There’s a lot to love about hiking the Appalachian Trail and I’ve indicated some of it in past posts, in harmony with thousands of others’ write-ups. But there’s also something deeply troubling: an absence.
I hiked five hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail this summer. On the trail, at evening campsites, or in small-town hostels, resupply stores or post offices, I saw hundreds of other backpackers. None of these were black. Of the hundreds of day hikers that I met, no more than five were black: only two were adults; the youth were in groups of mostly white kids.
One of the two adults was hiking with a white person. We walked together several miles on a
gorgeous sunny day in the low 70’s with soul-refreshing overlooks of the Shenandoah Valley. After having coffee at the Skyland patio, the young black woman said she greatly enjoyed hiking and, living only fifty miles away, would like to come here more often. “But, I would be afraid to come here on my own.”
“I would be afraid to come here on my own.” (Stony Man Cliffs, Shenandoah National Park)
The fear would not be of the area’s bears or snakes. But rather of those with a history of behavior more vicious than bears’ and with a poison more deadly than snakes’. Many of us had hoped if not believed that this danger had been diminishing over the past decades. But as a ruptured pipe allowing coal ash to surge into the Dan River dramatized the pollution that Alpha Natural Resources (what a euphemism!) and others had been spreading through the Appalachian waterways for years, so too the moral coal ash that burst out in the recent campaign and election has led us to see the degree to which racism along with other forms of hatred and intolerance have been polluting our land.
Of course, the history of such pollution goes way back.
We who extol the joy and wonder of being in the woods might view the Transcendentalists as our American forbearers. The blogs of today’s backpackers frequently echo words like these, written two centuries ago:
In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in
life, -- no disgrace, no calamity…which nature cannot repair.
The wealthy white Emerson, on friendly terms with neighboring landowners whether human or divine, could enjoy Sunday afternoon visits to the plantations of God. “Nothing can befall me in life.” What confidence, what security!
But one bound to the plantations of men had a quite different view of the woods. For Frederick Douglas, Emerson’s contemporary, the woods was a place to be “overtaken, and torn to pieces by the fangs of the terrible bloodhound…stung by scorpions, chased by wild beasts, bitten by snakes, and finally, after having nearly reached the desired spot,—after swimming rivers, encountering wild beasts, sleeping in the woods, suffering hunger and nakedness,—…overtaken by our pursuers, and…shot dead upon the spot!”
While the prosperous Thoreau “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” the ex-slave Douglas challenged his readers to go to “the deep pine woods” to consider the “soul-killing effects of slavery” reflected in the songs that could be heard there when slaves were passing through: “the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”
The legacy is still evident today: in absence. My internet search for articles or blogs about African Americans who have hiked the Appalachian Trail yielded only one result. A 2000 Backpacker article reports on Robert Taylor, “the first African American to thru-hike both the Appalachian (AT) and Pacific Crest Trails (PCT).” He tells of physical trials on the PCT but on the AT “My problems were mainly with people. In towns, people yelled racist threats in just about every state I went through… Even on the trail itself, other AT hikers acted like I was going to steal their gear.” A blogger listed “7 Women who Made History on the Appalachian Trail” and then “7 more…” None of these was black. In 2011, a Los Angeles Times article reports, a Yosemite park official estimated that less than one percent of Yosemite’s visitors are black; the percentage of those who do overnight hikes there would probably be far smaller. The article quotes a 92-year old African-American woman on a bus tour there: “"This is as close to heaven as we're likely to get in this life. [I always viewed Yosemite as] a country club for white folks… I never felt that I fit into Yosemite's design. I never saw [photographs of] people who looked like me [there]." Absence.
I learned of the Times article by reading Backpacker.com’s “Heroes” column on Rue Mapp, founder of the organization Outdoor Afro that “celebrates and inspires African American connections and leadership in nature.” Chapters around the country work “for inclusion in outdoor recreation, nature, and conservation for all.” The Backpacker article concludes “Mapp knows that her quest won’t be over any time soon. For many African Americans, the woods once seemed like a threatening place and still can feel foreign and unwelcoming. ‘I’m in the business of culture shift,’ she says. ‘I’ll know I’ve been successful when I’m on a backcountry trail, and I see another African American, and it’s no big deal.’”
*or 25 : )
Let’s hope we see more African Americans feel on top of the world in places such as here in Grayson Highlands State Park.
Trails we follow,