A black woman hikes the Appalachian Trail

Deep in the recesses of the NewsCut mind, I had a notion that maybe someday, I’d walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail at my advanced age, inspired as I’ve been by the exploits of the much-younger Daniel Alvarez.

Then my wife gave me a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, the hysterically funny book that makes the trail seem like not-a-very-fun place, at least for those intent on through-walking, hiking from Georgia to Maine all at once.

Last year, Rahawa Haile, a writer in Oakland, became one of the very few black women to attempt to hike the entire trail. And her interview with Atlas Obscura today is a must-read for people who’ve thought about discovering America by hiking the trail.

Be careful what you wish for; you might find it.

“There’s so much talk about where the black body belongs,” she says. “Most of my hike was saying, this is a black body, and it belongs everywhere.”

She left books by black authors and poets in the shelters along the trails.

The Trail itself, she says, “was the kindest and most generous white space imaginable in America.”

It was some of the towns along the way, however. Towns where hikers had to hitch rides to in order to restock food and do the laundry.

That photo I took—there’s a Confederate flag at that hostel. We had just finished talking about how we were spending our money at a hostel that flew a Confederate flag. The men I was talking to, they tried to get hitches into town—you hitch into town to resupply or take a night off—and they’d be hanging out with their friends, three white guys and a black guy. And people would stop and would say, “We’ll take those three, but we won’t let you in our car.”

But there were “trail angels” too.

Like other hikers, she hated Pennsylvania. Every Trail hiker hates Pennsylvania, which is nothing but rocks and snakes, apparently. “It tried to kill me,” she tweeted.

When she reached the end — Mt. Katahdin in Maine — she raised the Eritrean flag above her.

I was above treeline. The state has one of the most racist governors in the country, and I was thinking, I don’t know how many people who look like me have stood here. I felt so lucky that I got to make myself into what I’d become by the time I reached Maine.

I remember holding the flag of Eritrea in front of the northern terminus AT sign, knowing that I’m probably the first Eritrean to thru-hike. So much of the news that comes out about my country is depressing and rightly so. To have this one positive meant a lot to me, and I know it meant a lot to my parents and to other Eritreans.

She walked the trail last year, and says she’s not sure she’d do it again. It’s hard to find a shelter from politics anywhere.

One of the reasons I did this in 2016 was that I wasn’t so sure I would do it in 2017. If I were planning my thru-hike for this year, I’m not sure I’d go. That’s sad. It’s really, really, really sad. The rule is you don’t talk about politics on the trail, but it’s going to become increasingly hard not to. Especially if you want to talk about diversity or the environment.

She met one other black person on the Trail, she says.

What gets lost in talking about diversity isn’t just [a question of] how can we can get more people of color outdoors. We have to address how we can get white audiences to acknowledge there are barriers and why that matters. I’ve seen so many people who are like, I don’t understand why we’re talking about race, the outdoors are where we go to get away from it all, why does no one ask why there are no white people in the NBA, etc. There needs to be more work focusing on educating individuals about this country’s history.

One of the most the important things I did on the trail was talking to people. Trying to be patient. I shouldn’t have to be a black ambassador, but I also know I got through to a lot of people, and I hope I can get through to more.

  • RBHolb

    An interesting read. Thank you for highlighting it.

    In a similar vein, I recommend Mississippi Solo, by Eddy Harris. It’s the story of an African-American man (Mr. Harris) who paddled his canoe from Lake Itasca to New Orleans sometime in the 1980s.

  • MrE85

    The Trail was great. Appalachia gets mixed reviews.