In a personal essay for Vox, Amanda Machado considers what it means to be a Latinx who loves to hike. When she shows up at an aunt’s house in Quito, Ecuador after a three-day hike in the mountains, her aunt seems taken aback by Machado’s rugged appearance and dirty hiking clothes. To her family, her passion for something their ancestors did out of a need — to get from place to place before modern modes of transportation — seems like a step back down the class ladder. But in the United States, the class implications around hiking are the opposite. Here, hiking has largely been the domain of upper-class whites.
A 2011 report by the University of Wyoming found that only one in five National Park visitors in the US was nonwhite. For Latinxs, the number is 1 in 10.
For other forms of outdoor recreation, the numbers are bleaker: A rock-climbing survey found 3.8 percent of climbers were Latinx, and 0.2 percent were black or Asian. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation reported that just 8 percent of Hispanics participated in outdoor sports in 2014.
African-American outdoorsman James Mills called this “the Adventure Gap,” and many others have explored the reasons behind what a Sierra Club blog post called “the unbearable whiteness of hiking.” Ryan Kearney at the New Republic argued that part of the problem was class dynamics. He cited data from the Outdoor Foundation that found 40 percent of people who participate in outdoor recreation have household incomes of $75,000 or more, an income level that only a quarter of Latinx households have. (There’s a significant wage gap between white and Latinx families: College-educated Latinxs still only earn around 69 percent of what white men earn.)
Later in the piece, Machado writes about constantly feeling self-conscious about her identity and concerned for her safety out on the trail, echoing some other women of color who have been writing about finding their place in the great outdoors. In March, Longreads published Minda Honey’s essay, “Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces,” in which Honey’s expresses her discomfort in National Parks after the oppressive whiteness of the MFA program she’d just completed.
I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.
And Rahawa Haile has been writing for various publications about her experiences as a black queer woman hiking the Appalachian Trail. In April she penned an essay for Outside about the trail that took her through counties dotted with confederate flags, locales where the vast majority voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election.
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.