I’d be remiss if I passed up the opportunity to discuss the ways in which even injury on the AT is privilege that has historically been inaccessible to people of color or the working class.
Access to outdoor recreation is mired in a history of extreme oppression, so much so that living outside in a tent for six months on the AT is extreme sport reserved for the privileged. [Even more so than climbing Mt. Everest: 802 climbers made it to the top of the mountain in 2018, vs. 685 AT through-hikers - Ed]
My inner-city upbringing [*] has been a disadvantage in my reacquaintance with nature. More so, the history of restricted access to outdoor recreation that blacks have faced is present in every black outdoor enthusiast’s life today. The history of blacks and swimming may by the clearest depiction of this.
Decades of being kept out of swimming pools and public beaches have led to a drowning epidemic in the black community in which black kids ages 11-12 are 10 times more likely to drown than white kids [The linked-to CDC report says nothing of the kind — Ed] This disparity is not about ability. It’s about how intergenerational lack of access to swimming pools creates an almost inherited fear of water and unawareness of safe practices.
There’s a learning curve for every historically disadvantaged group who is interested in reacquainting with nature. It produces a range of effects from crippling discomfort in water to a dangerous inability to navigate basic hazards like poison ivy and wildlife [emphasis added]. It starts when inner-city kids spend summers playing neighborhood kickball while rural and suburban kids are learning what plants to avoid and how to leave no trace. [No, suburban kids are inside playing video games or out on manicured playing fields with their travel soccer team - ED]. Once internalized, the divide becomes greater as our interests naturally deepen in the activities to which we’ve been exposed. If you’re able to overcome all of that, once in the outdoors, navigating other people’s perception of how much you belong on the trail may also be a barrier [the link (cash wall) is to a report of a KOA employee pulling a gun on a black man. No mention of Kampgrounds of America having taken over the Appalachian Trail, even for this single incident - Ed].
Intergenerational poverty has also held many people back from hiking the AT. It takes the average hiker about six months to complete the trail. [Is there a difference between “hiking the AT” and “hiking on the AT”? Must an African-American really hike the entire 2,190-mile before he learns to avoid snakes and poison ivy? Should there be a guide service for (very) slow learners? - Ed]
That means anyone who embarks on a thru-hike needs to give up steady employment for half a year for what basically amounts to a bucket list item. Working class people may find it difficult to justify doing that, since bills and debts don’t pause because you’ve decided to head to the trail [Unemployed and on welfare? Get thee to the woods, young man]
In a 2018 survey of 310 people who hiked on the AT, hikers ranged from ages 17-78 with the average age being 34. The vast majority (95 percent) identified white, six hikers identified as Hispanic, three hikers as Asian, four as multiracial, one as Native American/Alaska native/Hawaii native, and one as black. Nearly half of those surveyed said they spent more than $6,000 on their entire trip. This does not include lost wages, child care, missed payments, late penalties or interested accrued on unpaid student loans. Even my 3-day trip cost more than $100 on camp food and supplies. If extrapolated over 183 days, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. [Nor, apparently can 327,000,000 other Americans; A total of 3,327 hikers attempted a thru-hike of the AT in 2016. 685 completed it. All those unprivileged, would-be happy wanderers! Oh, the humanity! -Ed]
… But since a history of oppression eventually graduates to a lack of interest and fear, people of color and from working class communities aren’t rushing to the trails at the same rates as wealthier Americans.
The luxury that exists in being able to quit a job you probably hate, accrue a 6-month savings or be sponsored and supported by relatives while on the trail is one reserved for a privileged few. But it shouldn’t be because reducing the barriers to exercise and physical activity can help reduce common health risks experienced by the same demographics left out of the outdoor recreation story. For low-income communities, access to green spaces can reduce depression. For people of color, historically high rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure can all be treated with a dose of the outdoors. [Either she’s conflating a six-month, taxpayer-funded trek up the East Coast with a brisk walk around the local track or she’s nuts. Or both - Ed].
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers.
Ms. Quaye was in fact raised in Westville, a New Haven neighborhood north of “the inner city” and described in Wikipedia thus: Westville is a neighborhood of the city of New Haven, Connecticut. It is consistently ranked as one of the best neighborhoods to live in New Haven due to its high home values, low crime rates, walkable streets, proximity to downtown, and local amenities.