Now, as a nation, we don’t promise equal outcomes, by we were founded on the idea everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.
-Former President Barack Obama
“Listen, I don’t mean this in a racist way, but…” Katie began her sentence in a way that is almost always followed by something racist. This was a month ago and Katie was the until-now pleasant section hiker from Asheville, NC, who offered to drive a few of us the 90 minutes from Damascus, VA back to Erwin, TN, to continue our hike north. We had met her in Damascus for Trail Days, which as I described in Part 3, is the Mardi Gras of the Appalachian Trail, parade and all.
I was in the front seat of Katie’s rental SUV, holding my breath, terrified that she was about to make this the most awkward car ride since the time I suggested breaking up with an ex-girlfriend one hour into a six-hour car ride from Memphis to New Orleans. Stormy, who earned that trail name because she’s convinced a rain cloud is following her to Maine, was sitting behind me, staring at the ground. And Blackalachian — I believe his full trail name is actually “The Blackalachian” — is behind Katie and was the one to which her almost-sure-to-be-racist comment is being directed.
“My husband’s black,” Katie continued, which as I frantically kept score in my head, seemed to make things much less offensive, “and I can never get him to hike.” Oh. Maybe this isn’t racist at all. “He just laughs at me and says, ‘Black people don’t hike. Katie.'”
I gasp in my mind. Wait, that’s racist! In my not-mind, I try to sneak a glimpse of Blackalachian’s reaction to Katie through the rear view mirror. He doesn’t seem offended. I breathe. Ha, ok, wait, it’s not racist because Katie’s husband is black, and he doesn’t hike. Right?
Blackalachian laughs at Katie’s comment, signaling it was okay for me to laugh, though mine is a nervous, put-your-toe-in-the-water awkward turtle chuckle. “Yeah, well he’s kind of right,” Blackalachian smiles when he says this, exposing the golden grill covering his top teeth. “Black people don’t hike.”
Katie’s quick with her response: “But you do.”
The Pretty Elephant In The Room
It was two-and-a-half weeks ago and I was leaving Damascus again. This time hiking north out of it. I was running late because I had to stop for a big breakfast of the best biscuits and gravy, and country and ham I’d had since I lived in Boone, North Carolina. Then I made it 100 yards and had to stop for a stack of blueberry pancakes. Then I made it a quarter-mile and had to stop for a three scoop peanut butter and hot fudge sundae. Then I didn’t make it anywhere because I was full and needed to rest.
Now I was very late and moving as fast my bloated body could take me, determined to finish the 18 miles I had planned for the day. About 10 miles in, I got a whiff of some very foul body odor and, when I rounded the turn, I saw what appeared to be a shirtless 14-year-old boy coming out from behind a tree.
“Sorry,” he said in a voice deeper than a 14-year-old boy, and — to be honest — deeper than mine, “had to take a leak.”
This was Al, and he and I hiked together for the last four hours of the day, and also some of the next one. Al had the curly, Corey Matthews jewfro I’d always dreamed of, and was neurotic to match. “I’ve seen eight bears already!” he claimed.
“Well, I’ve only actually seen two, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been around eight.”
“I’m not totally sure what that means.”
He also is the only person I know who eats cookies and milk on the trail. He carries around powdered milk and a sleeve of Oreos. He sounds 12, but I think he was either 19 or 20. He also lost his shirt, which is why he never wears one.
“So what made you decide to hike?” I asked a few miles in.
“Well, I’m an engineering student,” I can’t remember if he pushed his glasses up on his nose, but let’s just say he did, “and my dad, who’s also an engineer, helped me get an internship for a really good company last year.”
He hiked fast, so I had to work hard to keep up. “Sounds awesome.”
“No, I hated it,” he turned his head back toward me for a moment, but continued to hike. “I was behind a desk all summer. I’m the President of my college’s Outdoors Club and being inside for months made me depressed. I pretty much had a nervous breakdown.”
“Geez, I’m sorry. At least you’re outside now.”
We were silent for what felt like too long, and I tried to get conversation started again. “So you don’t have a trail name, Al?”
“No, not yet. I have to hike 23 miles each day so I can finish before school starts again. I haven’t taken any time to stop in towns, so I haven’t really hung out with anyone.”
“Twenty-three? That’s Michael Jordan’s number. How about ‘Air Jordan.'”
I could tell he was figuring out how not to hurt my feelings.
“Michael Jordan’s kind of before my time,” he said in an apologetic tone.
“Plus, I don’t really like sports. Just my Quidditch team.”
We were from two different worlds. “Well what do you do for fun,” and then I realized he already told me and I was just hoping there was something else besides Quidditch.
“I read a lot of National Geographic, but I like the old Nat Geo better.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“It’s just gotten so political lately. Too political.”
“I mean — don’t think you think it’s important for people to recognize the threat our environment is facing if we don’t –”
He cut me off. “Yeah, I’m in my college’s club for young democrats. I’m engaged. But Nat Geo used to just be about great pictures and interesting articles.”
“Oh,” I think I got what he was saying. “There are other places you can go for the serious stuff.”
“Yeah,” he hiked on silent for a few moments but looked like he was thinking about something brilliant to add. “And sometimes I just want to look at pretty pictures of elephants.”
At home I’m engaged in current events. One of the really nice things about being on the trail, though, is that, on the trail, that’s not possible. And that’s okay! It gives me a chance to enjoy the equivalent of Al’s pretty elephants. And, to the extent these articles have been popular, I think that has something to do with readers wanting the same thing.
But my hope has been that if someone reads each of these articles, they will have some picture of what hiking on the Appalachian Trail is like. I don’t think it’s possible to paint that picture without highlighting what I think many of you would notice within your first 20 miles: a stunning lack of racial diversity among the AT’s hikers.
So this can’t all be about pretty elephants today.
If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck
It started with the Chinese buffet in Erwin, TN. If I began hiking at 6am, I could knock out the 27 miles by 7pm, leaving me two hours to eat all I could. I held up my end of the bargain, but when I got there, they were closed for staff vacation. Grumble.
A few weeks later I’d heard there was a shelter on the trail to which you could have pizza delivered. My original plan had me passing by in the morning — before a pizzeria would be open — but if I did 28 miles that day, I could get there. Before I busted my tush, though, I called to confirm.
“Hi!” I began when the pizzeria answered the phone. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail and — ”
“We deliver to the shelter until 9:15,” as if she’d gotten the question several million times.
Because this is how I am, I probed for more information. “Is that me placing the order at 9:15 or you handing me the pizza at 9:15?”
She paused as if she was deciding whether or not to hang up the phone on me. I suspect most would have hung up. She did not. “If you place the order by 9:15, you should be fine.”
Should?? What does that mean? I decided to leave it alone. I hiked like a maniac that day to get to the shelter before 9:15. 8:47 to be exact.
“Hello! Can you deliver one medium supreme pizza to Partnership Shelter, please?” The one I had been daydreaming about all day.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a tone making it clear she wasn’t actually sorry, but rather derived pleasure from the pain she was causing me. I could hear her grin. “But it’s a $30 minimum and a $5 delivery fee.” She paused to listen to the sound of my heart breaking under the weight of crushed dreams. “Plus tip.”
“$30 minimum?!” the desperation in my voice was pathetic — Aw shucks! — even to me. “How much am I up to with the medium pizza?”
“What if I made it a large?”
“What if I added a meatball parmesan hero?”
“A meatball parmesan sub.”
“How much?” I insisted.
“That would bring you to $21.”
Hm. “And how much are six chicken wings?”
“It’s a special on Sunday nights. $4.”
“Can I pay full price?” I begged for her not to give me a discount.
“Yes. That would be $7.”
“Do you have anything for $2?”
“Bread sticks are $3.”
“Will you take a dollar off my full-price wings?”
“No, sir, we will not partially discount your wings.”
I calculated in my head. One large supreme pizza. One meatball hero. Six buffalo wings, presumably with celery. Six bread sticks, most likely with marinara. Even after hiking 28 miles, this sounded idiotic.
“Is there anyone else that delivers pizza with a more minimum minimum,” I asked.
“Hello?” I checked. I knew she was there, though, because I could hear her seething.
“Pizza Hut has a $15 minimum. Have a good night, sir,” and she hung up.
I didn’t have a Pizza Hut menu, and Wifi was non-existent, so I called the best eater I know, my friend Thom in Kansas City, to help me put together the perfect $15 Pizza Hut meal. Unfortunately he has a life or was asleep and didn’t pick up, so I was left to do this manually.
“Hello, is this Pizza Hut?”
“Sure is!” Now this was the cheerful woman I needed to help me get a pizza!
“Do you guys deliver to the Partnership Shelter on the Appalachian Trail?”
“We sure do! Oh, actually, please wait one moment, I’m just going to place you on hold.”
No problem. She’s probably taking another call. Or checking to see how long it will take to deliver me my pizza.
“Sir,” she was back on the phone.
“On any other night we do deliver,”
I thought a series of expletives. All of them. The worst ones twice.
“But we have a new driver tonight, and we don’t want to send him out there on his first night. I’m sorry about that.”
What was going to happen to him out here on his first night? C’mon! Trial by fire!
I sat on the steps of the Partnership Shelter and began boiling water to cook the parmesan-flavored pasta side I eat almost every night, wondering why God hates me.
But it didn’t end there. Two instances might just be a coincidence. There was the bar in Damascus that was only closed on Wednesdays — the night I was there. There was the bar and grill in Fontana Village that had a power outage the one evening I was in town. And, of course, the Amish store in Burkes Garden, specializing in soft pretzels, shoofly pie, and homemade pizza. She sold the store to an antique furniture salesman just one month before I got there.
The Narrows, VA high school soccer team made the state championship. Why am I telling you this? Because one of the players is also the son of the owner of a brewery in Narrows. I was hiking 31 miles one Saturday to get to that brewery, which ended up being closed for the day so he could watch his son play. Fucking Father of the Year over here.
So you’ll have to excuse me when I met the news of a Chinese buffet in the next trail town, Pearisburg, VA, with reservation. But sure enough, I found myself sitting at a Mexican restaurant bar with a hiker named Bone Saw, drinking a beer and waiting for a text from Churchill to inform me that he, Bean, and Morning Bird were heading to the buffet. As Bone Saw told me about all the delicious items I’d encounter, the text came in. So I finished my beer and barreled down the steep hill to the shopping center containing a Food Lion, a tool store, and Lucky’s Chinese Restaurant, sure I would hit a land mine, or watch a meteor strike Lucky’s before I could dip a single crab rangoon into the orange, syrupy sweet and sour goo.
Lucky’s Chinese Restaurant: A Photo Essay
I grabbed a second ice cream for the three-minute walk up the hill to the Mexican restaurant in which I had left Bone Saw 90 minutes ago. When I got back there, another hiker, Goat Bar, was standing halfway up a stool, shirtless and gesturing wildly toward the bruises around his hips and waist where his hiking pack was wearing away his skin. Ten feet away, an older couple tried to enjoy their Burrito Especials.
“Please, my friend,” the manager begged, “you must put your shirt back on.” It sounded like he had already asked a few times.
Bone Saw was talking to the manager who was yelling at Goat Bar, telling him to call him when he came to Austin so they could grab “those Mexican beers with the tomato juice.”
It was mayhem. But I was satisfied. Full of egg foo yong. I began to sip what was only my second beer of the night, excited to watch the US-Mexico World Cup qualifying match. But as the match started, I began to feel something wasn’t right. I felt a whisper, deep in my stomach. Like thunder very far away. No problem.
“Yeah, Bonesaw, I’ll be in Austin in October. Can’t wait to see you.”
But the whisper became a conversation. Reasonable at first, but rising in tenor and into my rib cage. I broke a sweat.
“Yeah, wait what? What do I do in New Orleans? I – I used to work in education, but I’m not totally sure what I’ll do when I get back yet.”
Became an all-out fight in my esophagus.
“Guys – guys – guys – GUYS – is it hot in here?”
Became a chorus. A loud, dissonant, amateur, General Tso-filled chorus.
“Fuck, sir, I’m sorry, sir, where’s the bathroom?”
All those precious calories. Gone. Lost to gluttony. I ate more than I could eat.
But I came out of the bathroom a new man. I drank a margarita, ate a pint of Ben and Jerrys, watched the soccer match, and joined the manager in asking Goat Bar to put his shirt back on.
“Pearisburg: Small Town, Big Personality”
The next morning I decided to explore downtown Pearisburg before I got back on the trail. I also had a few errands to run. I’d heard you should order a new pair of hiking shoes every 500 miles, which would mean I’d have to buy five pair during this hike. But I’m smart with money,or frugal, or cheap, and I decided I’d stretch that to 600 miles so I’d only need to order four pair. But here I was at 634 miles and my shoes seemed fine enough.
Churchill taught me that if you send things Priority Mail, as long as you don’t open the package, you can forward it on to another post office for free.
“Do these shoes look okay to you?” I pointed Churchill down toward the old shoes on my feet.
“Yeah, I mean, it looks like you burned a hole in it right there on a campfire or something,” he was correct. “And right there,” also correct.
“But,overall,.I think they look kind of fine.”
Kind of fine? Might as well be my trail name.
If I could get to 730 miles, I might only need to buy three pair. One hundred miles to Troutville you go!
Next up was the bakery. I’d heard they have some of the best baked good on the trail!
Okay, time for a haircut.
They were also closed.
After the Chinese food made a guest appearance at the Mexican restaurant (how cosmopolitan am I?), I remember the manager telling us a story about how the local branch of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club — a different branch of the club that got into a shootout at the Twin Peaks in Waco, TX a few years ago — attempted to hold a membership meeting at his restaurant.
My fantasy football league commissioner used to make us go to the Metairie Twin Peaks, so I had intimate knowledge of the Waco shooting, the Bandidos, and Twin Peaks in general. The manager lacked this knowledge and so was surprised at the racially charged tone of the meeting. “There are some interesting people in this town, man.”
On the grounds of the county courthouse, only yards from the bakery and barber, was a statue honoring the Confederate General who defeated his Union counterpart, and future President, Rutherford B. Hayes. The statue was erected in 1905 and I know — in New Orleans at least as much anywhere else — this debate has been waged. I will only add here that I don’t believe a statue erected in 1905 says so much about the current population as it did about the people living in the town then.
Feet from the confederate statue is a monument honoring the soldiers who lose their lives fighting for their country during World War I.
It was erected in 1921, so I guess the same thoughts apply. But this one felt really bad to me. Part of me understands that this monument shows us that the citizens of Pearisburg in 1921 made a distinction between Thomas Smith and the other town soldiers who died fighting in the First World War. A greater or less than. Probably not a greater than. At least a different than. Definitely an Other.
Part of me gets that this monument tells us so much about Pearisburg, VA in 1921. Part of me is wondering what it would be like to be a black hiker, coming downtown for a haircut, and seeing this. But most of me just feels embarrassed.
“Nah, honestly, there haven’t been any problems on the trail,” Blackalachian answers Katie’s question. “Hikers are great. No issue there.” He thought for a second. “If I walk into a store in town and someone gives me a weird look, I just smile and walk out. But it’s so rare. Almost nonexistent.”
We were getting close to Erwin.
“Though,” he continued, “early on in the hike — back in Georgia — there was this one guy. He happened to be Asian.” Asian? That got me wondering if I had seen a single Asian person hiking the trail. I remembered in the first week there was a woman from China who was so afraid of bears, she would play this loud, cheesy synthesizer music from a speaker hanging around her neck.
When I got to an overlook, I would sit there for awhile to enjoy the view and maybe a snack. But, she and I hiked at a similar speed, so within a few minutes, I’d know she was coming because the epic, computerized Nintendo music would grow louder. We’d sit there — neither of us talking — looking out over the mountains to the clunkiest version of Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda.
“The music feels appropriate to the mood,” I’d joke.
She’d reply in the only English I heard her speak, “I don’t like bears.”
“He wasn’t hiking,” Blackalachian snapped me back into the moment. “Fishing, I think. And he was like, ‘Oh, dude, a black guy! You’re the first one I’ve seen!’ He was smiling — being too friendly — and my teeth clenched. He may have noticed I was uncomfortable and tried to diffuse it, or maybe he was egging me on, I couldn’t tell. He was like, ‘Hey man, you want a Newport?'”
Stormy, Katie and I didn’t say anything. Blackalachian, sensing we didn’t understand, “That’s a stereotypical cigarette black people smoke.”
“Oh oh, yeah, got it,” we nodded, pretending we already knew that.
“I was mad for a second,” he was looking at the floor of the car, paused, and then let out a chuckle, “but you know what? I had a Newport in my hands I was about to light, so maybe he was just being nice? I don’t know.”
Virginia Is For Masochists
Ridgerunners are temporary employees, usually stationed along high density stretches of the trail. From what I can tell, most are required to sleep along their portion of the trail at least four nights a week, and during the day, they roam back and forth along their jurisdiction, answering questions, offering advice, and making sure all hikers — day hikers, section hikers and thru-hikers — exercise hiking principles that are sustainable to both themselves and the trail.
As I climbed, huffed, and puffed up to an overlook approximately 250 miles into Virginia, I was greeted by a bearded man holding a broken trekking pole and sporting a Ridgerunner uniform. “Welcome to Sophie’s Rest,” he said quietly, calling it by a name not mentioned in my guide. “Do you have any questions for me about this stretch of the trail?” He was so calm.
“Yeah,” I bleated, between sucking in oxygen. “I thought Virginia was supposed to be flat and easy.” I dropped my poles and tried to rub the sweat from my eyes. I’m dehydrated so how can I be sweating this much?
“Right,” he squinted and scratched where the back of his head meets his neck, “I’m not really sure why people say that. It’s not true,” he laughed quietly, and I was too tired to punch him, “but you already know that.”
Pleasure House — even though she has what I think is the funniest name on the trail, I’ll call her Amber because she’s the one thru-hiker I knew before we started, introduced on Facebook through a mutual friend — said the group with which she hikes has talked about the obvious lack of racial diversity on the trail. She said, “We joked white people do this as a way to inject some adversity into our easy lives.” I laughed as I thought back to the several dozen times I wondered why I was volunteering to climb up this mountain, or camp in this snow, or get eaten by this swarm of mosquitoes.
She laughed, “Half-joking.”
And Virginia has been full of adversity. It has been beautiful — don’t get me wrong. Through two-thirds of Virginia, there have been probably been more views than Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina combined.
I’m not sure if it’s the mismanagement of expectations (I though this was going to be easy), issues with weight loss (despite eating more pints of Ben and Jerrys than I care to admit, weight loss might be making me weaker), or the heat (it’s creeping up toward the 90s with humidity that reminds me of New Orleans), but holy cow this is hard.
Mostly, I think, it’s the fucking rocks.
Hiking up steep inclines or descents on well-packed dirt is tiring, sure, but I can manage. One step at a time, I remind myself. None of these steps hurt very much. I’m only intimidated by them in aggregate.
But when walking on rocks, every step really can hurt. For starters, rocks can be sharp, and that hurts to walk on. You try to avoid the ones that look sharpest, but to examine each rock before each step isn’t feasible. So you have to step on sharp rocks. And rocks of irregular shapes. They’re sometimes slippery from rain or streams, but even when they’re not, your feet are sliding all over the place, which means your foot might hit two or three sharp rocks in a single step.
And you’re walking uphill or downhill, but then you get to a boulder and have to take a giant step up, just to take another massive one down (possibly on top of a sharp rock). that doesn’t sound so bad, except you’ve been at this one climb for four hours. Four hours of your feet sliding every which way, tender toes slamming into rocks and roots.
Lately, I’ve noticed when I hit my toe on something, I turn around and glare at the offending obstruction, as if to warn it to be more careful in the future. “Hey! That’s my toe you stubbed, you rock.”
All this while climbing up a mountain for four hours, which would be tough even if the mountain was made of unicorns and ice cream (that would also be weird). And maybe that’s the toughest part. Stepping up to, down to, and over — as well as balancing on — rocks of different shapes and sizes forces me to engage my leg and core muscles in ways I normally don’t have to while walking. That’s painful. But hiking on rocks also forces me to keep my mind engaged, rather than allowing it to wander. Focused for hours. Four hours. Four painful hours.
And two-and-a-half hours in, I’m struggling. So are other hikers. I learn one of my friends had quit a few days earlier. “I just can’t walk anymore,” he told me as we shook hands goodbye. And I passed another guy sitting on a rock (okay, rocks are good for that, at least) with his face in his hands. When I check with him to make sure he’s okay, he tells me he’s quitting at the next road he gets to.
This is discouraging. And Pennsylvania — all 300 miles of it — is supposed to be worse. More rocks, sharper rocks, and a dozen miles at a time with no water source. Why am I volunteering to do this?
My watch beeps. It’s 2pm, which mean it’s time for a snack. I drop my pack against a tree and drop myself against the pack. I pull a pack of peanut butter crackers out of my pocket. Six peanut butter crackers. Four hundred measly calories that are supposed to get me another two hours over these piece of shit rocks.
I wipe the sweat from my eyes, but it’s just replaced by more. A river of sweat dripping from my head. Just like New York Mets pitchers can’t contain opposing offenses, my New York Mets baseball cap can’t contain a mountain’s worth of perspiration. (That was me trying to get into the sports section.)
Wait, I ate the six peanut butter cracker sandwiches already? I’m hungrier than I was before I ate them. Two more hours until I can eat a Honey Bun? I’ll be thinking about the Honey Bun for two hours. Or rocks.
Fuck everything. I slide down my back to the ground and my back is poked and prodded by sharp stones — which still feels better than walking on them. I hear two dogs barking. I think I’ve been hearing them for hours, but this is the first time I allowed myself to think about them. Do they just bark at each other all day?
I’m so hungry. 2:10pm. I need to reapply sunscreen. Still laying on the rocks, spread eagle, I fumble around for my toiletries bag. But my hand hits my food bag instead. I abandon all self-restraint. I don’t ask myself if it’s okay. I might have blacked out because the next thing I know I’m shoveling Honey Buns, Pop Tarts, and dried mango slices into my mouth. I’m still laying there and, by the end, I’m stuffing plain tortillas into my gullet. 140 calories per tortillas. Mmm.
This Is Problematic
The great news is, within 15 minutes, I was flush with enough energy to continue my hike over the mountain, which — like all mountains — did eventually peak. I might have found more humor in the way I blackout-attacked my food, except now all I had left was a pack of Buffalo Chicken rice. I was supposed to be meeting Amber and her friends at a family-style restaurant (which is essentially an all-you-can-eat southern buffet they bring to your table so you don’t even have to waste calories or time getting up for it), but now I’d have to make a resupply for hiking food before then.
But when life gives you lemons, you’d better hope the store has ice cream. After buying my hiking food, eating an ice cream sundae, and scarfing down a taquito, I was ready to see if I could catch Amber’s group for the back half of their dinner.
“Ma’am,” I asked the cashier with my best manners, “can I have a sample of the Moose Tracks ice cream, please?”
“Didn’t you just have two scoops of that?”
“Well, one scoop of that, and one scoop of Caramel Cheesecake Cream,” I corrected her. “But then I had a taquito and I’d really like the Moose Tracks to be the last taste in my mouth before I hike.” I looked sad and gestured toward the door,” It’s so hot out there.”
I was, once again, audibly sighed at. “Fine.”
“Thank you!” I pointed, “Can you make sure to get some of that fudgy bit right there?”
A Six-Mile Half-Mile
As I walked out of the store with my sample spoon toward the road that would take me the 0.7 miles back toward the trail, a man with crisp jeans, brown cowboy boots, and a new-looking cowboy hat waved me down while he pumped gas.
“Want a ride back to the trail?” he asked.
“Sure!” I tossed my bag in the back of his truck and hopped in the passenger seat.
“Where you heading today?”
“Oh, I’m meeting some friends at the family style restaurant.”
“Yeah? The one here in Catawba?”
“Yeah, but my book says it’s six miles down the trail.”
“What?” he shook his head. “That’s just a half-a-mile up the road.”
“A half-mile?” I think my voice cracked. How did the Appalachian Trail manage to make a six mile mess out of this?
“Want me to just drive you?” he smiled, like he was encouraging me to cheat on a diet. “I won’t tell anyone.”
I did. I really did. I wanted it more than my birthday cake when I was five. More than I wanted the first day of summer vacation when I was in Junior High School. More than I wanted my first kiss when I was…too old to still be wanting my first kiss.
“No,” I sighed. “I mean, yes, but I’ve got to walk it.” It was true. There is no way to shortcut this. The only way to finish it is on my own two feet.
“Suit yourself,” he continued to shake his head with great fervor, unsure why I was volunteering to hike these six miles with such an easy alternative handy.
There are few things sadder than watching someone eat at a family-style restaurant by themselves. The good news was I didn’t have to watch it. The bad news was that’s because I was “it.”
By the time I had gotten to the Homeplace Restaurant, everyone I knew had already finished and was sitting on the porch plotting their next moves. But I wasn’t going to miss this. It would be liking hiking to Maine without going up Katahdin.
The last hour of my hike was through a lightning storm, which meant I was drenched and my entrance into the restaurant was going to be even more pathetic. I peeled off my rain gear and asked for a table for one. The food came out — fried chicken, country ham, barbecue pork, baked beans, biscuits and apple butter, green beans, baked apples, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet tea, lemonade, and peach cobbler with ice cream (that was by memory!) — and hunger ushered shame to the side.
Fortunately a few friends rotated in to sit down with me and not let me look like the saddest person in Catawba.
By the time I was done, it was 7:45pm. It was one-and-a-half miles back to the trail, and getting hitches at night can be pretty tough, so I started walking. Once I got to the trail, I had two miles to get to the shelter at which I planned on stopping. I wanted to wake up at 4:30am to get to McAfee’s Knob — probably the most photographed point on the trail — by sunrise.
The sun was down by 9:15, and I turned my headlamp on and continued. As I walked, I could see pairs of glowing green dots littering the thick forest. I remember each color was a different animal. Red were bears. Red seemed dangerous, so that made sense. What was green? Then I got close to one. My light shone on a deer, trying to sneak by me in the dark, unable to comprehend the concept that if my light was on it, I could see it. Now I was aware of shiny tiny orbs of green bouncing, almost silently through the trees for as far as my light shone. How many deer were out here? The orbs seemed infinite.
As I climb the smooth, packed, sandy terrain, the gentle incline brings the faint shine of distant Roanoke into view. I turn off my headlamp and let the city lights guide me. As I continued to ascend, I catch, through small breaks in the canopy of leaves — cracks in the forest’s armor — lightning glowing over the mountains surrounding Roanoke to the east. And 15 seconds later, the faint rumble of thunder. It’s beautiful from here, but in 45 minutes, if it gets here before I set up my tent, it could mean I’m soaked for the night. Maybe it will go the other way.
I hear the sound of two dogs barking. The same two as before? That feels depressing, but I don’t know if it’s because it’s sad to think about two dogs barking all day, or if it’s because I hiked for an entire day today and am still within earshot of the same two dogs. My sense of hearing isn’t even that good.
I try to concentrate beyond them. I hear the din of cars driving to, or returning from, a night out in Roanoke. I hear crickets. I hear thunder. All faint. All in the background. Silence. Except for my feet scraping the ground, and my poles lazily hitting the earth every few steps. It’s different than the regimented “Left Foot, Right Pole. Right Foot, Left Pole.” of daytime hiking. This was more Thump. Thump. Thump. Cli-lag. Thump. Thump. Thump. Cli-lag.
I’m tired. I must have passed the shelter. I’m getting up at 4:30am, and I’ll be gone before anyone notices if I just camp on the trail. So I did. And within minutes of getting inside my tent, the rain began.
“What is that? A giant rock?”
I stirred in my tent. Looked at my watch. Crap. 5:30am.
“Nah, dude, that’s a tent. Just go around it.”
I wiped the drool from my mouth. The sun would crack the horizon in 30 minutes, but I had no idea how far from McAfee’s Knob I was. I managed to pack up in 25 minutes and hauled it. Within 20 seconds I realized I had camped just feet before the path to the shelter for which I was looking. Idiot. No wonder this felt like a good place to camp.
I reached my destination by about 6:20, just in time to see the sun begin its swift sunrise over the day. I stayed there for an hour with a handful of other hikers and watched the fog part like a curtain, revealing houses, and farms, and towns in the valley. It was the reminder I needed that it was worth it. The rocks. The bugs. The heat. The hunger. The loneliness. The lightning. The rain. This sunrise was worth it all.
A week ago, hiking out of Daleville — a town full of chain restaurants, but also breweries — I was hiking with Amber and her boyfriend, Drew, who took off work to hike with her for a week. The conversation started with how his Royals beat my Mets in the 2015 World Series, shifted to public transportation, and eventually made its way to what I was writing about for this article.
“So,” Drew questioned, “if a black family would rather hang out in Miami Beach than go camping, is that a bad thing?”
We were moving at at pretty relaxed clip through some easy terrain as I considered my response. Of course it wasn’t a bad thing, I thought. But if both experiences are just as good, why is this important to me?
“Did you read the article by the African American woman thru-hiker?” Amber asked. “She hiked last year, but the article came out this April.”
I had. It’s by Rahawa Haile and it’s wonderful. It felt important when I read it before my hike and even more so now, seeing what an important and underrepresented voice hers is.
“It’s all about opportunity,” Amber went on. “We had so much of it. Some have more of it than others, obviously.”
That’s it. I remember being at a high school pep rally. The gym was packed and energy was high. It was during the school day and different groups would perform in between all the football team stuff. I was in the marching band and we would trot out into the gym in our bright yellow band uniforms and play, “Hot, Hot, Hot!” I don’t know how excited it got the crowd, but it’s what we did every time.
And I remember one of the other ensembles was the Hip Hop Dance Team. My first two years of high school, the group consisted 100% of students of color. We cheered them on. That’s so awesome, I thought. It’s cool they have a club to show off how great they dance.
Then my Junior year a white boy joined the group. My eyes were trained to differentiate by color, just like all of ours are, but not so much to differentiate by dance skills. He might have been as good as everyone else. He seemed like it to me. At no point did I think about quitting one of the music groups I was in to join the Hip Hop Dance Team, but I remember being at pep rallies my Junior and Senior years and thinking, Hm, this could be something I could do if I wanted to.
Anyone who has seen me dance at a 12 Mile Limit Heatwave knows Sachem High School should be thankful I stuck with trombone, but the point is I move through life with the privilege of believing almost anything can be something I can enjoy with just a little bit of work.
And, of course, we’re most likely to do the things we think are “for us.” Usually we get that idea from our parents. My dad played a brass instrument and told me stories about it, so I learned at an early age that playing a brass instrument could be something for me. It became my major in college.
Sometimes it comes from our friends. I became a distance runner because all my friends were doing it. I had never run more than a mile before my first day of cross country practice. (Edit: with the exception of one Halloween, when I was chased around the neighborhood in my Alf costume by bullies.)
And sometimes culture shows us, for better or worse, what society thinks is possible for us. My parents didn’t take me or my sisters camping. It’s not something I did with my friends. We slept in sleeping bags on my trampoline once and nobody made it through the night outside. I woke up covered in cold, November dew, probably vowing never to go into “The Great Outdoors” again.
But America has a culture of rugged, courageous white outdoorsmen. Does Daniel Boone look more like me or Blackalachian? How about Davy Crockett? How about any of the fur trappers or explorers from Europe he and I both learned about? My middle class public school took us on a trip to the mountains. My Mariah Carey-funded music camp made us do outdoorsy things on a beautiful outdoor campus between practicing our instruments. I knew hiking and camping was something I could enjoy with a little effort, and all it took was dating a woman who was interested in that to buy some gear and get us out there. I was hooked.
But Haile paints a different picture for African Americans in her article. Not only is camping and hiking not something many children of color are exposed to by their parents, friends, or culture, but it’s something they’re afraid of. The Appalachian Trail has a history that has not been kind to black Americans. “Bear paws have harmed fewer black bodies in the wild than human hands,” Haile says. And discussing another author’s reservations of long distance hiking, she explains, “She does not wish to be the only person who looks like her in a place with a history like this.”
If I’m nervous in the wilderness, how must she have felt some nights?
And this doesn’t even account for the challenge of accessibility — both cost and, literally, getting to the wild. The point isn’t that every white 34 year old has more money than every 34 year old person of color. The point is that — with a few exceptions that often lasted for relatively short periods of time — centuries of opportunities have skewed in favor of people that look like me. From the schools I went to, to the extracurricular activities available to me, to the amount of time my parents were able to invest in directly supporting me, I had it relatively easy. Compound that by generations.
So when it comes time to buy hiking gear, or to travel to and from the wilderness, or to take time off work (or at least to have a job with a generous vacation policy), even if we are considering it, who is more likely to be able to afford it?
And, finally, there’s the issue of appeal. Here’s an article New Republic ran in 2013 and updated two years later. “Say you’re a black teenager in Washington, D.C., or a Hispanic teenager in Denver. Statistically, there’s a good chance you have never been to Shenandoah National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park, respectively, because your parents had neither the means nor the interest. Then you grow up, get a good job, and enter a higher income bracket. Why on Earth would you use your hard-earned vacation time to spend a week eating freeze-dried food in the woods — rather than, say, reclining at a seaside hotel in Miami Beach, frozen margarita in hand?”
The article references an interview The Times did with a day-hiker from New Jersey with roots from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. “The idea of roughing it in a tent can feel like going backward,” she said. She acknowledges this might not be an attractive vacation for those with family stories of rising from a hard, rural life.
So Should Everyone Hike?
That last issue of appeal is a sensitive one, and I’m certainly not trying to claim I know what’s best for everyone else. But here’s what I am trying to say.
In nearly two months of hiking, I have seen one black hiker. One. I have seen two Asian hikers. One family of Hispanic hikers, plus one lone Hispanic thru-hiker. In contrast, I can remember seeing no less than 11 hikers from Germany!
The United States of America founded the first National Park system in the world. We created one of the finest hiking trails on the planet. The longest hiking-only trail on Earth. The grandad of distance hikes. People come from all over the world to test themselves, to enjoy themselves, and to heal themselves on it. It is one of the great treasures of this country, and the world.
The problem isn’t that some people don’t enjoy the outdoors. The problem is that too many people don’t enjoy the outdoors because they grow up not thinking it’s for people who look like them.
The problem is that Harriet Tubman isn’t remembered for being one of the great outdoors(wo)men in our country’s long and distinguished history of outdoorsmen.
The problem is zip code, income bracket, and skin color have too much to do with who even gets the opportunity to wonder if they might like the outdoors.
“But you do,” Katie responded when Blackalachian confirmed her husband’s assertion that black people don’t hike.
“Yeah, I hike,” he admitted. “And I love posting these videos on YouTube and seeing my friends who never hiked try a short one themselves.” He stops to think for a second. “I wanted to show people that we do this, too. And if one black kid decides to go for a hike because they saw my videos, then that would be pretty worth it.”
Thursday June 22nd. 2017
Let’s Stop Talking
Finn McCools Irish Pub agreed to donate $200 to a nonprofit of my choice from money earned from my hard-partying friends and I at my going away party in April. I had been messing with a few ideas, but Blackalachian’s quote helped me figure it out.
Please donate here.
My goal is to raise $2,190 — $1 for each mile on the Appalachian Trail I’ll hike — for the Live Oak Wilderness Camp. The camp provides days that are fun, safe, and intentionally designed to build leadership in their young campers by focusing on kindness, bravery and awareness.
Live Oak — which is 1.5 hours from New Orleans at the 90 acre Camp Tiak, in Wiggins, MS — is in its second year and will serve more than 260 campers from 60 New Orleans-area schools. Campers are ages 9 through 13 and are as diverse as the city in which we live!
The camp’s leaders have a long history of doing great work for New Orleans’ students. You can learn more about Live Oak here.
For every dollar you donate, I’ll hike a mile for you. I don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but I’ll come up with something much better than “I’ll think of you while I eat a Honey Bun during that mile.”
Thanks for your support. It means a lot to me that we can turn this hike into something that might get others excited about the outdoors.
And What’s Next?
By the time this article publishes, I’ll be at Mile 820. That’s almost 100 miles farther than one-third of the way to the end, so I’m making progress.
I should be entering Shenandoah National Park on Monday, which many say is the most beautiful part of the trail, and then — if all goes according to plan — I’m looking forward to being in DC for July 3 – 5 (which just so happens to be the same time the Mets will be there…and the anniversary of our nation’s birth).
I’m looking forward to this next stage of the hike, and to seeing friends along the way! If you have any questions, thoughts, or suggestions, drop me a line in the comments section. I also post smaller updates on Facebook throughout the week, so feel free to friend me there to see those.
Thanks again for reading, and for your continued support! It means a lot to me.
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.