Off the Fence

By April of 2014, I’d been on the fence for a while. Not so much an “if” fence as a “when” fence, which is just a different kind of “if” fence. Anyone who’s hiked before will tell you, and did tell me, that there’s always something standing in the way of such an endeavor: money, work, age, physical condition, prior commitments, life. It’s so easy to put something like this off because it is such a commitment. It helped having a thru-hiker as a partner – having physical proof that it is possible, that the world doesn’t end when you quit your job to go on a six-month adventure; being invited down to Lake Morena for the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kickoff certainly didn’t hurt, either. So after a day of silently watching listening learning at the Wolverines’ Shakedown Shack, of talking to hikers past, present, and future, and a night of waking repeatedly to rain pissing through the giant tree above us onto my soon-to-be-re-burrowed face1, I stood on the pavement in the glare of morning sunshine, drier than I thought I’d be, and told some former strangers I was going to hike the PCT in 2015.

It felt right coming out of my mouth, and the quick turnaround made sense at the time. People were already freaking the hell out about the Wild Effect, even if it didn’t yet have that name, and I wanted to hike before the trail “got too crowded”, as everyone warned me it would2. So I bought Yogi’s guide, ran my eyes lovingly over Halfmile’s maps, joined the forums and read blogs and books and gear reviews. I asked my partner questions about his hikes and experiences until his ears bled3. I went on day hikes and backpacks, counting out the weeks as the summer rolled in, wondering who the hell I was to attempt something like this.

I dreamed of being covered in mosquitos in the Sierra and never being dry in Oregon Washington and having– nothing? everything?– to do for six-ish months but put one foot in front of the other.

Work shipped me off to Hong Kong4, so I was literally asleep half a world away when the Ferguson story broke in early August of 2014, the scab ripped off the still-oozing sore of racism in the US. That event, the outcome notwithstanding, showcased an ugly in my social network I’d only seen bits and pieces of in names shouted at me in parking lots and hyper-incredulous responses to the news that I was attending Oxford. Dreaming of thru-hiking, it also left me reeling, questioning whether or not I would be welcome on trail – and especially in trail towns – along the way.

I didn’t particularly have evidence that I wouldn’t be, but then Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice and and and… it does something to you, being told that you and folks like you don’t deserve the same treatment, the same benefit of the doubt as other folks, over and over again ad nauseam, first through overpolicing, then through the mob judgement of people who know you, who are supposed to care and can ostensibly stretch their empathy to you, but no further.

But even though folks at the Kickoff had been nothing but kind and supportive, the effect of having your humanity questioned is both incessant and insidious. I’d been one of a sparse number of brown people in attendance at the Kickoff, one of two Black people; as I’d been an anomaly, I began to question whether simple curiosity or exoticization had something to do with my treatment. I had wanted to ask the other Black woman what her on-trail experience had been, if she’d had any trouble just being thus far, but in my family such questions are touchy. Too raw. We don’t talk about it much, so much so that I’m afraid our silence will swallow our history. All that weight’s a tough sell on an opening line to a stranger. So I hadn’t asked then. But I was asking now.

Trouble was, it didn’t seem as though there was anyone to answer me.

I stopped short of asking on the PCT or Class of 2015 Facebook pages. The rabidity over the Wild Effect was nearing fever pitch, and with it came a fair amount of lurking (and blatant) misogyny, and by that time, I’d had enough of trying to educate strangers on the internet. I just wanted to know if my question had an answer, or many. As at the Kickoff, Brown folk are few and far between in thru-hiker circles, and the one that I’m acquainted with – well, she’s got a business to run, and I respect the hell out of that. But there had to be more brown folk, more Black folk, who had hiked the trail, so I turned to the Women of the PCT group. Their conversations seemed more rational, and the last thing I wanted to do was make a huge deal out of a simple question. And it wasn’t a deal – they simply pointed me in various, sometimes fruitful directions.  It certainly restored some of my shaken faith.

But to this day, I’ve never gotten to have those conversations. I’ve asked my questions, knowing what it meant, but whether they were forgotten about or put aside for “later”, I’ve never gotten a response. It’s not really that big of a deal – if folks don’t want to talk about it, they don’t have to, and, given the current racial climate in the US, I can’t particularly blame anyone for wanting to talk about anything but that. Especially thru-hikers, who do such rad things that they have so many other things to talk about anyway.

It wasn’t until recently, after coming home and going broke and bailing on all hope for a 2015 PCT hike and slowly, slowly building up a savings again, that I learned that I’m not alone in having those questions, in not knowing where to go to get them answered. I’m told it’s a concern that many brown folk have about undertaking something like this, something awesome, fantastic, life-altering, yet potentially life-threatening, in more ways, perhaps, than some are forced to consider.

So I’m going to break my silence. Sure, I’m going to talk about my trips, but I’m also going to give an account of my experience, through my brown-tinted lens. I’m hoping that putting this kind of perspective out there will help more brown folk of all backgrounds feel more comfortable undertaking something we’ve been socially conditioned to avoid.

______________________________

[1] My partner catches (good-natured) shit about that tarp pitch to this day. (Mostly from me, and mostly because we were still in the “impress each other” stage of our relationship.)
[2] There was (and still is) a lot of freaking out going on, some of which is warranted (re: people who have never hiked before + safety/hygiene/oh god please don’t shit on the trail), but, given the people I saw at the Shakedown Shack this year at the Kickoff, mostly unwarranted.
[3] He hiked most of the PCT in 2006, finished his remaining miles in 2007, hiked all the way through in 2010, and then designed his own thru-route to/up all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers. He’s kind of a badass, and I appreciate that he tolerates my incessant questions.
[4] Work:”Hey, any interest in going to Hong Kong?” Me: “….yes?”

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