What happens when an African American woman decides to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine during a summer of bitter political upheaval? Everything you can imagine, from scary moments of racism to new friendships to soaring epiphanies about the timeless value of America’s most storied trekking route.
It's the spring of 2016, and I’m ten miles south of Damascus, Virginia, where an annual celebration called Trail Days has just wrapped up. Last night, temperatures plummeted into the thirties. Today, long-distance Appalachian Trail hikers who’d slept in hammocks and mailed their underquilts home too soon were groaning into their morning coffee. A few small fires shot woodsmoke at the sun as thousands of tent stakes were dislodged. Over the next 24 hours, most of the hikers in attendance would pack up and hit the 554-mile stretch of the AT that runs north through Virginia.
I’ve used the Trail Days layover as an opportunity to stash most of my belongings with friends and complete a short section of the AT I’d missed, near the Tennessee-Virginia border. As I’m moving along, a day hiker heading in the opposite direction stops me for a chat. He’s affable and inquisitive. He asks what many have asked before: “Where are you from?” I tell him Miami.
He laughs and says, “No, but really. Where are you from from?” He mentions something about my features, my thin nose, and then trails off. I tell him my family is from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, next to Ethiopia. He looks relieved.
“I knew it,” he says. “You’re not black.”
I say that of course I am. “None more black,” I weakly joke.
“Not really,” he says. “You’re African, not black-black. Blacks don’t hike.”
I’m tired of this man. His from-froms and black-blacks. He wishes me good luck and leaves. He means it, too; he isn’t malicious. To him there’s nothing abnormal about our conversation. He has categorized me, and the world makes sense again. Not black-black. I hike the remaining miles back to my tent and don’t emerge for hours.
Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump. The average percentage of voters who did vote for Trump—a xenophobic candidate who was supported by David Duke—in those miles? Seventy-six. Approximately 30 miles farther away, they’d come to a hiker hostel that proudly flies a Confederate flag. Later they would reach the Lewis Mountain campground in Shenandoah National Park—created in Virginia in 1935, during the Jim Crow era—and read plaques acknowledging its former history as the segregated Lewis Mountain Negro Area. The campground was swarming with RVs flying Confederate flags when I hiked through. This flag would haunt the hikers all the way to Mount Katahdin, the trail’s end point, in northern Maine. They would see it in every state, feeling the tendrils of hatred that rooted it to the land they walked upon.
During the early part of my through-hike, I arrive in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one afternoon, a little later than I planned. I was one of many thirtysomethings who’d ended their relationships, quit their jobs, left their pets with best friends, and flown to Georgia. By this point, I’m 200 miles into my arduous, rain-soaked trek. Everything aches. The bluets and wildflowers have emerged, and I’ve taken a break in town to resupply, midway through my biggest challenge thus far, the Smokies.
It isn’t until I’m about to leave town that I see it: blackface soap, a joke item that supposedly will turn a white person black if you can trick them into using it. I’m in a general store opposite the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The soap is in a discount bin next to the cash register. I’d popped in to buy chocolate milk and was instead reminded of a line from Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: “The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.”
There’s a shuttle back to the trail at Newfound Gap leaving in 15 minutes. I fumble to take a photograph of the cartoon white woman on the packaging, standing in front of her bathroom sink. She can’t believe it. How could this happen? Her face and hands are black. She scrubs to no avail.
I leave. Cars honk. I’m standing at an intersection and straining to return to the world. The shuttle arrives to take us from town to trailhead. The van leads us up, up into the mountains. It’s a clear day. Hikers are laughing, rejuvenated. “Did you have fun in town?” a friend I met on the trail asks. “This visibility is unreal,” says another, nose against the window. He thinks he has spotted a bear. The sun has lifted spirits. The van spills us out, but I can barely see a thing.
Two days later, a stream of texts hit my phone. Prince has died. I feel my vision blur, sit down on the first rock I see, and don’t move for a while. The hikers who walk past ask if I’m hurt. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” I’ll hear myself say. “Prince just died.” No one knows who I’m talking about. I will see variations of the same vacant expression for the rest of the day. “The Prince of Wales?” one hiker asks.
I’m losing light. I have to get to the next shelter. The afternoon has been a learning experience: the trail is no place to share black grief. Later, when Beyoncé releases Lemonade, an album that speaks powerfully to black women, I won’t permit myself to hear it out here. I’m lonely enough as it is, without feeling additional isolation. I keep it from myself, and I follow the blazes north. I tell the trees the truth of it: some days I feel like breaking.
The National Park Service celebrated its centennial last year. In one brochure, a white man stands boldly, precariously, in Rocky Mountain National Park, gazing at a massive rock face. He wears a full pack. He is ready to tackle the impossible. The poster salutes “100 years of getting away from it all.” The parenthetical is implied if not obvious: for some.
In a Backpacker interview from 2000, a black man named Robert Taylor was asked about the hardest things he faced during his through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He’d recently completed both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail. “My problems were mainly with people,” he said. “In towns, people yelled racist threats at me in just about every state I went through. They’d say, ‘We don’t like you,’ and ‘You’re a nigger.’ Once when I stopped at a mail drop, the postmaster said, ‘Boy, get out of here. We got no mail drop for you.’ ”
It will be several months before I realize that most AT hikers in 2016 are unaware of the clear division that exists between what hikers of color experience on the trail (generally positive) and in town (not so much). While fellow through-hikers and trail angels are some of the kindest and most generous people I’ll ever encounter, many trail towns have no idea what to make of people who look like me. They say they don’t see much of “my kind” around here and leave the rest hanging in the air.
The rule is you don’t talk about politics on the trail. The truth is you can’t talk about diversity in the outdoors without talking about politics, since politics is a big reason why the outdoors look the way they do. From the park system’s inception, Jim Crow laws and Native American removal campaigns limited access to recreation by race. From the mountains to the beaches, outdoor leisure was often accompanied by the words whites only. The repercussions for disobedience were grave.
“For me, the fear is like a heartbeat, always present, while at the same time, intangible, elusive, and difficult to define,” Evelyn C. White wrote in her 1999 essay “Black Women and the Wilderness.” In it she explains why the thought of hiking in Oregon, which some writer friends invited her to do, fills her with dread. In wilderness, White does not see freedom but a portal to the past. It is a trigger. The history of suffering is too much for her to overcome. This fear has conjured a similar paralysis nationwide. It says to the minority: Be in this place and someone might seize the opportunity to end you. Nature itself is the least of White’s concerns. Bear paws have harmed fewer black bodies in the wild than human hands. She does not wish to be the only one who looks like her in a place with history like this.
Perspective is everything.
There are 11 cats at Bob Peoples’s Kincora Hiking Hostel in Hampton, Tennessee. When I ask Peoples how he keeps track of them, he responds, “They keep track of me.” We talk about the places he’s hiked and the people he’s met. “Germans have the best hiking culture of any country,” he says. “If there was a trail to hell, Germans would be on it.” The chance of precipitation the next day is 100 percent. When it drizzles the rain plays me, producing different sounds as it strikes hat, jacket, and pack cover. Of the many reasons to pause while hiking, this remains my favorite. The smell and sound of the dampening forest is a sensory gift, a time for reflection.
The first bumper sticker I see in Hot Springs, North Carolina, says that April is Confederate History Month. A week later, I stay in a hostel near Roan Mountain, Tennessee, next to a house that’s flying a Confederate flag. Hikers who’ve hitched into town tell me that the rides they got were all from drunk white men. Be careful, they warn.
I reconsider going into town at all. It’s near freezing. Two days ago, I woke up on Roan Mountain itself in a field of frozen mayapples. Today I wear my Buff headband like a head scarf under my fleece hat. When I walk a third of a mile back to the trailhead alone the next morning, I look at the neighbor’s flag and wonder if someone will assume I’m Muslim, whether I’m putting myself at risk. I lower the Buff to my neck and worry that I’m being paranoid. Six months later, the San Francisco Chronicle will report on a woman of color who was hiking in Fremont, California, while wearing a Buff like a bandana and returned to find her car’s rear window smashed, along with a note. “Hijab wearing bitch,” it said. “This is our nation now get the fuck out.” She wasn’t Muslim, but that’s not the point. The point is the ease with which a person becomes a “them” in the woods.
Two weeks later, at Trail Days, there’s a parade celebrating current and past hikers. A black man with the trail name Exterminator aims a water gun at a white crowd as he moves along. He shoots their white children. They laugh and shoot back with their own water guns. This goes on for 30 yards. I pause to corral my galloping anxiety. He is safe, I tell myself. This event is one of the few places in America where I don’t fear for a black man with a toy gun in a public setting.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked more than 1,000 hate crimes and bias incidents that occurred in the month after the election. On November 16, 2016, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy posted information about racist trail graffiti on its Facebook page. It showed up along the trail corridor in Pennsylvania. The group was encouraging anyone who encountered “offensive graffiti or vandalism” to report it via e-mail.
Starting in 1936, amid the violence of Jim Crow, a publication known as the Green Book functioned as a guide for getting black motorists from point A to point B safely. It told you which gas stations would fill your tank, which restaurants would seat you, and where you could lay your head at night without fear. It remained in print for 30 years. As recently as 50 years ago, black families needed a guide just to travel through America unharmed.
There is nothing approximating a Green Book for minorities navigating the American wilderness. How could there be? You simply step outside and hope for the best. One of the first questions asked of many women who solo-hike the Appalachian Trail is whether they brought a gun. Some find it preposterous. But one hiker of color I spoke to insisted on carrying a machete, an unnecessarily heavy piece of gear. “You can never be too sure,” he told me.
As a queer black woman, I’m among the last people anyone expects to see on a through-hike. But nature is a place I’ve always belonged. My home in South Florida spanned the swamp, the Keys, and the dredged land in between. My father and I explored them all, waving at everything from egrets to purple gallinules and paddling by the bowed roots of mangroves. This was before Burmese pythons overran the Everglades, when the rustling of leaves in the canopy above our canoe still veered mammalian.
Throughout my youth, my grandmother and I took walks in Miami, where I’d hear her say the words tuum nifas. It meant a delicious wind, a nourishing wind. These experiences shaped how I viewed movement throughout the natural world. How I view it still. The elements, I thought, could end my hunger.
Little has changed since. Now the rocks gnaw at my shins. I thud against the ground, my tongue coated in dirt. I pick myself back up and start again.
Every day I eat the mountains, and the mountains, they eat me. “Less to carry,” I tell the others: this skin, America, the weight of that past self. My hiking partners are concerned and unconvinced. There is a weight to you still, they tell me. They are not wrong. My footing has been off for days. There were things I had braced for at the beginning of this journey that have finally started to undo me. We were all hurtling through the unfamiliar, aching, choppy, destroyed by weather, trying not to tear apart. But some of us were looking around as well. By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs. In July, I read the names of more black men killed by police: Philando Castile, Alton Sterling. Never did I imagine that the constant of the woods would be my friends urging, pleading, that I never return home.
That was then. Back home in Oakland, California, now, my knees hurt. I struggle with the stairs. I wonder if it’s Lyme disease from an unseen tick bite. The weight I lost has come back. My arms, the blackest I ever saw them after weeks in the summer sun, have faded to their usual dark brown. The bruises on my collarbones from my pack straps are no more. My legs aren’t oozing blood. My feet haven’t throbbed in four months. I am once again soft and unblemished and pleading with my anxiety every day for a few hours of peace. My timing couldn’t be worse. The news is relentless. Facts mean nothing. The truth is, I don’t know how to move through the world these days. Everything feels like it needs saving. I can barely keep up.
Who is wilderness for? It depends on who you ask. In 2013, Trail Life USA, a faith-based organization, was established as a direct response to the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay kids into their program. A statement by the group made the rules clear: Trail Life USA “will not admit youth who are open or avowed about their homosexuality, and it will not admit boys who are not ‘biologically male’ or boys who wish to dress and act like girls.”
Roughly two years later, news outlets profiled the Radical Monarchs, a group for children of color between the ages of eight and twelve, intended as a Girl Scouts for social activists. Headlines like “Radical Brownies Are Yelling ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Not Hawking Girl Scout Cookies” highlighted what an intersectional approach to youth activism could look like. Organizations such as Trail Life USA and Radical Monarchs show opposite ends of the outdoor spectrum. For conservative Christian men, religion is used as a means of tying exclusionary practices to outdoor participation. For people of color, the wilderness is everywhere they look. They don’t need mountains. Wilderness lives outside their front doors. Orienteering skills mean navigating white anxiety about them. They are belaying to effect change. And even then, their efforts might not be enough.
“People on the trail, overwhelmingly, are good people, but it isn’t advertised for us,” says Bryan Winckler, a black AT through-hiker who went by the trail name Boomer. “If you see a commercial for anything outdoor related, it’s always a white person on it. I think if people saw someone who looked like them they would be interested. It’s not advertised, so people think, That’s not for me.”
Brittany Leavitt, an Outdoor Afro trip leader based in Washington, D.C., echoed this sentiment. “You don’t see it in the media,” she told me recently. “You don’t see it advertised when you go into outdoor stores. When I do a hike, I talk about what’s historically in the area. Nature has always been part of black history.”
She’s right. Outdoor skills were a matter of survival for black people before they became a form of exclusion. Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.
“How can we make being in the outdoors a conduit for helping people realize, understand, and become comfortable with the space they occupy in the world?” says Krystal Williams, a black woman who through-hiked the AT in 2011. The change is happening slowly, in large part because of public figures bringing attention to the outdoors. Barack Obama designated more national monuments than any president before him. Oprah has called 2017 her year of adventure. “My favorite thing on earth is a tree,” she told ranger Shelton Johnson, an advocate for diversity in the national parks, when she met him in Yosemite in 2010. A recent photo of Oprah at the Grand Canyon shows her carrying a full pack. “Hiking requires no particular skill, only two feet and a sturdy pair of shoes,” she said. “You set the pace. You choose the trail. You lock into a certain rhythm with the road, and that rhythm becomes your clarion song.”
Halfway through the descent into Daleville, Virginia, I found myself lying on the trail floor, wincing up at the canopy. I had taken a sudden tumble and was dazed. My right ankle ached badly, though my trekking poles had saved me from a truly nasty sprain. It was not a difficult stretch of trail—some packed dirt, a few small rocks, plenty of switchbacks. I felt betrayed and then ashamed. I could feel my confidence evaporating. If I couldn’t walk a well-groomed trail, what in the world was I going to do with the boulder scrambles awaiting me in the north? Falls could be fatal. At worst this one was a slight embarrassment, but it marked the first time I needed to forgive myself for what I could not control.
Every inch of my being by that point had been shaped by an explicit choice. In pursuit of Katahdin—which I reached on October 1, after six months of hiking—I had wept and chopped off the long, natural hair, so politicized in America, that my grandmother had told me to always treasure. My afro was no more. I had left my skin to ash, my lips to crack. I wore my transmission-tower-print bandana like an electric prayer. The Appalachian Trail was the longest conversation I’d ever had with my body, both where I fit in it and where it fits in the world.
One of the popular Appalachian Trail books I read while preparing for my trek asked readers to make a short list of reasons why they wanted to do it. The author suggested we understand these reasons, down to our core, before embarking, coming up with something deeper than “I like nature.” I took out this document often when things felt overwhelming on the AT, when the enormity of the pursuit threatened to swallow me whole. Looking back, the list is a series of unrealized hopes. One line reads: “I have always been the token in a group; I have never chosen how I want to lead.” Another says: “It will be the first time I get to discover not whether I will succeed but who I am becoming.” The last line is a declaration: “I want to be a role model to black women who are interested in the outdoors, including myself.”
There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy. I belong here, I told the trail. It rewarded me in lasting ways. The weight I carried as a black woman paled in comparison with the joy I felt daily among my peers in that wilderness. They shaped my heart into what it will be for the rest of my life.
One of the most common sentiments one hears about the Appalachian Trail is how it restores a person’s faith in humanity. It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.
Rahawa Haile (@rahawahaile) is an Eritrean American writer whose work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Brooklyn Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She lives in Oakland.