Listening and Believing in our Outdoor Experiences

Listening and Believing in our Outdoor Experiences

BY CRYSTAL GAIL WELCOME

Thru-hiker and advocate Crystal Gail Welcome candidly shares her experiences on the trail and what it means to be inclusive in Nature. 

She is currently hiking the John Muir Trail as part of Footprints for Change Hike for Justice to raise awareness. 

This blog first appeared on pcta.com on June 19, 2021.


Photo: Alex Kormann
 


Nature, the great teacher, often reminds me, “Shhh….be quiet and listen.”

I am amazed by how much I’ve learned in my short tenure with Nature. I didn’t grow up with an appreciation for Nature. It evolved and expanded over time. 

As I gear up for my trek along the John Muir section of the Pacific Crest Trail and continue to section hike the Great Western Loop, like many hikers I find myself devouring books, articles and videos about other hikers. 

I have learned a lot from the hiking community, such as the importance of Leave No Trace and navigation skills.

Yet, there is limited information on how to mitigate being a Black female, lesbian, hiker with a disability. 

I need to know that I’m not planning my resupply in a town where I will encounter overtly racist or homophobic people, and I need up-to-date information about recharging my medical implant. 

If you think this is not an appropriate topic for a blog post, you have two clear options: stop reading, or remember the lesson I’ve learned from Nature: “be quiet and listen.”

To those of you who decided to be quiet and listen: starting my hike on the PCT has meant spending energy understanding the culture that exists along the trail. 

The PCTA [Pacific Crest Trail Association] recently published a blog post supporting diversity, equity and inclusion within the organization and on the trail. 

I’ve been a bit disheartened to read various social media comments to the post denouncing or dismissing the experiences of others. Many of those folks spoke words of hate and ignorance while proclaiming that the outdoors is “free,” “open” and “inclusive.”

Don’t get me wrong, Nature is the most inclusive place I’ve ever been, but she is not devoid of people or their ideologies and mindsets. The same folks who spew hate, racist, homophobic rhetoric and enable others to do so don’t trade their beliefs for a pair of trekking poles. 

The trailhead isn’t a magical portal that frees one of their biases, nor is it a mystical road devoid of personal experiences. Wherever we go, we take ourselves and our baggage with us.

I would like to address the folks who want to say that politics has no place on the trail, the PCTA has no business posting articles like this, and “I don’t see racism, so it doesn’t happen.”

Throughout history, parks and trails across the country have been conceptualized, created and managed by predominantly white men who held racist beliefs. People of color and marginalized folks were rarely considered major stakeholders in outdoor recreation.

Historically, people of color have experienced segregation from a multitude of park agencies. 

First, you don’t have to experience or observe racism or discrimination directly; instead, you can trust those affected when they tell you it’s a problem. 

Second, it is impossible to remove these social dynamics from the trail. As many people commented, “trees aren’t racist,” but the parks and trails that people built are based on racist ideologies and practices. Meaning they are, at their core, institutional.

I am a Black woman, a lesbian, and I have a disability. I am not “politics!” I find it absurd to hear that racism doesn’t exist in the backcountry, on trails, or at our national parks because the trail is a legacy of racism.

One might argue that these things happened a long time ago, and things are better now, and the outdoors is inclusive. 

Sure. 

However, that doesn’t reflect my experiences which have been echoed in various comments on aforementioned social media posts.

My formative years were spent as one of only a handful of Black students at predominantly white schools. I was taught history that excluded my ancestors before slavery and reduced them to a 28-day curriculum in February. 

I was never taught about York, a Black man who led the Lewis and Clark expeditions, or Matthew Henson, who was both the first person and the first Black man to ever to reach the North Pole.

During show and tell, my classmates would bring in photos and memorabilia from camping trips and visits to National Parks.

I knew about camping and hiking, but none of the people I ever saw in pictures, textbooks or magazines looked like me. They were white, able-bodied and mostly male. I’d rarely see any women in the outdoors and never anyone of color. 

I associated Nature with whiteness. I didn’t have a teacher or anyone else to teach me otherwise. 

I have since learned that it’s not Nature who is discriminatory.

On record, my kin originate from the Deep South, the backwoods of Louisiana. My ancestors were enslaved and forced to work in cotton fields — later, in those same fields, my Great Aunts and Uncles would go to play before landowners would forcibly remove them. Little consideration was given to the fact that it was the one place they knew intrinsically. 

As a result, my kin never encouraged us to connect with Nature, at least not for recreation. 

I learned, however, the importance of being outside for celebrations. Birthday celebrations, cookouts and barbecues are ways that my relatives readily embrace the outdoors together. We understand the freedom that being outdoors affords.

One of my favorite celebrations is Juneteenth, June 19. 

[On that day] in 1865, enslaved Black Americans were emancipated. I find it fitting that the way the newly freed Blacks rejoiced was by going outside. 

Inherently, people know that to find peace, we need the outdoors. But, in order to find that peace in the outdoors we need to have respect.

“Shhh….be quiet and listen” and believe other peoples’ experiences.

 

About the Author: 

After a lengthy battle with a rare brain disease, Crystal Gail Welcome came to recognize the healing power of nature. She now uses her experience to break down barriers so more people can access the outdoors. 

Crystal Gail is an experiential educator, author, storyteller, activist, backpacker, and Black outdoor leader. She chooses to speak out against racial injustice in the United States by hiking and giving voice to her experiences.

Instagram: @footprintsforchange

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