“Access for All” is a blog series welcoming diverse perspectives that create an inclusive modern outdoors for everyone. Meet travel blogger Joshua Walker and hear why childhood memories outside—both positive and complicated—in the South shaped who he is today. Words by Joshua Walker. Photos by Alex Becker.
I didn’t grow up privileged but the outdoors were always free. I am the youngest of 7 siblings and grew up in a 5-bedroom house with 10 occupants. We weren’t “poor,” but definitely didn’t have extra. I understood at a very early age how to appreciate the small things you have, and not to dwell on the things that were just out of reach for us financially.
Joshua wears the Highside ‘84 sneakers in Pecan/Navy.
One of my fondest memories is sitting in the woods behind my house in late spring and getting a whiff of honeysuckle as it wafts through the trees amidst the warm southern breeze in the quiet country of Barnwell, South Carolina (population less than 5K). For me, that fragrance is a reminder of just how wild and beautiful the natural world is. In the winter, the scent was replaced with burning wood and pine sap. Nature has always been a waiting and familiar comfort that I would never take for granted, and still cherish to this day.
As I reflect on those comforts and natural healing abilities provided by Mother Nature, I ponder why and how people, especially BIPOC, are unaware and deprived of the benefits that are inherently for everyone. When I am hiking/camping I am always looking around for someone that looks like me and in the rare instances I see another BIPOC, it is such a nice feeling. Unfortunately, those occurrences are very rare. It is not entirely surprising but it is disheartening.
Why don’t we take up more space outside? Why don’t we feel like we can experience the wonders of the great outdoors? Why don’t we feel like we belong?
Because I grew up on a farm, nature was literally everywhere. It was a staple in my upbringing and it is a major part of me to this day. It is my lifeblood. It is my refuge. However, I am just one Black guy. Every Black, Indigenous, and person of color didn’t grow up with that same exposure, access, and opportunity like I did.
I could give a TEDx talk about the history of racism and systematic exclusion of many peoples to the outdoors, but I digress. Strangely enough, there is a more relevant, and almost less quantifiable deterrent that I’ve noticed is keeping many BIPOC from enjoying nature: feeling like an “other.”
Joshua wears the Universal Trail sandals in Canyon to Canyon.
Feeling like an “other” is feeling like you are out of place, like you are one second away from being asked, “Are you lost?” Feeling every pair of eyes on you at any given time, as though you were their bear spotting. Consider it this way: you were invited to a party and you didn’t know anyone; you show up to the party, and sure enough, everyone notices YOU.
Now you are forced to stay in a lane, so as to not offend or further support a negative and/or foolish stereotype that might exist in their mind. To some degree, the image of Black people rests on our shoulders in that moment. While I know that is not true for everyone, it is unfortunately true for enough—and was my experience and upbringing. Needless to say, that feeling alone is enough to keep people away from the outdoors.
One of my first times experiencing this was in high school at summer camp. I had to beg my parents to allow me to attend this particular wilderness camp in the foothills of South Carolina. It was my first time at a sleepaway camp but it was also very obvious that I would be one of the few, if not the only, Black people.
Upon arriving, I immediately realized how different I was from the rest of the campers. Not just because of the way that I looked but also my upbringing. For example, myself and another Black camper were the only ones that couldn’t swim. I will never forget getting out of the line of the swim test for fear of, not drowning, but showing the entire camp that I couldn’t swim. For a Black, closeted gay, teenager in the South, the last thing I needed was to feel even more ostracized.
Joshua wears the Ember Moc in Medallion.
While I will continue to encourage BIPOC to see the outdoors in a more welcoming and appealing light, I will not force anyone to experience anything they draw trauma from. I will continue to share the incomparable positive experiences that I have had, as well as traumas I have felt regarding racism, and my mere existence as a Black gay man.
Often, I am seen as being weak, inexperienced, or naive about outdoor knowledge and it tends to make me want to prove myself even more to heterosexual men. The pressure alone is enough to prevent people from being their full selves. It is important to overcome those traumas if you can. Besides that, taking up space outdoors is saying that we will not be sequestered to one particular place. We will not relinquish the natural right of our existence to paint the hills and horizons of this great earth.
The outdoors has not always been for us, but that does not mean we will allow our dreadful history to be the cause of our inactivity today. For me, every time I come outside I realize how therapeutic, rejuvenating and refreshing it is. It shows me what’s important in life. It makes me feel like everything is OK.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters said it best: “Reclaiming my time.” And that is what I plan on doing. You will continue to find me out on the mountain, in the forest, and in the canyons proving that #BlackPeopleHikeToo. My hope is that more of the BIPOC outdoors community, and equally important allies of the BIPOC outdoors community, continue to encourage and fight to make and keep the outdoors for everyone, as it was always intended to be.
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