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“Hasn’t anybody ever seen a Black hiker before?” said actor Blair Underwood in a cheeky Funny or Die video from 2009.
In the sketch, Underwood plays a hiker determined to take a peaceful stroll through nature. After receiving numerous stares from fellow trekkers, though — some dubious, some supportive, all passersby are white — Underwood realizes he’s an anomaly. He’s a Black man doing the unthinkable. He’s… hiking.
In 2021, this sketch still holds up. Hiking is largely seen as a recreational activity enjoyed mostly by a very specific kind of person: white, lean, and able-bodied.
The United States is home to more than 400 national parks and, according to a recent 10-year survey, only 23 percent of the visitors to these premier outdoor spaces were people of color, whereas 77 percent were white. Taking into account that minorities make up roughly 42 percent of the country, it becomes clear why Funny or Die’s sketch is so hilarious. There’s a nugget of truth to it.
Though things are changing, personally, I understand why Black people, my community, are still one of the most dramatically underrepresented groups on the trails.
Growing up in West Michigan, an appreciation for nature was prematurely embedded into my identity. Summers were spent outside. There were family cookouts and graduation celebrations in public parks. We swam in nearby lakes and watering holes. My aunts and uncles hunted deer and fished. The first time I ever baited a fishing hook, I was old enough to be trusted with a sharp object, but young enough to sob over “Mr. Worm’s” death for an hour.
Winters were also spent outside. We played in the snow until our fingers numbed, and we visited local beaches frozen over with ice, simply because they were beautiful. I didn’t realize it as a kid because it was so deeply ingrained in me, but nature was it.
Despite my idyllic memories of growing up in Michigan, we didn’t always feel welcome in the outdoors.
The first time I heard the N-word — as in really heard the N-word — wasn’t casually from a peer or in a hip-hop song. It was from a white man threatening us after we swam at one of the countless beaches lining Lake Michigan. He didn’t think we belonged at that beach.
The incident wasn’t rare. The same members of my family who hunted, fished, and camped also had a license to carry and would often store their handguns nearby when “relaxing” in nature.
In particular, hiking was an isolated form of recreation — so foreign in concept that it never seemed like an option. If it was discussed, it was noted as an activity best avoided.
In parts of Michigan, endless acres of jack pines and yellow birch trees harbored hiking trails and racist groups. Shrouded from the public eye, the woods were a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan’s (KKK’s) infamous Robert “Bob” Miles-led rallies.
It took me till age 30 to go on my first hike, at Mohonk Preserve in New York with a couple of friends, and it made me realize how much I needed nature in my life again. After spending more than a decade living in large cities, like Chicago, London, and New York, I was physically drained. I had begun suffering from a major health issue and had also lost touch with my Great Lakes state roots.
My first hike was transformational: the fresh autumn air, the peace, the quiet. I slept easier that night than I had in years. Despite the KKK gossip that I was aware of in my childhood, my experience was actually pretty normal. I think we had a couple of stares, but, honestly, it was no more uncomfortable than walking into a corporate office space on the first day of a job.
And something amazing came as a result of my experience, besides my newfound love of hiking. After sharing my photos with my then 60-year old mother, something in her awakened. She booked a beginner’s hiking trip through the Grand Canyon the following spring. It was her first time hiking.
When Derick Lugo, author of the 2019 book “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey,” thru-hiked the AT in 2012, he was the only Black person to do it that season. A Brooklyn-born urbanite with a manicured goatee, Lugo had never been hiking before embarking on this adventure.
When he first told family and friends he was planning to hike the Appalachian Trail after reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and being inspired, they were shocked. They didn’t know anything about that world.
On the trail, his experience played out like a real-life version of the Funny or Die sketch.
“I didn’t realize that there [weren’t] a lot of Black people that thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail,” he said on the podcast Woods & Wilds. “I thought everyone did this, or whoever wanted to would do it. And people just kept coming up to me and not just saying, ‘Hey, you’re Black, you’re on the trail,’ but they were saying, ‘Look man, we’re so happy you’re on the trail. This is great.’”
Hiking proved to be a transformational experience for Lugo, who is now an avid hiker and outdoor advocate for all.
“I come from one of the busiest cities in the world — there are distractions everywhere and very little time to complete a productive thought,” he said. “When I’m hiking, I can set aside the hustle and bustle of New York City and take in what we humans are meant to take in: the sounds of nature. That gift frees my mind, recharges my soul, and reinforces my love of the outdoors.”
One of the reasons Lugo shares his story widely is because he wants to inspire others to get out there, despite any hesitations they may have.
“I want it to be one day where, when I’m out on the trail, I’m not someone that they’re surprised to see,” Lugo said in a video on his website. “I want to see all different types of people on a trail: people of all ages, different color, creed — you know, people from all over the world.”
While racial diversity has been increasing on the trails, there are still other hurdles regarding who gets to enjoy the woods.
Accessibility for the disabled is one of the most pressing challenges impacting public spaces, especially when it comes to the great outdoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
Syren Nagakyrie, who founded the informational website Disabled Hikers in March 2018, is among those 61 million adults. Nagakyrie is a writer, community organizer, and outdoor enthusiast.
They also experience connective-tissue disorder Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, blood-circulation disorder Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, and chronic pain and fatigue, among other conditions. Mobility challenges, fatigue, and dizziness are just a few symptoms associated with these disorders. Sometimes Nagakyrie also uses a cane.
After discovering that a hike listed as “easy” was in fact full of obstacles and challenges for someone like them, they came up with the idea of Disabled Hikers.
Through the website, Nagakyrie provides guides and resources that they tried and tested firsthand and other disabled hikers have tested. The site offers descriptions about where a particular path gets muddy or the pinpointing of major obstacles, like downed trees. They also share details about where benches, tables, and “even a nice log” are located.
Because it’s actually not uncommon for trails to be described using limited labels like “easy” and “difficult,” the organization has adopted the “Spoon Theory” trail-rating system. That system takes into account a number of important details, including how much effort hiking a trail takes, balanced with how replenishing of an experience it might be.
Nagakyrie is determined to serve this community, not just because of their love of Mother Nature, but also because they’re fully aware of the major benefits of trekking the trails.
“Hiking has impacted my mental and physical health in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Being outdoors has helped me feel a sense of belonging. And finding ways that I feel comfortable moving my body has been very empowering,” Nagakyrie says.
Given their condition, they admit that sometimes hiking can be tough on the body. But it’s clear the pros outweigh the cons.
In addition to the sense of empowerment hiking might provide for someone like Nagakyrie,
Hiking also provides time for reflection and meditation, which can do wonders for mental health, and it can significantly help reduce the risk for depression. This can help lower blood sugar, as well, making it a great low-impact exercise for those managing type 2 diabetes.
Whether it’s walking the trails, enjoying the sand between their toes on a beach, or indulging their curiosity with a trip to a national park, people need nature, and they can’t afford to let fear get in the way of experiencing it.
Nagakyrie and Lugo aren’t the only ones turning the idea of the “likely hiker” upside down.
This May, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared in an Instagram video that, after the Capitol insurrection earlier this year, she felt she needed to invest in self-care. Instead of booking a long weekend at a nice hotel, she strapped on an Osprey backpack and headed to a trail not too far from home. “I felt like I really needed a practice to help ground me,” she explained into the camera.
In addition, groups like Black People Who Hike (that Lugo collaborated with earlier this year), Black Girls Trekkin’, Native Women’s Wilderness, and Fat Girls Hiking have been popping up in the past few years to introduce the beauty and benefits of outdoor recreation to a larger, more inclusive crowd.
“It’s not my people that have to reimagine who should explore the outdoors. It’s everyone else [who] needs to,” said Jaylyn Gough, Native Women’s Wilderness founder, in an interview with HOKA.
Gough’s organization was founded in 2017 to inspire and raise the voices of Native women in the outdoor space. Black Girls Trekkin’ is a group created to empower Black women to spend time outdoors and also to protect and appreciate nature. The group does this by hosting group hikes and educational events.
These groups are working to combat the fears, lack of knowledge, and exclusion that has kept people away for far too long.
There’s an inscription hanging over an entrance to Yellowstone National Park that reads: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The inscription was created in 1872, long before the era of Jim Crow ended, before women could vote, and well before the American Disabilities Act.
Experiencing the benefits of the great outdoors shouldn’t be seen as a privilege. It’s everyone’s right.