Not Always a Pretty Picture: Hiking Alone in a White Man's World
"In the main we are different from other folks in that, when an impulse moves us, when we are caught in the throes of inspiration, when we are moved to better our lot, we do not ask ourselves: "Can we do it?" but: "Will they let us do it?" Before we black folk can move, we must first look into the white man's mind to see what is there, to see what he is thinking, and the white man's mind is a mind that is always changing."
—Richard Wright, from 12 Million Black Voices
“Don’t go hiking in Virginia unless you’re with a big group of white people,” my mother recently pleaded with me.
I laughed it off, dismissing her concern as melodrama on her part. I’m her only child. At different points in my life she has been convinced that I was going to be trapped by an earthquake in Mexico, mauled by a bear in Alaska and kidnapped by terrorists in Southeast Asia. In her mind, I am a potential victim of any tragedy that happens to make the headlines of The Huffington Post. Now she was worried about the KKK and neo-Nazis in Virginia. I understood her concern. Since the November 2016 election, I've been suffering from low-grade anxiety; wondering if any given day is the day I need to stop planning for a normal future and start hatching my escape plan.
But I'm not ready to let white supremacy keep me from doing what I love yet.
I also don't like the presumption that my enjoyment of the outdoors has to be dependent upon my connection to white people; that my access to the woods has to be implicitly granted by the presence of a white body by my side. I hike with white women all the time, but I don't want to feel like it's a necessity or requirement. Her words reminded me of when I was a fresh, 23-year old starting out adult life on my own in Chicago. Every time I would mention to my mother or grandmother that I had spent an evening out—even if it was just going to the movies—they would caution me against walking the 10-15 minutes it took to go between my apartment and the El train after dark. It was the first time I truly understood all the ways in which I was expected to restrict my movements, draw my own boundaries, and limit my own freedom in order to accommodate the violence of men.
I resented it then. I resent it now.
So I went hiking in Virginia alone. And then a second time. And then a third.
Despite my introverted tendencies, I actually love hiking with other people. There is something about sharing the wonder of nature that increases the high for me. But there aren’t always people to hike with and if I had to wait for someone to be available, I’d have to cut the amount of time I spend outside by half. What kind of life would that be?
A half as wondrous one.
It’s also not fearlessness that leads me to hike alone. On the contrary, I’m afraid of a lot of things. I always hike in boots—not sneakers or sandals or trail shoes— because I’m afraid of twisting an ankle and not being able to get myself back to the trailhead. I don't want to sit down for lunch on a rocky outcropping because that’s where the copperhead snakes like to hide. Brushy, overgrown trails scare me because I’ve convinced myself that there is always a bear lurking just around that corner I can’t see around. And I avoid all but the most minor creek crossings because I’m afraid of being swept away by rushing water or slipping and hitting my head on a rock.
Contrary to my mother’s fears, I am actually a very cautious—some might argue overly cautious—hiker. The risks are calculated and taken into consideration, but I try not to let them get in the way of my fun. And of the many things there are to be afraid of on the trail, Nazis ranked pretty low on my list up until now.
The third time I went hiking in Virginia, I decided to check out the trail in Turkey Run Park across the Potomac from D.C. I had read that their loop trail had some decent elevation gain and nice views of the river. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the heat was tolerable, so I was surprised by how empty the park was. How quiet. I was also surprised by the lack of signage, which is how I found myself roaming aimlessly, searching for the trail head, when I came across a bearded white man hanging out in a deserted parking lot. His truck was wallpapered with bumper stickers that aggressively announced his far-right politics. I felt his eyes on me from where he stood in front of his hood and picked up my pace to get out of his sight as quickly as possible.
I was only 7 miles away from my apartment in the middle of DC and yet, in that moment, I felt every bit of my alone-ness, my woman-ness, my blackness, my single-ness. I had expected and looked forward to the the company of happy passing strangers on the trail, but the park seemed deserted except for lone white men hanging out in their parked cars. These are my bogeymen: these white men who seem to be going nowhere and doing nothing. I cannot remember the exact moment in my life when I was taught to be afraid of white men; when it was impressed upon me to keep my distance from them while playing outside or walking home from the school bus stop. Was it something my mother told me? Was it because the faces of all the kidnappers in the news when I was a kid were white men? Was it some deep down biological knowledge passed on by my maternal ancestors who had experienced violence at the hands of white men for generations? I didn't know the exact root of the fear, but it felt familiar and finely honed, and legitimate.
I tried not to let my mind wander too deeply into all the imagined things this man with the pick-up truck, or any other man, could possibly do to me while no one was around to witness. I tried not to think about my body ending up in the Potomac. I started to berate myself for not being more cautious. It had been a spur of the moment trip after all. Why hadn’t I told someone where I was going? Why hadn’t I brought something I could use as a weapon? I was already blaming myself for whatever might happen to me as a consequence of having the audacity to enjoy a couple of hours in the woods.
Fortunately, no one bothered me that day. I found the trailhead just minutes later and completed the loop. And eventually I re-focused my attention on my more mundane fears. I was sure I was going to twist my ankle as I descended down toward the river. I didn’t. I was sure that I was going to step on a copperhead as I scrambled across countless rock outcroppings. I didn’t. And in a moment of triumph, I crossed two unexpected baby creeks without slipping or even getting my boots wet.
But as soon as I got off the trail, I was back on alert for bogeymen.