boulder, Colorado. The Institute provided an ideal environment for women to reconnect with their inherent strengths and sense of well-being. 

I believe that there is healing in nature. Along with six other women, I set off on a primitive camping expedition. Growing up in Florida, soft sand and beaches were my playgrounds. I had no experience camping, and I did not know that rock climbing was even an activity.

Today I came across photos from that trip. I was so cold that I needed two sleeping bags in one photo, and I didn’t drink nearly enough water. As with life, I survived.

Weighing in at 365 pounds, the traditional equipment did not fit me appropriately. The other women assisted me in tying knots to make a safety net of sorts. Wearing a make-shift harness, I scaled my way up the side of the mountain. It took a lot of courage to reach the top, but I fell in love with nature once there and knew I had the strength to do anything.

I finally understood the old Negro spiritual, “Rough Side of the Mountain,” and felt liberated. A year later, I developed the rare brain disease, Pseudotumor Cerebri /Intracranial Hypertension (IH).

My journey has never been easy, but the years following that trip were tough.

 After fifteen surgeries (eight of which were brain surgeries), I am reminded of the first day I fell in love with nature.

I hear a lot of, “I can’t,” “I would but,” “With my condition, it’s not possible, “or “I’m not able” when I talk about my ventures. At first, I tried to be empathic with others’ situations, and then I recall having the physical strength at 365 pounds to lift myself up a mountain.

I remember waking up the morning after one of my brain surgeries eager to go for a run (at the time, I hadn’t run in over 15 years). I am reminded of my childhood and the courage it took to trust others and trust myself.

I am doing what no one has done before, hiking the PCT with a neuromodulator. Now, when I hear a list of excuses, they are just that, excuses. My motto has been “I can, I must, and I will.” If I can, you have no excuse.

 

 

***** Change of perspective:  I better understand the value of lived experiences. We all face challenges and barriers. Because I can, doesn’t mean that if you’re not able to, you’re lesser than… you are YOU. Hike your own hike. (03/17/2018)