I remember the first true hike I ever went on. It was a hot day last summer when my friends and I got the idea late one afternoon to hike Old Rag. We left around 1 p.m. and reached the trailhead around 4 p.m. From there, we began the hike. Pushing through hundreds of feet of elevation gain, dozens of switchbacks and the overwhelming August heat, we finally reached the summit. I remember looking out as far as the eye could see, so high up the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees, and I suddenly became chilly in my sweaty clothes. I couldn’t help but recognize the beauty of it all. The tranquility of the top is unparalleled.
America’s national parks are a shining triumph of the American conservation movement. All across the United States, wildlands, historical monuments and other areas provide opportunities for Americans to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors while also protecting vast swaths of land for unique North American wildlife to flourish. Due to having one of the most expansive park systems in the world, a cult of recreational followers has sprung up all across the country, owning expensive equipment and gear from well-known brands such as L.L. Bean or Patagonia and spending every second they can enjoying all that America’s parks have to offer.
Despite being designed as an egalitarian place, the outdoors have become a quasi-elitist institution. Toxic ideas are perverse within the community. There is, in many ways, an idea that you cannot be a true outdoors enthusiast without the latest gear, something many Americans cannot afford.
“I’m Black, I don’t go outside,” was one of my favorite phrases growing up. I had always seen the outdoors as something for people who didn’t look like me. In my head, the only thing that was outdoors was heat and disgusting amounts of insects. I hadn’t yet seen the beauty in hiking.
Second among many issues is that minorities, especially Black people, have traditionally been excluded from outdoor spaces. The Sierra Club is one of the most well known environmental groups in the country. It has also recently come into focus that their founder, John Muir, also known as the “Father of America’s National Parks,” made racist statements.
“The Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through — wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years,” said current Sierra Club President Michael Brune about its early years.
More than anything, I know that I’m fortunate. I’m able to afford a $60-plus hiking backpack and $100-plus shoes. I can afford expensive socks that will wick moisture and ensure I don’t get blisters. I can afford 5.11 tactical pants that I know will not rip no matter the stress I put them under. I also know that I’ll probably always be able to afford the National Park pass that will gain me entry to hundreds of places across the country. And yet I must remind myself that so many people are nowhere near as privileged as me.
I recognize more than anything the need for reform of the outdoor community and the places we love to explore. America’s National Park Service was created to be a refuge for everyone, a place where Americans from all walks of life can congregate and enjoy the beauty of nature that is so often far removed from their lives. For so many years, it has not functioned as such. We must fight for these spaces and be a voice for the marginalized, for those who have had such opportunities taken from them.