A Conversation with Rue McKenrick on White Privilege
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.
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!
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, 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.” 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.
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