I Am Not Just Another Hiker

Shilletha Curtis is a 28-year-old Black, queer New Jersey native, and a Rutgers graduate with a degree in social work. Shilletha plans on hiking the Appalachian Trail as the first leg of completing the Triple Crown. This story has also appeared on the ATC website.

“You’re not special because you’re brown. In this group, you’re just another hiker. You aren’t the first person of color to hike the AT.”

“And I won’t be the last,” I furiously slammed down on the letters on my bold, black keyboard. A raging wildfire lit within the depths of my soul and there was nothing that could quench its power and screams. My whole life I have dealt with racism, but this time I decided to use my voice.

Four months ago my girlfriend and I decided to take a day hike at Harriman State Park in New York. While exploring the other side of the lake, we found an obscure trail nestled behind a petite amber farmhouse. Excitedly we pushed forward, and just as we were about to ascend a steep slope, an older white gentleman appeared. He proceeded to point out a nearly vertical hill behind him and stated that it was the Appalachian Trail that spans from Georgia to Maine. He ended the conversation with, “Be safe out there. You two are lovely girls, I hope you find good husbands.” We laughed it off.

I headed toward the slope and stood awestruck. The thought of people from all over our God-given Earth, walking 2,200 miles through 14 states, was incredible. Since that day I have been out and about collecting my Big Agnes tent, trekking poles, and my first set of trail runners. As my excitement grew I took the initiative to look for others who had the same passion as mine. I immediately took to social media to look for groups that fit my interest. I came across three Appalachian Trail groups and requested membership promptly. First I joined the general “AT group,” which has around 60,000 members, followed by the “Class of 2021,” and finally, the “Women’s AT” group after a few suggestions from the main group.

“A Rising Star”

As soon as I joined all the groups, I dove right into asking questions about gear and safety on the trail. A small gray star soon appeared by my name as I was “A rising star.” I took to the general Appalachian Trail page and spoke about my gear selection, as well as my fears of being a black hiker in the South.

As soon as I mentioned my fears, many members began to ask why do I fear the South. Was it the heat? Reality began to set in. None of these white people could understand my fears. They did not see the generational effects that lynching has had on my community.

According to the NAACP, “From the years 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched (…), Most of the lynchings that took place happened in the South. A big reason for this was the end of the Civil War. Once blacks were given their freedom, many people felt that the freed blacks were getting away with too much freedom and felt they needed to be controlled. Mississippi had the highest lynchings from 1882-1968, with 581. Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. 79% of lynching happened in the South.” Source

To this day many Black people will not venture into the woods with fear of being hung from a tree and becoming a spectacle for white spectators to see. Many of them came with a smile on their face as Black bodies were tethered, burned, and even stabbed while dangling from a noose. A noose that still creeps in the back of our minds.

I was not bothered until the bans and disgusting messages from administrators of these groups came rolling in like ocean waves, suffocating my already ignored voice.

These fears have manifested time and time again as I come to terms with the reality that I may be the lone Black woman on the trail. It’s painful and traumatic and it never goes away. Our pain has not eased.

Furthermore, white privileges allow AT hikers to hitchhike into the towns with ease, without incessant stares and silence. We all know that silence equals violence. I can only wonder what they are thinking about me and my questions. I observed that every group was 99.9 percent white and I was the .1 percent.

Initially, I was not bothered until the bans and disgusting messages from administrators of these groups came rolling in like ocean waves, suffocating my already ignored voice. I had been accused of race-baiting and told that it was irrelevant to mention my race while in the group. I apparently was “just another hiker.” I was told “HYOH” (Hike Your Own Hike). When I confronted this, I was met with great adversity from white men in the group.

You see, that’s where white hikers are wrong. Being a Black, queer woman on the trail is an anomaly. We have to worry about whether we will be judged by the darkness of our skin. If people will call us out of our names. We ask ourselves, will someone drag me into the woods and lynch me like they did countless times before to my brothers and sisters in and even after slavery? Will these men in these groups who plan to carry firearms see us as a threat? Will I, too, end up dead because I am Black?

Systemic racism runs deep and police have been killing us for years. The racism that runs deep within the families and hearts of white people kills. Again I will say, silence kills. White silence kills. To think that a few white members who stand with me and have made posts only to be taken down because it mentions race is disgusting.

Especially during such a sensitive time where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot eight times as she lay asleep in her bed. She never had a chance to defend herself and I am one year older than her. And George Floyd, a Black man killed over accusations of giving a clerk a $20 counterfeit bill. Silent tears streamed down my face as I watched that video on Twitter. For eight minutes that white cop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, had his knee pinned into George’s neck. In the video, you hear George saying “I can’t breathe” as he calls for his mama and then loses consciousness. I watched them drag his lifeless body onto that gurney. I heard the screams of horrified bystanders. I nearly got sick watching the EMTs coming to collect his body while the white officer STILL had him pinned. I am tired.

These Are OUR Lives

Many think that including race and intersectionality in the Appalachian Trail hiking groups is politics. I am here to tell everyone that this is not politics. This is my life. These are OUR lives.

Black bodies are being slaughtered by the police and state and left in the street to be gawked at. Black women are treated as less than Black men. We are more likely to accept jobs that don’t grant us protections and benefits. We experience higher rates of domestic violence. Gender barriers to healthcare are higher for Black women than white women.

Additionally, we are more likely to be pulled over. I can attest to this as I have been pulled over many times for driving through white neighborhoods. Only to be asked why I am in a predominantly white neighborhood, and if the car I am driving is really mine. Scared to grab the proof. Our inequalities are ignored and our voices are silenced. We struggle in cycles of poverty echoing from slavery and segregation in the past. We inherit nothing from our ancestors but generational trauma, and perseverance. We do not ask for this, but racists take the opportunity to hone in on our weaknesses.

A racist member in the Appalachian Trail Class of 2021 group blamed poverty in my community, by his logic (the “fact”) that 70% of us don’t have fathers in our home as being the root cause for poverty and crime. I addressed him and was threatened to be banned by the administrator, who I also had confrontations with. Every time I have tried to confront this man he denies, deletes, and blocks me or other members who try to take a stand against racism.

Recently, another member tried to write about inclusion and Black Lives Matter. As soon as I made my statement saying I appreciate the post and talk about my life in my Black skin, the post vanished. The admin bans members who are white for speaking out, too.

About an hour after that incident, a different hiker posted “Hikers Lives Matter” and proceeds to ask who will be carrying on the trail as he isn’t “a little bitch.” I have issues with this. Not only is it directly after a Black Lives Matter post, but it was also made to indicate fear. Fear of safety for hikers of color on the trail, who may be alone and have to come in contact with these people and their racist views.

Every attempt has been made in these groups to silence the voices of hikers of color. Every attempt has been made to silence me, a woman hiker of color. I will not be silenced. We cannot stand for oppression and racism on the Appalachian Trail. Hikers and nature lovers alike look to the trail for answers, as well as peace and healing rather than hate and anger.

The Appalachian Trail Conservatory has even put out a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, which the Women’s Appalachian Trail posted. Overall, the majority have stood with me, and those stray hairs were cut off. It has been the only group where I have felt welcomed. All is not lost, though, as I have had other members who have observed this discrimination and silence send a direct message to me. Many of their messages are warm and contain apologies and empathy. Many of them want to hike with me more than ever because of the adversity. They want to make a change and take a stand against racism.

This is the Time for Difficult Conversations

So again, I say thank you to those members who are white and trying to have these difficult conversations. Thank you for not invalidating me, for seeing my race and addressing the need for inclusion and diversity on the trail. There should be zero tolerance for racism within the Appalachian Trail groups, admins should be stripped of their titles, and members banned. We need to make these groups a safe space for everyone, not just white members, as Black people do hike. We hike with love, curiosity, intelligence, and a drive that preserves us through the darkest of days.

I hike for every Black woman who has wanted to hike. I hope to pave the way for others like me, that they may have hiker communities in which they are welcomed.

Black women should be able to address their fears and not be silenced by white men and the oppressors. I hope that in the midst of all of the Black Lives Matter movement surging and spreading across this world that we can bring up these conversations. I hope to see hikers of all races on the Appalachian Trail join hands and acknowledge us. Because if you don’t see race you don’t see our struggles. We are not all one. We are not all created equal.

Until the chains and bonds of systemic and institutionalized racism are defeated then All lives do not matter. “All Lives Matter” will matter when everyone starts to care about Black lives. Until then, Black Lives Matter. I will not stay silent. I cannot be silent and I will not be silenced. I will not stay silent.

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Comments 24

  • Avatar
    Paul Schulke : Jun 14th

    So sad….so sorry…God Bless

    Reply
    • Avatar
      YoungNana : Jun 14th

      Last year, I had the opportunity to take a backpacking training course with AMC’s Youth Opportunities program. It began in 1968 after the Boston Riots as an alternative for community leaders to get inner-city youths in the outdoors. I’m an A.T. section hiker and it was a great experience. Once you take the training course, you are able to borrow up to 12 sets of their gear, free of charge, to take youths in the outdoors, where EVERYONE belongs. Our training group was diverse; White, Black, Asian, Latino, Gay, Straight, etc. It was a level playing field and a great experience. Their overarching theme is “everyone belongs in the outdoors”. I couldn’t agree more. I believe the training I participated in is for “such a time as this” and look forward to getting youths outdoors, helping them gain confidence and believe in their right to be there.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Russ1663 : Jun 14th

    Getting out in the forests and such should be the line where all labels stop. One should be able to go hiking, climb a mountain or whatever you want without having a string of labels attached. I see my fellow hikers as people of like mind enjoying the lure of the silent places. Dragging any sort of politics into that world spoils the view as it were. So sisters and brothers, trek on, take pictures, make memories and treat you fellow humans as you would want you and your family treated.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kava : Jun 20th

      Truth!!!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Stephen Marsh : Jun 14th

    Sure wish you the best.

    Looks like you’ve had hundreds and hundreds of positive comments in the Facebook groups you’ve shared this with.

    Hope that is a good sign for the future. And that you will post again as you hike on the trail.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sport Monkey : Jun 14th

    Within the first few paragraphs you found it necessary to emphasize you race and sexual orientation. NOBODY asks that on The Trail. It’s all about the natural beauty around us. We share a common goal of hiking and enjoying the company of others that do the same.
    You have your own demons that I’d suggest you leave at home before you start hiking. We will help you but not babysit you. It’s wonderful out there and I hope you get to experience it.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Hikers Wild : Jun 15th

      Really? Demons? Babysit? As a woman I fear going into the woods alone. As a mother of a biracial child and friend of many LBGTQ I fear for my friends and family daily. Why are you invalidating her thoughts? Assumably, you are a white man whose privilege is showing.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Emma : Jun 22nd

      Your attitude is part of the problem. It seems like YOU have some demons you need to take care of. This is textbook microagression, just because you don’t “see color” doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Joanne Alvarez : Jun 14th

    Sorry! Being white privileged I really love disappearing into the woods and silencing all negative news. Really sorry you can’t do that. Hope you continue to blog. We need to hear.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Forrest Mallard : Jun 14th

    I’m sorry that you have had to deal with this.
    Hiking can be one of the most freeing experiences, and the majority of the people I have met on the trails I tend to bond with very quickly and stay in touch with for years.
    The fact that I am part of the LGBT community eventually comes out, and that has rarely, if ever, been a problem. But this is on the trail.. in Europe.
    I also joined several hiking groups in the USA as I would love to do any of the celebrated trails here. But the USA hiking groups are overrun with toxic people. If you try to post positive messages, you will get slammed and ridiculed.
    It got to the point that trying to even be part of these online communities was not something I wanted to do.
    As a black person, I am sure your frustration and pain is multiplied 100x from my experience.
    I hope you find trails in your life that allow you to experience the true joy of hiking.. with your friends or by yourself.
    I would even love to hike with you because I think that anyone with that much passion to experience a good hike, even after experiencing racism like this, would be an amazing person to share an adventure with.
    Take care and please let us know your story when you do hit the trail. <3

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Les Helmuth : Jun 15th

    Thank you for sharing these challenges and your thoughts about how to make the AT safer for you and others. I’m so sorry you’ve experienced the responses you encountered and pray that when I’m confronted with the opportunity to make a difference, I’ll have the intestinal fortitude to do it.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Stephen : Jun 15th

    I’m truly sorry you’ve had these experiences. I hope you’ve had a chance to connect with Rahawa Haile, as I believe she would be a good person for you to talk to. You can find an interview with her here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/exit-interview-i-was-a-black-female-thru-hiker-on-the-appalachian-trail
    Good luck on your thru-hike!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Shilletha Curtis : Jun 18th

      Thank you all for so much support. I knew there would be a little backlash but I am a mountain. I cannot be moved. I can’t wait to thru-hike!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Kris : Jun 24th

        I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience, especially with a group that is supposed to be full of acceptance. I want you to know that this is being shared, read, and heard by many who are listening and have your back. Thanks for sharing and bringing awareness.
        Enjoy your thru hike! My family and friends hike the trail all the time and I hope one of us runs into you to share a little trail magic or support!

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Nick : Jun 19th

    I hear your anger. I hear your fear. I hear your pride. I hear your strength. Thank you for sharing. I am listening.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Jess : Sep 3rd

      Well said and I agree. Thank you for sharing Shilletha, and I look forward to meeting you on the trails!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Cheri : Jun 24th

    I plan to hike in 2021. I’m an old, fat, white, straight lady. You are welcome to hike with me, I will stand beside you, in front of and behind you when needed. I can’t understand what you live with because I have not experienced it.

    I do hope you find the Trail and it’s people welcoming and supportive. I have hiked about 400 miles on it. As a woman, I never felt threatened. I met all kinds of people, some very strong women, some very strong men who never tried to intimidate me and lots of people from all over the world and people of different color and religions. No one spoke of politics, race or sexual identities. Maybe we need to, I don’t know.

    I do know that most people are just concerned with the basics, food, water, and miles. In between, getting in a good conversation is a bonus. Maybe, when you are out there, we can learn from you and maybe you will find a place and time where you will be able to put your guard down, relax and be you, with no judgements.

    They say the Trail provides, I hope it does for you.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      SA Brotherton : Jun 29th

      Cheri – Well stated. It is a shame that the author is seemingly passing judgement based on her social media experience. One would be hard pressed to not find an arse in ANY social media discourse. I would recommend she spend some time on trail and experience the trail ‘for real’. As stated by others, no one cares about any of the info that she deemed so important to share w/everyone right off the bat, when you are ‘on trail’. I could care less and as she will find, most of those on the trail will feel similarly. Leave the political rhetoric at home, I don’t know anyone who is out there for that nonsense. Most of us are trying to escape exactly that….

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Zach : Jun 29th

        Thanks for weighing in, but you’re simply wrong about others not experiencing racism on trail. I encourage you to actually take the time listen to Black thru-hikers. https://thetrek.co/backpacker-radio-69-will-akuna-robinson/

        Reply
        • Avatar
          SA Brotherton : Jul 2nd

          Zach – I didn’t say it didn’t occur and I am familiar w/Akuna and others. It just seems a tad irresponsible for someone to form an opinion (on an entire community) based on social media content. Wouldn’t you agree ?

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Beckie : Jun 30th

    Hello from another old (well, not really, 63 in August) fat white lady. I hike with my daughter, who is half-Indian (Asian). We hike mostly in the White Mountains, NH (not recently, due to us avoiding crossing state borders during the virus). I hope to run into you next summer, if you do plan to do the AT next year. We both have always noticed the variety of folks in the woods up here, POCs tend to be mostly Asians. I hope I don’t sound like an idiot or clueless(or worse yet, patronizing) saying this, but sometimes the best thing about a day in the mountains is when we see Black or Latinx (and my city is 80% Dominican) folks on the trail. I can’t believe people thought it was the heat that you were apprehensive about. I guess there are a lot of decent people who are not intentionally prejudiced, just clueless. Thank you for writing this! Good luck on your Triple Crown!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Malia : Jul 13th

    biracial black queer woman here, also working towards a bachelor’s in social work. I recently saw a video about the PCT and fell in love and have plans to hike it after i graduate, and while i am consuming a lot of female content abt it, i do not see any bipoc content. thank you for writing this and making me feel a little less alone.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Robert J Coia : Jul 29th

    If you need a hiking partner e-mail me. I am thru hiking the At starting April 3, 2021 with a friend and he may not make it very far. I will do it alone but it’s better with someone for support. in box me if interested. Bob.. Happy Trails

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Robert J Coia : Jul 29th

    Ps. I am 72 and will be 73 but in good shape. Training everyday… and want to be in the 70 and over thru hikers club!!!!

    Reply

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