Posted Sunday morning, April 23, 2017.
“By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.”
Writer Rahawa Hailie on McAfee Knob, near Roanoke, Virginia, taking a break from her solo hike up the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2016. Photo courtesy of Halie via Outside Magazine.
Once upon a time I thought nothing of going out for a little stroll and without planning it coming home hours later, having covered ten or fifteen miles. These days I’d be happy to be able to walk down to the post office and back. Last week when we were visiting Old Mother Blonde at the Blonde Family Cottage outside Philadelphia, I was congratulating myself for the relatively short hikes I took at Valley Forge and was thinking I must have made some leap in my far longer than I expected recovery from my back surgery, but since we‘ve been home,walks out to the car seem daunting. All I can figure is that at Valley Forge I was either ashamed to coddle myself in the presence of the ghosts of all those soldiers drilling barefoot in the snow or I was motivated by the prospect of a more interesting walk than the one around the block. There are state parks around here where I can test the latter hypothesis and I mean to do it someday soon. Meantime, I hobble about as best I can and dream of better days and longer walks.
But here’s the thing. It’s walks I want, not hikes. I’ve never been a hiker and haven’t had the urge to be one. Backpacking, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, is a form of self-torture. I can put in the miles, but I’d rather put them in circumambulating a city---something I did regularly when I lived in Boston. I didn’t avoid nature, but I walked it preposisitonally---through the woods, across a field, over a hill, along the river---and while I appreciated the sights and sounds along the way and the company of whatever birds and mammals I met while passing through their neighborhoods, my goal was always to get somewhere, if only back home, rather than having been somewhere. I enjoy reading about other people’s hikes---Thoreau’s up Cape Cod, Cheryl Strayed’s on the Pacific Coast Trail, Bill Bryson’s on the Appalachian Trail, John Muir’s long explores through the Sierras---but only once in my life have I set out on a real hike. Back in college, inspired by Thoreau, I convinced a couple of friends to join me on two-day hike up the National Seashore, following Thoreau’s footsteps from Eastham to Provincetown. It’s one of the great experiences of my life and I have never had a desire to repeat it or to attempt anything like it since.
I used to have lazy dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail and one year when I was in my thirties my old pal Miller had me just about convinced to hike it with him. But Mrs M had other ideas that included starting a family and I had to beg off. I’ve never felt I missed out on something.
Miller, by the way, never made the hike on his own or with another companion, and as far as I know doesn’t regret it either.
But in all my thinking about it---cursory and passing as it was---I never thought much about the Appalachia that gave the trail its name. It referred to the mountain range the trail traverses, obviously, so what was there to think about?
Appalachia as a place where people live, that’s what.
But as a straight, white man I’ve never had to think much about where I walked and what sort of human animals I’d meet along the way.
I’ve used the Trail Days layover as an opportunity to stash most of my belongings with friends and complete a short section of the AT I’d missed, near the Tennessee-Virginia border. As I’m moving along, a day hiker heading in the opposite direction stops me for a chat. He’s affable and inquisitive. He asks what many have asked before: “Where are you from?” I tell him Miami.
He laughs and says, “No, but really. Where are you from from?” He mentions something about my features, my thin nose, and then trails off. I tell him my family is from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, next to Ethiopia. He looks relieved.
“I knew it,” he says. “You’re not black.”
I say that of course I am. “None more black,” I weakly joke.
“Not really,” he says. “You’re African, not black-black. Blacks don’t hike.”
That’s from Rahawa Haile’s excellent essay in Outside Magazine about her experience hiking the Appalachian Trail solo last summer. Black, female, and gay, and going it alone during the political rise of Donald Trump, even if she hadn’t wanted to think about the human-inhabited places along the trail, the humans who inhabited it wouldn’t have let her forget where she was, who they were, and what they thought of her and her passing through their country.
Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump. The average percentage of voters who did vote for Trump—a xenophobic candidate who was supported by David Duke—in those miles? Seventy-six. Approximately 30 miles farther away, they’d come to a hiker hostel that proudly flies a Confederate flag. Later they would reach the Lewis Mountain campground in Shenandoah National Park—created in Virginia in 1935, during the Jim Crow era—and read plaques acknowledging its former history as the segregated Lewis Mountain Negro Area. The campground was swarming with RVs flying Confederate flags when I hiked through. This flag would haunt the hikers all the way to Mount Katahdin, the trail’s end point, in northern Maine. They would see it in every state, feeling the tendrils of hatred that rooted it to the land they walked upon.
Haile’s essay is about her hike up the trail, not about politics---except that politics was a practical fact of her experience in the way it wouldn’t be in the idle dreaming of an old, straight white guy staring out his window in Upstate New York and thinking how nice it would be to deep in the woods. Her essay is in the tradition of great hiking narratives like Cape Cod, Wild, and A Walk in the Woods---as far as I can recall, Bryson didn’t think much about Appalachia as a human-inhabited place existing off the trail.---and Haile writes about how her walk was like all such epic walks, an encounter with nature, self, inner and outer---writing about a walk means writing about the toll it takes on you physically---history, and memory…
…nature is a place I’ve always belonged. My home in South Florida spanned the swamp, the Keys, and the dredged land in between. My father and I explored them all, waving at everything from egrets to purple gallinules and paddling by the bowed roots of mangroves. This was before Burmese pythons overran the Everglades, when the rustling of leaves in the canopy above our canoe still veered mammalian.
Throughout my youth, my grandmother and I took walks in Miami, where I’d hear her say the words tuum nifas. It meant a delicious wind, a nourishing wind. These experiences shaped how I viewed movement throughout the natural world. How I view it still. The elements, I thought, could end my hunger.
Little has changed since. Now the rocks gnaw at my shins. I thud against the ground, my tongue coated in dirt. I pick myself back up and start again.
Every day I eat the mountains, and the mountains, they eat me. “Less to carry,” I tell the others: this skin, America, the weight of that past self. My hiking partners are concerned and unconvinced. There is a weight to you still, they tell me. They are not wrong. My footing has been off for days. There were things I had braced for at the beginning of this journey that have finally started to undo me. We were all hurtling through the unfamiliar, aching, choppy, destroyed by weather, trying not to tear apart.
But politics has to figure into it. It’s an obstacle in her path, as physical and trying and exhausting, physically and emotionally, as a steep incline or bad weather. At some points in here essay, Haile is able to distance herself and write about it with the same pragmatic interest as she would writing about sawing off the end of her toothbrush to save weight, choosing the best pair of boots, or finding an alternate path when the way ahead is blocked by a rockslide, snow, or a fallen tree. Other times, her heartbreak is palpable.
You need to read the whole essay. Follow the link to Going it Alone at Outside.