For years I’ve enjoyed hiking. But I don’t go as often as I’d like. Mostly, because, I don’t want to go alone. I felt it could be potentially dangerous to hike in the woods alone, especially if the trail is not heavily populated. My desire to explore the trails is so strong, I decided to seek out a hiking group. I found many organizations that hike at least once a week in my area. However, all of hikers were white. In fact, I couldn’t find one minority based hiking group. Now, I am not racist. However, I cannot lie and say it didn’t puzzle me as to why there were so few black hikers.
I decided to check out Meetup.com for a hiking group with more diversity. There were tons of hiking groups on Meetup.com. However, there was no diversity. Every hiking group I found in this state was 99.9% white. This really bothered me. Where on earth are my brown skinned friends? Certainly, not on the trails.
I contemplated trying one or two of the groups, but I was surprisingly hesitant. The nature of the world today is incomprehensively flawed. With Donald Trump as President, there has been a wave of racists coming out from behind their hoods, and reveling in the idea of the violence and destruction of people of color. If you’re white, you’ve probably never had to think about things like this. But for me, a 38-year-old black woman with tattoos and dreadlocks, it’s a reality to have to first stop and think, will I be welcomed. Scrolling through the endless photos posted to the profile of these hiking groups, I wasn’t so sure. Do I really want to be in the woods alone with white people who I don’t know? Umm, I don’t think so.
Why are there no hiking groups for people of color, I thought to myself. We’re in this world and making moves in every arena. I knew there had to be other black people who enjoyed hiking, besides me.
I searched and searched and finally came across a group called the Outdoor Afro, an outdoorsman club for people of color. They had a huge list of activities, among them, kayaking, kite flying, running, camping, and yes, hiking. I flipped through their pictures with sheer joy and elation. Black people after my own heart, where have you been? And there, listed under their upcoming events, was a hiking expedition for women of color. It was called the Forces of Nature Women’s Hike. I immediately RSVP’d to join the other ladies on this adventure. In the days leading up to the event, I was nervous because I had never hiked with a group before. I felt this was going to be a great experience for me, and was already looking forward to future hikes with them.
When I arrived at the site early that Saturday morning, I was amazed at all the beautiful brown faces I saw before me. Black women of all ages, sizes, and shapes, out there ready to experience life and nature, and to burn a few calories in the process. It was beautiful. Before we began the hike, we all stood in a circle as instructed by our guide, Monette, a beautiful Sista who oozed with grace and kindness. She asked us to take turns sharing one thing we were grateful for in that moment. I expressed my gratefulness for my health and my ability to be able to take this journey, as well as the health of the other women there. Others expressed gratefulness toward family, beautiful weather, as well as new jobs and safe travels. Then we set off for our voyage. The hike was moderately easy, about 3 miles up and down hills, over huge boulders of rock, some wet from the streams and waterfalls, which added to the splendor of the day. Everyone helped everyone else as we navigated through the terrain. At one point, I slipped on a wet rock and landed hard on my derrière, but as soon as I touched down, there was a sweet young woman lending her hand to help me back on my feet. I looked at her with a smile to ensure her that all was well and I was not hurt. And then I was off again, speedily climbing, more prudently with my steps, but just as carefree in spirit through God’s great outdoors.
As we marched we engaged in intellectual conversation regarding the state of health within the black community. We agreed that our downfall as a people is largely due to our poor food choices. And we discussed some of our own strengths and weaknesses regarding our health. I felt invigorated, mainly because I hate small talk and this was nothing of the sort. It was thought provoking and genuine dialogue.
When we reached the end of our trail, we all hugged and said our goodbyes, beckoning to see one another on the next Outdoor Afro adventure. When I pulled off in my SUV, I felt a sense of accomplishment and calmness that I hadn’t felt before. I knew that I had to keep hiking. I had been looking for a physical activity that I enjoyed, and I finally found it.
There was only one problem. This group wasn’t a “hiking” group. They did plenty of activities, and while hiking was one of them, they didn’t do it regularly; and what I craved, was a weekly hike with like-minded individuals. While the conversation was nice, it wasn’t needed for me to enjoy the hike. Basically, I just don’t want to be the only black person on the trail. So, while I thoroughly enjoyed hiking with the ladies of Outdoor Afro, I am left with the same dilemma. I need a hiking group for people of color.
I know there are stereotypes about black people and the outdoors. Mainly that we don’t like outdoor activities. And while I know this to be untrue, why aren’t more of us represented in the park-sphere? It could be an unexpected result of the racial history blacks have faced in this country. Let’s face it, we haven’t always fared well in the woods. The woods represented a place where torture and rape and lynching took place. Even if you weren’t the victim, a stroll in the woods may mean that your eyes meet a brown body hanging from tree limbs; or possibly the no-longer-recognizable face of charred brown skin. But the woods were also seen as an escape route to freedom by many slaves, such as the ones who escaped using the Underground Railroad. During an age where men were separated from their wives and children regularly, many slaves would use the woods to travel and sneak to nearby plantations at night to visit loved ones.
Our connection as black people to nature is dynamic. We were extremely talented horticulturists, which isn’t surprising since we had no choice but to live off the land.
But did you know that Buffalo Soldiers, who date back to the 1860’s, spent summers creating trails, maps, and evicting livestock in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, until 1916 when the National Park Service was formed? After the formation of the NPS, the Buffalo soldiers were overshadowed by Naturalist, John Muir. Muir, regarded as the “father of natural parks,” was a white man and known racist. He’s been known to say extremely disparaging comments about the Native Americans, and publicly referred to blacks as “sambos”. (Kind of reminiscent of your president, don’t you think).
As blacks started moving outside of the rural south to escape poverty and violence fueled by racism, urban cities of the north started to become a cornucopia for black families and black young adults. As this shift continued to deepen, blacks started to become disconnected from nature. To add insult to injury, we were also not allowed in many parks or public swimming pools during segregation and Jim Crow. It’s no wonder why 70% of African Americans don’t know how to swim, and why we represent only 9% of people venturing into national parks. This figure is only a 2% increase from 2009. Hispanics make up 8% and Pacific Islanders make up only 7%. Which is in stark contrast to the overwhelming 74% that whites make up.
It doesn’t help, that in today’s culture, we are still dealing with issues of racism. Black men and women are being killed for doing seemingly normal things, and if the murderer is white, chances are, the crime will go unpunished. We’ve seen it so many times. Black people have been “mistakenly” gunned down for holding things like candy, cell phones, and books. Just walking while black can be dangerous. Meanwhile, the white serial killer that shot 9 black people in a Baptist Church, was taken to Burger King by police officers on his way to jail (I guess he worked up an appetite during his murdering spree. How many mass murderers do you think who get rewarded with a Happy Meal?) How many black people know, that if the roles were reversed, we would have never walked out of the church alive. And with Trump in office, white supremacists have been emboldened. They are making their voices and their hate heard throughout America. Even America’s largest “green group” is overwhelmingly white. They have had so many issues with racism, a professional trainer had to come in and give diversity training to its employees, many of whom are said to be openly racists.
It’s no wonder why people of color don’t feel safe in traditional “white spaces”. However, we are making some leeway. The Outdoor Afro has thousands of members and in 28 states across America. There are also other groups dedicated for minorities who enjoy outdoor activities, such as, Black Girls Run, Girl Trek, Latino Outdoors, and OutVentures (for members of the LGBT community).
Jenna Yokoyama, a Japanese American woman and avid hiker, founded Hikers of Color after the racial taunting she experienced while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She now feels obligated to call unfamiliar parks before a hike and ask safety questions, such, “How safe is the area for people of color?”
She too, searched for online hiking groups for minorities but found nothing specifically for hiking or backpacking. Frustrated, she founded the Facebook group, Hikers of Color.
She received a mixture of hostility and encouragement for her endeavors. Some accused her of promoting segregation and clique forming, while others warned her to stay off the trail, deeming her unworthy of search and rescue should she befall any trouble.
This is the state of the world today. Even after living under a Black President for 8 years, people continue to hate others for the hue of their skin. Some say having a black president added fuel to the flame. Which I agree. But how long must the hate and fear mongering continue. God put us all here to love and be loved. I shouldn’t have to fear for my life because of the color of my skin or the depth of my pockets.
But in the meanwhile, I just want to hike.