Hiking While Black

Surprisingly, my trek has gotten major attention. Granted, my intent was to speak out about injustice in light of the death of George Floyd, by thru-hiking the SHT. I feel strongly that social justice and environmental justice are intrinsically linked.

I’ve encountered an array of people on my journey, including white people who seek me out for the following reasons: to talk about the ways they can eradicate racism, ask about ways to make ______ more inclusive, to take a picture with me (because they think I’m going to be famous), or they want to join the hike to share that in some fashion they’ve helped a member of the BIPOC community and prove they’re more “woke” than others (aka “performative activism”). These interactions have been anxiety-provoking.

But then, there are the parents who see me out, who just stop to say hi. Introduce me to their kids, either have me explain why I’m hiking or say things like, “She’s out here making a difference.” I enjoy those folks because they are encouraging and remind me why I’m out here hiking. All and all, I’ve not encountered anything too problematic. Until today.

Because of the folks generalized in paragraph two, I’ve been selective about who I share my location with. And in an effort to finish this hike soon I’ve been in advanced hiker mode by increasing my daily mileage. That’s uncommon along this trail (although thru-hiking in general is uncommon along this trail).

I set out early on my 21st day of the trail, thinking of George Floyd and his legacy with every mile. I imagined what the world would look like when everyone had the opportunity and freedom to explore and engage with nature. I envisioned the little ones who will follow in my footsteps. After hours of hiking, I had the option of stopping at a campsite at 16 miles or continuing on to a small campsite that was directly off the trail, at 16.2 miles. I decided on the farther one since I am trying to cover as much distance as possible.

When I arrived, I was met by a woman made it clear that she didn’t want me near her campsite. Although there was plenty of space for both of us (even with social distancing), she encouraged me to “keep trekking.” When I didn’t move, she informed me that there was a bigger campsite just up the trail. She was referring to the one at 16.0 miles, which I’d already passed since I’m heading north.

The sun hadn’t been out all day, but it shined perfectly where I sat. I hung my wet tent on a tree and my socks on a nearby bench. The woman whispered something to her male companion and away the two went.

In all the annoyance I’ve experienced, I hadn’t yet felt unwelcome until I arrived at North Bally Creek campsite. The woman, white and with a sense of entitlement, made my 16.2-day trek of dreams and hopes heavy. I was reminded that I am carrying both the weight of my people and the fear and unwelcoming prescience of those who think I don’t belong in outdoor spaces. Those who believe that nature exists only for their enjoyment.

I felt unsafe at that campsite. Not physically unsafe, but a sense that there was no peace for me in that space for that evening. I decided to backtrack after all, but first, I wrote a note to the woman. On my way to the other campsite, I was met by her and her companion. They wanted to let me know that they had checked, and the other campsite indeed had space.

Ultimately, I stayed at the “bigger” campsite that I had already passed. As it turned out, I met a few other hikers nearby who were friendly. Those people understood and expressed concern for me.

But to that woman and her partner, and anyone else who might need a reminder: NATURE IS FOR EVERYONE.

Featured image courtesy of Jenna Duesterhoeft.

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