Black & Brown Faces in Wild Places

chelsea.jpgI grew up in suburban Chicago. My mother was a nurse with the Girl Scouts and I’d often go to camps with her and stay in cabins in wooded areas near the city. Somehow, even as a child, those trips were never enough. I always wanted a more raw and intimate communion with wild nature. I wanted to be out in the mountains, backpacking. But there were no mountains in suburban Chicago, and when I expressed my desire to my mom, she said: “Honey, we don’t do that.” So I knew had to wait until I was older and independent.

In my mid-20s, I set out on a weeklong solo motorcycle and camping trip throughout California and Oregon. I was going solo because no one else wanted to go and I’m not the kind of person who won’t take a trip just because no one was coming along. The first night was awful. I hadn’t brought a sleeping pad – I thought those were just for wimps – and the ground was cold and uncomfortable. I just didn’t know any better. I got a sleeping pad the next day – marking the first of many lessons learned in the wilderness. That was more than 20 years ago. Since then I’ve been backpacking many, many times. During those trips I learned a ton about myself, about people, and about the outdoor world.

Because of the number of times I’ve almost stepped on or put my pack down on a rattlesnake, I’ve learned to look before I step or put a hand down. I have learned about the correct gear to bring. (On my first backpacking trip, my pack was about 70 pounds; a pack shouldn’t weigh more than 40 pounds.) I have learned that it is usually quicker to stay on the trail rather than taking a “short cut.” I’ve learned how freeing it is to be “off the matrix” for a handful of days, where no one can contact you. I almost hate to come back each time.

I’ve also seen a lot of wonderful things. I have seen the Milky Way countless times, yet I never cease to be surprised at the sheer number of stars out there. And I have shared many laughs and games with camping companions.

But I also understand how daunting it can be to go out into the wilderness. Which is why I founded Los Angeles Wilderness Training in the footsteps of Bay Area Wilderness Training, an Earth Island project where I served as program director for five years. My outfit trains adults who work with youth on how to lead camping and backpacking trips for kids. Outdoor trips are great for team building. They compel children to work together to make the trip successful; they encourage every kid to step into leadership roles. In the wilderness, kids tend to grow and learn in ways they wouldn’t in other places.

As a woman of color, I am also very aware that the majority of outdoor enthusiasts are white. By 2040 half of the US population will be composed of the ethnicities we now call “minorities.” We need to get more people of color outdoors. People only save what they love, and they only love what they know. If more people of color don’t get outdoors, we could lose our outdoor spaces simply due to lack of interest.

Some people of color believe that the outdoors is just for white people. For others there may be a family history of time spent outdoors, but that may have been under duress or during wartime. Among African American men, the wild is remembered as a place where lynchings happened. Needless to say, the outdoors did not leave a good taste in our mouths. But the truth is, it’s safer out there than in our cities. However, if adults have never spent time in the wilderness, they can only think of the worst-case scenarios.

I want to change this misperception about the wilderness. I want to show people from all communities how fantastic it is to be in the great outdoors. That’s why every year for the last 10 years I have led backpacking trips for women of color. The trips are fun, they are restorative, and slowly but surely they are helping draw more people of color into the backcountry.

As an African-American skier once said, it gets old being “the only chocolate chip in the cookie.” I’m determined to increase the diversity of those who experience the wilderness so that I have some company.

Chelsea Griffie is the founder and director of Los Angeles Wilderness Training, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project.

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