Friday, June 18, 2010

Utopian Expectations

Written by: Katherine 'Ringleader' Imp

The Appalachian Trail attracts all walks of life. Why? Because you don't have to be a rocket scientist to walk it. In fact, most people that attempt a thru-hike have no experience in backpacking, hiking, or camping. The trail is covered with signs directing you where to sleep, where to get water, where to get soda and snickers, and where to go to the bathroom. All you really need (aside from a little time and money) is an adventurous spirit, an open mind, and a basic understanding of the English language.

Because of the AT's simplicity, all kinds of people walk this trail --- gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female, rural or urban, southern or northern . . . except for one group: MINORITIES.

Where are they???????????

Brandon, Emily, and I are used to living in America's melting pot. We have friends of all races and backgrounds, and the opportunity to talk to people of different cultures has shaped who we are as people. So as much as I love the diversity of people on the AT, the lack of minorities has been infuriating.

I see the Appalachian Trail as the Utopian version of what America could be. A place where complete strangers take time to say hello. A place where people help one another without hidden agenda. A place where natural beauty is intertwined with towns rich in history and character. A place where a tattoo-covered bartender can find common ground with an ex-marine.

Sometimes I think the experiences we have on this trail are magical, but it saddens me that to this point, it has not been shared with the breadth of people that live in America. Maybe, through word of mouth and enough publicity, this flaw will give way to a better Utopia.


  1. I've worked for the Forest Service all my life and it is rare you see anyone other than white people backpacking. I don't know why, a cultural thing I am guessing.

  2. Kate,

    We have been camping for years and have seen a small handful of minorities when camping in state or national parks. I'm guessing that camping, hiking, etc. may be viewed as a "step down" in leisure activity for certain classes of folks. But, maybe it is just the lack of exposure.

    On that note, I've already planned for and expect you and Emily and Brandon (if you are all able) to present your experience to students at the all black elementary school where I work in Chicago. The students will be very interested to see a demo of your hiking gear and to hear your stories. You will be pummeled with questions. I hope you kids can do it.

    Now, stay the course. Can you almost taste the peak of Katahdin? You're gonna make it!

  3. Hey Kate, Who cares if there are no minorities? I mean, is there some sort of glass minority ceiling that is preventing them from hiking? Different people like different things. Whatever floats your boat. I also think I remember Emily saying at the beginning of the hike that there were mostly men and they were mostly of means. I guess there is something about the trail that appeals to that group more than others. Is that a bad thing? Why does it make you sad?

  4. The trail is a magical place! And the lucky ones are those that are committed to it and have chosen to make it a part of their lives. The good news is that there are many other magical places to discover, usually off the beaten trail, in the smaller more isolated towns. Life just moves at a different pace, and the people who settle in those places have often chosen to do so. And what makes these places special is the friendliness and generosity of the people who live there. And that caring spirit knows no racial or ethnic boundries. May you discover and enjoy other "utopias" as the years progress.

    Also, the more you share your trail experiences once you leave the trail, the more hope there is that other people will either become AT hikers or share with you their utopia experiences. We all have them.

  5. I actually think it was quite introspective of Kate to take note of the absence of minorities on the trial.

    Thus, summarily dismissing the contemplation of such with "who cares if there are minorities on the trail," ignores the importance of people of varied ethnicities and cultures and their respective contributions to, not only the richer world in which we live, but also their potential contributions to a richer trail experience for those who hike the trail. I do believe that is the parallel Kate was making and rightfully so.

  6. I'd LOVE to share our story with a black elementary school...part of the reason I'm hiking this trail is so that I can share our story with many different groups of people for years to come.

    The lack of minorities saddens me because I don't think their non-existence on the trail is entirely cultural. I think the stereotypes people have of the South, and of backpacking in general, keep minorities away. I have a hard time calling this trail "diverse" when everyone I see is white. A true utopian trail would be one that includes all voices, including minorities.

  7. Hi Kate -

    This is Emily's Aunt Clare chiming on this topic. From my position as an academic in environment and natural resources, I have observed researchers and managers who are concerned about and interested in changing the pattern you have noticed. And in this community of people, understanding the reasons underlying the pattern is important to trying to change it.

    As you might imagine, researchers have identified several potentially inter-related reasons that include subcultural knowledge and preferences, socio-economic marginality, current and historical patterns of discrimination, and processes related to assimilation.

    And while researchers are gathering information with hopes of informing managers, managers, educators, activists, and others have been taking action to try to make nature/parks more broadly accessible to a wider demographic (for example Baltimore Parks and People; New York City Sustainable South Bronx), with uneven success.

    Why care? I think Nicole states one reason very well. In addition, some people in the federal land management agencies recognize that they are mandated to serve the American people generally, and so they have an obligation to reach and provide opportunities for people from more diverse backgrounds to experience public lands such as national parks and forests. Some also note that as the demographics of the US change, if these agencies and associated lands don't have relevance for a broader array of people, they risk losing support from Congress. And in the private sector (to get to the pragmatics of the market-based dimension of our culture), some people (for example in the ski industry) realize they are missing in their customer base an increasing percentage of the US population.

    I think it would be great if you have the opportunity to share your experiences with the students at the elementary school...


  8. Hi Kate! Good post. I think the lack of diversity on the trail is something that will change in the not so distant future. The backpacking course Adam and I did was very diverse. About half the class was a race other than white. It's a small sign of change, but a sign nonetheless.

  9. You find the lack of minorities infuriating? Infuriating? Being infuriated might be the right reaction were there something actively preventing minorities from doing a long distance hike. Hmmm. I suppose I think there are few minorities on long distance trails (though there are some -- I've hiked with a few people who would fall into that category) for the same reasons there aren't many minority hockey players.

    But if you're looking for a regional connection (i.e. the South), I don't think it's there. You won't find many minorities on the PCT, the CDT, or the Long Trail, either.

  10. The people of Appalachia are a minority. Why is it that you have not learned this during your time on the AT? Could it be that you are the minority?

  11. It kills me too. I work with under-served inner-city youth just a few miles ago near AMC Camp Mohican, and my dream is one day to start a non-profit that can facilitate more young people of color hitting the trail for long-distance hikes. I know many non-white hikers and know many students who could do it with a little help and training, who'd learn some of the best experiential education about themselves and the world.

    Also, this is a funny video on black hikers ('s Blair Underwood)

  12. Anonymous said, "The people of Appalachia are a minority." Is this referring to those who are hiking the trail? I suppose the poster is basing that assumption on the SES of those who live along the trail, but it's difficult to discern; there was no explanation offered. I would like to be educated if the poster has that information to share.

    The poster has a good question though, Kate. As a thru hiker, are you in the socio economic minority, coming from the privilege of an upper- middle/upper class upbringing? Have you been able to gauge that? Do you think more upper class folks should be hiking the AT?

    Just curious.

  13. Perhaps we should have a quota - that one of you over-privileged, white, wealthy media darlings should have "donated" your resources to an inner-city youth whom you could have dragged through the forest like some pathetic tolken.
    I'm academically trained, liberal, and from the northeast - but I really leave that behind in the forest (I'm also a thru-hiker from 07). I'm hoping you finish you're hike, but I'm also hoping that it, and ten more years of life, divorces you a bit from the cant you've carried into the woods.