Hiking and camping have been my salvation in my middle age, and even more so these past two years. If I hadn’t had access to nature, well, let’s not go there. I hike in the Blue Hills and in New Hampshire. I’ve also hiked in Maine and Vermont. I don’t ever remember seeing Black people, and worse, I haven’t given it a second thought. Ah, ain’t white privilege grand? Well, there aren’t a lot of Black people in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Maybe that’s why. Nope. Maybe Black people don’t like nature. Nope. Let’s try this one. They aren’t welcome on the trail.
I came across a blog post on the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) website profiling 5 Black heroes of conservation and outdoor recreation, and one stood out as particularly mortifying and sad, at least to this New England hiker. Robert Taylor is considered the first Black person to complete the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the 1990s. These trails have been around for a long time: The AT was established in 1925 and PCT in 1968. So that’s just straight up crazy, but also not surprising. Now these trails are not for your weekend hiker; the people who do them are really, really into hiking. The AT is nearly 2,200 miles long and runs from Georgia to Maine (ending at Mount Katahdin, which will be referenced later — make a note). The PCT trail runs about 2,600 miles from Canada to Mexico.
Here’s a quote from the post, “…Taylor thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, where he endured several racist encounters, according to an interview he gave Backpacker in 2000. While Taylor’s challenges on the Pacific Crest Trail pertained primarily to weather and wildlife, he often faced racial discrimination from fellow thru-hikers and residents of the towns he encountered while hiking the A.T.” In the interview he says he encountered racism in nearly every state he went through, and the AT goes through every New England state.
So much for our “But we fought against slavery in the Civil War,” reason that we in New England like to declare we’re not racist. The hikers on the PCT were more open and more excited to see him. I hate it when the West Coast does shit better than us, but thank goodness this poor guy could hike in peace. We New England hikers need our get our shit together. Repeat after me: Black people like hiking too.
But don’t just take it from me — this post was also on the AMC website. “We Didn’t Expect to See You: Racism and Profiling on Katahdin,” by Juan Michael Porter II. He likes to hike up challenging mountains fast, and his favorite is Katahdin. It can take people 8 hours to climb its 5,269 feet. His first time, when he was being slowed down by a partner, he did it 4 hours. He’s returned a number of times, but has endured people staring at him, and yelling at him to get away and to stop following them. That time in particular was utterly ridiculous because they were on a section of the trail called the “knife’s edge,” which is exactly like it sounds: one narrow lane with a steep drop off. Following is the only option.
There are more organizations forming to encourage people of color to get out into the woods; it’s up to us white people to get a grip and calm the hell down about it. Now I don’t think we may ever get to the point of being excited about it like those West Coast people because that is not our way in New England. We say hello, smile, and that’s it. We’re not big on chatting. So how about we do that? Act like they are like any other person who’s out there getting their heart rate up, getting away from city life, or just getting away from their family.
Or maybe an even better idea is to let Juan tell us:
“If you are unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Black hikers, I want you to know that we are out here, and much like you, we just want to enjoy the open air without having to deal with anyone else’s nonsense. The next time I visit Katahdin I hope my fellow hikers keep the following in mind: The savage assumption that I am a threat is something I deal with every day. Please leave your profiling at home alongside your other troubles and let me hike in peace.”
Amen to that Juan.