As a lifelong East Coaster, former Boy Scout, and current environmentalist, I have always been drawn to the Appalachian Trail (or the AT for short), one of the oldest and longest hiking trails in the world. Each year, more than 2 million people hike part of the nearly 2,200 mile AT, which stretches from Georgia to Maine along the Atlantic coast.
This summer, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. Beginning at the northern terminus, the summit of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, my journey took me through the famed 100-Mile Wilderness, arguably the most wild and remote section of the AT.
As I hiked through this rugged terrain with achy feet and a 35lb backpack, I was awed by the beauty of the varying terrain. Up over windswept peaks, along ridgelines bursting with wild blueberries, through intoxicating pine forests, and across meandering mountain streams tumbling down towards cerulean alpine lakes. All of it accessible only by this tiny winding footpath carved into the countryside some eighty years ago.
Beyond the sheer beauty of the AT, I was continually struck by two other things. First, this remote section of trail didn’t seem quite so remote. Over the course of nine days, I personally encountered no fewer than 110 backpackers in addition to dozens of local summer campers and day hikers. And second, almost everyone I encountered looked just like me.
Despite notable growing popularity (thanks Wild), hiking in general and long-distance hiking specifically remain incredibly white. Annual surveys conducted by thetrek.co, a popular hiking web resource, show over 95% of thru-hikers are white. This belies my own observations; of the 110 hikers I came across, 109 appeared to be white. I might not have recognized such disparities but for recent personal explorations of the role of race on my worldview, explorations necessitated by the ceaseless examples of racial injustice and the terrifying racial animus let loose by the current administration.
Such stark racial disparities are not limited to long trails and thru-hikers. A 2014 National Park Service report analyzing attendance demographics found 95% of visitors to NPS sites were white despite comprising only 72% of the population. In another study based on survey data, 53% of non-Hispanic whites polled could name a national park they had visited in the last two years compared to only 32% of Hispanics and 28% of black people.
Limited socioeconomic resources — a key contributor to people’s ability to engage in any leisure activity — is often offered as an explanation. Low-income people are three times less likely to visit national parks than affluent people, and black people earn far less than white people even after controlling for education level. Furthermore, that wealth is often generational compounds this constraint. Affluent people (more often white) are able to pass along both resources and exposure to the outdoors, fostering in their children an appreciation of nature. Low-income people (more often non-white) are unable to provide their children with either exposure or the resources required for access, thus continually reestablishing outdoor spaces as predominantly affluent (and predominantly white) spaces.
But wealth inequality is only part of the story. This implicit exclusion created by affluence has deep roots in our country’s long and insidious history of explicit exclusion of non-white people from public lands (lands, it must be noted, stolen from indigenous communities yet often still bearing indigenous names). The result is undoubtedly an outdoor culture established and molded by a white worldview and unwelcoming, in myriad ways, to people who do not look like me.
Why does this matter? It matters because public lands should be exactly that — open to everyone — and we have failed, in the past and still today, to ensure that promised access to our outdoor spaces.
More critically, it matters because the weeks I spent on trail were the hottest in Maine’s history. Because even in this most remote corner I often heard the buzz of chainsaws and roar of semi-trucks. Our treasured public lands are under threat, both immediately from this administration that prioritizes the bottom line of polluters and existentially from climate change. To protect these spaces for generations to come, we need to fight to make sure these spaces are inclusive and equitably accessible for communities across the nation, so that all may revel in their splendor.
I don’t have any easy answers. But I am learning — sometimes awkwardly, almost always with a side of guilt — about privilege, microaggressions, and the ways in which many of my views are subtly but undoubtedly racialized. I am learning to speak out and to challenge that status quo. And I will continue to explore and acknowledge the pivotal role of race in our society, even in its wildest corners. Because once your eyes are opened, it’s hard not to see the forest for the trees.