I’ve heard many, many long distance hikers say that they consider the trail an apolitical space- that they go hiking to escape the news and any discussion of what’s happening in the larger world. Everyone deserves to be able to just get away from the larger world for a while, but the issue here is that not everyone can. The long distance hiking community is made up primarily of white, straight, thin, cis gender, able bodied folks with money- people who aren’t directly impacted by much of what’s going on in the world. Privilege is the ability to decide what you do and do not pay attention to/give energy to/acknowledge as being real, because you’re not impacted by it directly. If you’re white, for example, then you’re not affected by police violence against people of color, so you can pretend this isn’t a real issue. If you’re thin, then you’re not affected by the constant harassment that fat people experience in the world, so you can turn the other cheek to this. If you have money, then you can choose how much you care or do not care about the housing crisis, minimum wage, and so much more.
But if you don’t fit the most privileged demographic on trail, then you can’t just shrug off larger issues in the world when you go out into the wilderness. If you’re a person of color, or fat, or transgender, or part of any other marginalized group, you can’t just leave that at home. You are directly affected by larger systems of oppression everywhere that you go in every facet of your life, and so you do not have the option to pretend, for a while, that these systems of oppression are not real, in order to have a “vacation”. This is exacerbated by the fact that the people who shout most loudly about the trail being an apolitical space are also the ones who tear down others who try to talk about larger issues within the outdoors community. Hikers who exist within marginalized groups and create instagram accounts and facebook pages or write blog posts and articles to create community and support for each other endure near constant harassment from more privileged hikers who would rather not be inconvenienced by having to admit that these issues are real. I’ve witnessed this most recently when a friend of mine wrote an article about her experience of toxic masculinity on the trail, and suddenly four different reddit threads and every single facebook hiking page was flooded with hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of comments saying that she was too fat and never should’ve been out on the trail in the first place. (Even though two of the reddit threads were in alt-right subreddits, the worst comments were actually on the hiking (PCT, CDT, AT, Women of the PCT etc) facebook pages, which are generally poorly moderated/very tolerant of misogynist/fat-phobic/racist/etc hiker behavior, while deleting posts from those who speak out against it.) Hundreds of hikers were trying to prove that her experience of toxic masculinity on trail was not real… by calling her a fat loser snowflake who doesn’t belong, and wasn’t welcome, on trail. Another example is someone I know started a facebook page for hikers of color at one point, and she endured near-constant harassment, including death threats and white hikers pretending to be people of color so they could get into the group and antagonize others… for the first year of the page’s existence.
Another reason the trail is not an apolitical space is that the protection of wilderness itself is inherently political, and always has been. Wilderness is constantly under threat of development for mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and other resource extraction. Animals are at risk of being overhunted and overfished, climate change and pollution wreak havoc on ecosystems. It is only because of the intense conservationist efforts that have happened in the US in the last two hundred years (aka constant, near feverish grassroots political organizing!) that we have any preserved natural areas here at all. Additionally, the US is made up of land that was stolen from many different native peoples and repurposed as “parks” and other preserved areas for the more privileged demographics to recreate in- while indigenous communities and other communities of color are more likely to be in areas most affected by pollution, deforestation, resource extraction and climate change.
American wilderness is nothing if not political. And those of us in the outdoors community who have privilege (I, for example, as a white, thin, able bodied cis-gender woman, have a huge amount of privilege) have a great deal of responsibility, moving forward, to hold others with privilege accountable to these very real systems of oppression from which we benefit, whether or not we admit that they’re real. There is no “staying neutral”, in these times. You’re either rolling up your sleeves to help, or you’re part of the problem. Intersectionality means caring about more than the issues that affect you directly. It means weaponizing your privilege and using it to create change, even if that means risking social capital or other discomforts, because whatever you’re at risk of losing by speaking up and taking action is just a fraction of what someone in a more marginalized community would lose. I don’t have all the answers on how to do this or even a really good reading list to start, but luckily the resources ARE out there, and google will help you find them.
(Some people/sites I follow who often post reading lists, calls to action, educational rants, etc are Democracy Now, Undocumedia, Natives outdoors, Latino outdoors, Being green while black, Brown people camping, Native women’s wilderness, Sassy latte, and Unlikely hikers. You can also try googling “white privilege”, “environmental racism”, “abuse in the outdoors community”, “how to be an ally to people of color” and things like that.)
A good way to support more marginalized communities is to ask them for what they want, and then do that thing. This is why I’m raising money for Defend the Sacred AK ahead of my traverse of the Brooks Range in Alaska- the Arctic National Wildlife refuge is being fast tracked for resource extraction and the people most affected by this are not white hikers such as myself but the indigenous groups who have lived in/subsisted off of/protected this area for more than forty thousand years, whose entire culture and identity is intertwined with/interdependent with the lives of the caribou who migrate to these areas to have their calves. Defend the Sacred AK is a coalition of Alaskan Native groups fighting to protect ANWR, and their organization needs money to survive. Money pays for staff, supplies, travel expenses, web design, etc. Defend the Sacred AK is doing the brutal, thankless work to protect one of the last intact wildernesses on earth, and they deserve our support.
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