At Buzzfeed, Eritrean-American essayist and short story writer Rahawa Haile writes about hiking over 2000 miles on the Appalachian Trail in 2016, and carrying with her books by black authors, which she’d leave behind for others to find at shelters along the way.
Racial diversity matters uniquely on a trail that’s considered a great equalizer in most other respects. Individuals have no identity but one: hiker. For many, who you were or what you came from wasn’t important, because everyone was sharing the same stretches of bad weather and sore feet. It was the hiking community’s way of saying all were welcome, and from what I gathered over the six months of my hike, they were. Even me. Especially me. Here, all were purportedly safe. “Look at how we’ve grown.” The unintended consequence of colorblindness was benign erasure, a discomfort with looking at how we hadn’t.
There is no divorcing the lack of diversity in the outdoors from a history of violence against the black body, systemic racism, and income inequality. A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.
Few seemed to understand that simply because hikers had not targeted me did not mean I had ceased being a target. That I viewed every road crossing as a cue to raise shields, eyes open, ears alert. That in the back of my mind there lived my mother’s voice: or else. Here, they were free, truly free, whereas I was only a little freer than before. That the difference between the two held centuries of slaughters in its maw. That we all carried fears. That some fears never slept.