Smokies Hikes for Healing: Conversations on Racial Justice

Hiking has a powerful way of shattering our guards and inviting our most authentic selves into the world. The trail breaks down barriers in a way that makes it possible to share deep and meaningful exchanges with people you hardly know. Walking through nature while engaging in conversation has transformational power.

Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), wanted to create a space for these very conversations. The United States is in the middle of a resurgent civil rights movement sparked by the murder of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. As a Black man with parents in law enforcement, superintendent Cash saw a need for meaningful dialogue about racial injustice in America. Cash envisioned a place for healing and growth in the natural setting of the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s why he began the Smokies Hikes for Healing initiative earlier this year.

The Smokies Hikes for Healing Initiative

Image via Superintendent Cash

The program’s goal, according to the Hikes for Healing website, is to “create a series of cohorts where crucial conversations about race will occur in one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world… The selected participants, who start the hike as strangers, will create a unique bond from the experience that leads to continued conversations around the change that is needed within themselves and within their communities to combat racism.”

Each hike will bring together 10 individuals who are willing to listen, approach their preconceptions with curiosity, and question their inherent biases. Hikers need to apply to join the program, and each group is carefully selected to represent a diverse sector of the population. The program is currently open only to members of local Tennessee and North Carolina communities surrounding the park. Trained facilitators will lead each outing and moderate “thought-provoking discussion around race,” according to the program website. 

David Lamfrom, one of the program facilitators, shared how these hikes will bring people together. The goal of the program is to navigate through differences in a safe environment. These vulnerable and honest discussions happen while walking through nature, which (as all hikers know) is an automatic way to shatter our barriers. David noted that Smokies Hikes for Healing is a “remarkably innovative concept, yet it’s based on the most basic things about being a person.”

The Land Has History

Image via Smokies Hikes for Healing

 In many ways, the Smokies are a perfect setting for this program. GSMNP is a diverse ecosystem, full of biodiversity and centuries of history. David wants hikers to know that the land holds all of these stories, and is constantly changing with us.

“When you think about the richness and the diversity of wildlife; the ferns, the moss, the salamnders, the bobcats, the black bears, the bats, the orchids, the waterfalls…. You think about that being the exposition for hiking to heal yourself. Then, to think about where you are in the world, straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina border. This landscape has a difficult history, including Indian removal, slavery, Jim Crow, and all the civil rights movements. The land is all of those things.”

The goal of this program is not to assign blame, it is to bring about healing. We can only move forward by acknowledging the past while working to create a more just future. We can still enjoy and walk through nature while also recognizing we are not where we need to be as a country.

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Tools to Engage in Racial Reconciliation

Image via Smokies Hikes for Healing

Each small cohort participating in this program will have a unique opportunity to engage in the work of ending systemic racial oppression. However, we can all learn from the example set by Smokies Hikes for Healing. David shared powerful mental tools hikers (and all humans) can use to foster healing and understanding in nature.

While Walking On a Trail, Keep Your Eyes Wide Open

“If you go into a beautiful national forest… who lived there before? What happened to them? Why aren’t they there now? The city that you live in… who built it? Who’s hands built it? And why aren’t you seeing those people doing as well, perhaps?”

Racism and oppression will not go away if we ignore them: awareness is a crucial first step toward healing. We have to start by acknowledging the fact that the United States was built on the backs of slaves, on top of stolen land. 

Try creating a journal or map of indigenous land you are walking through while on a thru-hike. Consider visiting historical sites such as Manzanar (a former Japanese Internment Camp about three miles out of Lone Pine on the PCT) while thru-hiking. To find out what native land you are on at any moment, text 907-312-5085.

Don’t Shy Away When Encountering a Difference of Opinion:

“Approach that situation with curiosity and think about the assumptions you’ve made based off one comment. Is this a good opportunity for me to be able to hang up my bias and listen and understand why that person is saying that thing and why they think that way? Are they willing to tell me their thought process? This is a good way to practice consensual conversation.”

The trail brings together people from all walks of life and all points on the political spectrum. Embrace this opportunity to share common ground with people who think differently. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations, but be prepared to engage in them thoughtfully.

Think about what comments or personalities might make you uncomfortable if you were part of Smokies Hikes for Healing. How could you approach the situation with grace? What kind of questions might you ask to truly understand where the other person is coming from?

To learn more about Smokies Hikes for Healing, check out their website. Applications for fall 2020 hikes are still open, so if you’re brave, curious, and ready to listen apply here. All hikes take place within GSMNP. Although the initiative focuses on small cohorts of participants from local communities, on their website Smokies Hikes for Healing encourages others to host their own hikes for healing within GSMNP.

“The park provides the perfect backdrop for sharing, understanding, and healing. The goal of the initiative is to provide a safe space for people to begin difficult conversations that can lead to change. Through this initiative, we want to extend an invitation for people to be a part of these important and pivotal conversations in one of America’s most special places. “

Featured image via Wilfred Hdez.

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