Hiking While Black
This is meant to be taken in jest, just like the notion of black people hiking is taken. This isn’t any one particular response or reaction to how I’ve actually been treated as a Black man that runs a hiking and outdoor sports organization, but it is. I don’t want to come off as angry, because I’m not; I think it’s funny and sad. Funny that certain groups of people see us out there and we become the talk of the forest. Sad because some black people see us in a different light. They see us as a “selling out” of sorts. I would never think that going out into the woods, the forests, a reservation or a national park, would be considered less Black than say: Going to a club, the corner or the liquor store but, it is!
It seems like there is a movement to discredit anything different from alcohol indulgence, partying, dancing, drug use and violent music? Peace and quiet, nature, singing birds, babbling brooks and buzzing bugs are just too much for today’s “institutionalized African American.”
Historically, Black Americans have been inextricably tied to the outdoors, to the woods as many say. We’ve had to hunt for our food, survive and foremost, to escape slavery.
Maybe there is an underlying fear of the woods ingrained in the D.N.A of some Black people that keeps them out of the woods. Maybe it’s something else? Could it be laziness or an unwillingness to try something new, something different, something liberating?
Outdoor stuff is for White People
Sorry, I didn’t get that memo! I’ve run an outdoor organization for the last few years and have spent countless hours outdoors, with black people hiking, biking etc. etc. and doing fun and new things. Introducing our people to the outdoors, to the woods and to Nature in all of its beauty is essential to our programs. Adult hikes, family hikes and teen hikes, our goal is to make people comfortable with the outdoors no matter what activity they partake in. We’ve hiked for miles; we’ve climbed mountains, zip-lined, archery, rode our bikes, rowed boats and in the winter did some ice-skating and some snow hiking too. If that is too White for you, then I’m sorry. Just call me Tom…no offense to any Toms out there!
A Black Hiker?
Yes! I’m a Black Hiker and there are lots more with me. Through organizations like Hike4Life (www.hike4life.org) and Outdoor Afro (www.outdoorafro.com) we are sharing our love of the outdoors with people that look like us. The Natural World is here for all of us to enjoy, not just one specific race or group of people, it’s for all people. All colors, all religions and races, no one should be exempt from enjoying the beauty and wonders of the world.
Countless, numbers of African American outdoor enthusiast are able to “unplug” from society and get away from it all; disappearing in the woods and losing sight of all other forms of so called civilization is enlightening and spiritually empowering. If you’re a spiritual person, what better way to connect to the Creator, to walk, to see and to breathe in fresh air.
In our group, we’ve taken over 200 Black/Latino “Hike4Lifers” out of the hoods and into the woods and have heard some grumbles but mostly praises for our efforts.
“Poor Blair Underwood just wants to go for a walk in the woods, but the white folks treat him like he’s Big Foot!”
Yes, this is true!
On one occasion, we were ascending a trail and there was a much smaller group of White hikers; being the group leader I kept my eyes on them ahead of the trail, a look of awe, shock and wonder came across their faces. I laughed to myself because I could only imagine what they were thinking. Was it the size of the group or was it that we were all Black?
While taking no offense to the forced smiles and tentative waves, we kept it moving and headed up the trail. Now, jokingly I cautioned my troop that we would possibly come across a Deer or a Beaver but, I also told them to not feel any kind of way if we are looked upon as if we were wildlife and sure enough.
There’s no problem with the strange looks or the extra Earthy hellos, the problem is that we need to get out more. If we were out there more, it wouldn’t feel so alien to us. We segregate ourselves from those environments and can’t blame anyone but, ourselves.
Hiking is great exercise, no matter what the naysayers say! Period. Point. Blank. You want Cardio? You want sweat? You want to burn??? Then get out there and trek the Earth. On a good day, a 3 to 4 hour hike will burn tons of calories, strengthen your muscles, tighten your butt and get your heart racing.
High Blood Pressure (hypertension) and Diabetes are rampant in our communities! We wanted to see what we could do to make a difference in the lives of people that look like us. We aren’t exclusively Black but, our people suffer from these at times fatal ailments at alarming rates. Obesity is another reason we started our organization. Our children alone in less than 8 years will make up 67% of the obese stricken population in the United States. This is not okay! We try to engage with parents who may be obese and try to get them out with us to experience the outdoors and to see that they are slowly dying. I myself benefit from the exercise I get from hiking but I know I need to step it up. I know that I need to do this for my health in order to be here for my children. Sadly, not enough parents think that way or are willing to forego the club on Friday to hike with us on Saturday morning.
Eating right helps, exercise, living right, taking care of our families keeps us healthy. If we were good at being a person trainer, or a fitness instructor, I’m sure we could or would do that but, we are outside, we truly “workOUT “while so many work-INdoors.
So, what do we do? How can we get more people to listen to us, to drop the negative thinking and get up and get out with us?
We’re on Facebook; we are on the World Wide Web, Twitter. Word of mouth works great for us but what more can we do to free your minds so your butts will follow? Do we need a hip hop superstar to accompany us out in the woods (yeah, we thought of it)? Do we need to pay our people to adopt a healthy lifestyle?
We want you! You give yourselves to Uncle Sam, give yourselves to your better self and get moving!
One of the most moving and motivating historical pieces of information that inspires me to do what I do is about Harriet Tubman. Thanks to Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro, who got the wheels turning in my head to do some research on our Great Sister!
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star, and trying to avoid slave catchers, eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The “conductors” in the Underground Railroad used a variety of deceptions for protection. At one of the earliest stops, the lady of the house ordered Tubman to sweep the yard to make it appear as though she worked for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, it is likely that Tubman hid in these locales during the day. Because the routes she followed were used by other fugitive slaves, Tubman did not speak about them until later in her life.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later:
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
This feeling is common to when we reach a goal or when we reach the top. I always tell those I hike with that “The reward is at the top.” Whether its rest or the scenery, something more is waiting for us at the top. Harriet Tubman, travelled for thousands of miles in the woods, to help free some of our people and as the quote earlier in this blog stated, many more could have been free if only they were aware of what they were. Today, we are not slaves, we are not fugitives escaping for our freedom but, we are in ways still unaware of the ailments that plague us and the sicknesses we live with. By increasing our activity, by leaving behind a sedentary lifestyle, getting outdoors and connecting with the Earth, we can increase our years…Harriet lived to be 93!
African Americans, Black Americans, Latino Americans, we can take back our place in the outdoors. We can reestablish the connection that was severed years ago. We can turn off the televisions and radios, turn off the cell phones, pack some food and disappear into the trees. There is more there than any gym can give you and there is more life than any party or club you may go to. Life is too short to worry about whom hiking is for and who it isn’t for. It’s for you. It’s for all of us.
Join Hike4Life in our efforts to Get Up. Get Out. Go Hiking! Join Outdoor Afro where Black people and Nature Meet. Join us in our efforts to connect and reintroduce our people to the world outside. You can start you own outdoors organization. Get people together, explore your local natural areas. Check with your local parks and recreation department to learn about trails and any safety issues that may come up. Start a Meet-Up group for hiking or look for one to join. There are many ways to get up, to get out and to get hiking!