Walking Distance #16 | Fitting In ft. Shalin Desai & Aer Parris

In this episode of Walking Distance presented by The Trek and hosted by Blissful Hiker (Alison Young), we are joined by Shalin Desai, a Triple Crowner and Vice President of Advancement at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and Aer Parris, a 2015 PCT thru-hiker who identifies as queer and gender neutral. Desai is also the first person of South Asian descent to become a Triple Crowner, and he also identifies as queer. After their 2015 thru-hike, Parris began blogging for REI, often writing about inclusivity on the trail and advocating for marginalized communities hoping to fit in in the outdoors.

Blissful Hiker covers recent efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion, if marginalized communities need advocacy to get outdoors, and how different identities impact hikers on the trail.


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Interview with Shalin Desai

0:56 – Trail experiences are infinite, because they’re all so personal. I was never looking to find a ‘tribe’ or have my identity acknowledged, but for the trail community to let me have my trail experience.

1:50 – More about Shalin Desai

3:20 – How were you introduced to the outdoors?

4:46 – You identify as a queer man. How did you find your trail family, or how did you find your chosen family before hitting the trail?

5:44 – Did you ever have any encounters on your thru-hikes that were disturbing?

8:29 – I wanted to ask you about the affinity groups. You’re the first person to introduce the idea of affinity groups for the ATC. Why is it important and how does it work?

12:15 – Is it a concern though that affinity groups might further prejudice and fear of the “other”?

13:00 – Diversity, equity and inclusion – every company and organization talks about these words. What do you think are the biggest hurdles as far as trails and the outdoors now?

Interview with Aer Parris

17:40 – Aer Parris’ take on fitting in on trail and how to be more inclusive is a bit different. They discovered that it’s less about changing how we speak to people who are marginalized, and more about how we understand them.

19:26 – Aer Parris started their 2015 thru-hike articulating their identity.

20:30 – What does it mean to be visibly queer on trail? 

22:05 – Was the reason you tried to ‘pass’ as cis on the trail because of safety concerns?

23:10 – Did you ever have any experiences that you considered dangerous or disturbing?

23:25 – Your tagline is “Words have the power to change the world. I use mine for forces of good. Sincere, sometimes snarky.” What do those words mean to you?

25:30 – Tell me about your advocacy journalism for REI; it’s called Uncommon Path. Do you choose your own topics, and what’s the most important to you?

26:30 – Why do you feel that marginalized communities need advocacy to enjoy the outdoors?

28:50 – The conversation about fitting in on the trail is an evolving one. As Shalin Desai pointed out, we’re flying the airplane as we build it. I certainly want to hear your thoughts on the subject. You can always contact us at [email protected]

29:40 – Aer challenged my concept of what it means to be a hiker on the trail – not because of their gender or sexual identity but by what they do now as a hiker. Aer is 31 and told me they are happily partnered, have a full time job, house and dog and want to start a family, so long distance thru-hiking is pretty much a thing of the past – but they connect to the outdoors in the way they want to. 

Mentioned in this episode:

Appalachian Trail Conservancy – Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Wild East Women ATC Affinity Group

Outdoor Afro Affinity Group

Latinos Outdoors Affinity Group

Brown People Camping Affinity Group

Aer Parris blogs on REI

How to Read REI’s “Uncommon Path”

Get all of the Walking Distance Podcast episodes.

About Alison Young

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, is a former host and producer at American Public Media and professional flutist. She’s thru-hiked New Zealand’s Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as long trails in South America, South Africa, Europe, Pakistan and all over the US. In her podcast Blissful Hiker, she shares personal essays from the trail along with collected sound. Her goal in life is to hike until she drops.

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