Saturday, June 9, 2017.
It is Day 44 of my Pacific Crest Trail hike. Stephen runs excitedly on the road while I laugh hysterically with relief. We finally made it to Kennedy Meadows, passed the 700-mile mark, and left the desert with no injuries.
That June morning was celebratory. The trail into the high country flattened out, and we hiked 10 miles to Kennedy Meadows in three hours. The transition from the desert to the Inyo National Forest is apparent. There are lush green trees, which we hadn’t seen in ages. Best of all, we did it! The excitement flows through our veins and our souls. Bring on the beer at Grumpy’s!
I’m a 32-year-old Latina who grew up in the suburbs of Houston. In 2012, I moved to San Francisco, where I started my career in marketing. My partner, Stephen Woodson, is an open space technician who develops parks and green spaces. He is an Eagle Scout and an experienced backpacker, and I am an experienced long-distance runner.
We connected through our appreciation and gratitude for the outdoors. The trails were our jam. He asked me to go on a hike for our first date, and the rest is history. I applied the same principles of running to backpacking, and it clicked. It was the most beautiful thing I had experienced, to slow down the pace, see the beauty around me, and share it with someone I love.
When we arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store, a roar of clapping erupted. What is going on? What happened? It’s a tradition to clap and cheer for every person who arrives at this exact spot.
2017 was dubbed “the year of fire and ice.” For us, snow and raging river crossings still lay ahead. Kennedy Meadows represents the physical transition from the desert to the Sierra, so it requires a gear change. All encouragement and positivity are needed. Traditionally, many hang out here for a few days of rest before transitioning to the snow. I felt empowered and ready for the next 390 miles.
We were ravenous for lunch. The general store’s patio tables and chairs were crowded with scruffy, smelly, and dirty hikers. The energy was high. People waved down trail family or hiker friends they hadn’t seen in a while.
As we were looking for a place to sit, no one waved us down. We recognized some faces but didn’t find a proper place for two. We decided to eat in front of the store where I found a tree stump to sit on.
My partner and I had one crucial objective at Kennedy Meadows. We needed to find a group to join for the Sierra section. It’s strongly encouraged to hike with a group for the passes and river crossings. It’s dangerous to cross alone because the snowmelt swells the streams. Safety requires a team effort. Everyone at the tables seemed to have found their group. Some found their trail families early on, and they seemed to stick together.
I didn’t know how they welcome new people because no one invited us to hike with them. I wondered how it starts. Is it a special connection? Do you see someone and instantly think, “We could be friends?” How did it work? I didn’t know how it felt, and I had never known how it felt.
All I knew was that my trip’s goal was to have an adventure, do some soul-searching and find my rhythm. I thought it was odd that people attempted to hike alone and get outside their comfort zones only to get back into a group. But that’s my opinion.
Stephen and I discussed how we should approach finding a group to join. We talked about who we should ask and how we should ask. It felt as if we were asking, “Do you want to be friends?”
We went up to one group and asked, and their response was “we have too many people in our group, we’re full.” OK. Let’s ask another group. Their response in sum: “We’re getting off at Lone Pine,” aka Cottonwood Pass. My mind began racing. We wanted to hike beyond Forester Pass. Let’s ask another group.
My heart now started racing too; my hands became sweaty and my throat felt dry. That familiar feeling, that I was being noticed or treated differently, crept in. I refused to think anything further at that moment. I kept my head high. My lifetime survival instincts kicked in, and I was able to remain calm.
After getting rejected a few more times, Stephen and I discussed how we could move forward. We listened to a podcast that talked about negative stereotypes about couples. So maybe that’s the reason people didn’t want us to be a part of their group? Or perhaps they think we’re asking for a long-term commitment?
We decided to approach people and tell them, “Can we join your group? We need a group to join in the Sierra for the river crossings, and we don’t intend to join permanently.” Maybe that would work. Nope.
It felt like a broken record. It didn’t even matter how kind their response was — rejection hurt. If you’ve lived in the dating world, you can relate. The kindest “no” still leaves a deep wound.
We had two thoughts. Maybe we can hike on as a couple and survive it? Or perhaps this is a sign we should ditch our plan and hike out to Lone Pine by ourselves? That is doable as a couple.
On our last-ditch effort we found three hikers who welcomed us with open arms. Of course, our group was one of the most diverse. That felt like the story of my life. I always end up befriending a diverse group.
That moment transformed our hike beyond our wildest imaginations. Stephen and I grew together as a couple and within our group. We all made it over Forester Pass and parted ways when Stephen and I flipped to Echo Lake. The rest of the group continued through the Sierra.
I’ve run this story over in my mind a thousand times. Every single time I live through it, I discover something new. Do you see anything wrong?
It took me three years to realize this situation is how racism often looks and feels. BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) experience episodes like this in our everyday lives.
Many people tend to see racism at the surface only, like a negative character trait. Therefore, people tend to associate being a good person as not being racist. They may see racism only when someone makes a blatant and disparaging statement. As a result, unless someone makes an overtly racist statement or act, they automatically assume there’s no racism. It’s usually much more subtle than that.
As we struggled to team up for the stream crossings, I didn’t assume any type of racism was occurring since no one said anything directly to me, nor am I calling anyone a racist. Still, in some cases, I felt what is known as a micro-aggression, which is defined as “a brief and commonplace daily verbal or behavioral indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes toward people of color.”
It’s a familiar feeling. I’ve felt it all my life, and I felt it many times during our 44 days in the desert. Suddenly, all the implicit bias I’d experienced was staring back at me in the mirror.
Throughout our time on the PCT, we were seeing the same groups over and over. We were passing one another. Yet a lot of hikers seemed to dismiss me and misunderstand my ability. It wasn’t direct. We would cluster together at certain spots along the trail or at camp, and I thought we could all hang out together. But it always ended up feeling awkward and unwelcome.
Stephen and I weren’t fast hikers, maybe doing 20 miles a day. Others were doubling that and then spending more days in town. We were just cruising. We’d actually get ahead of them at some points or catch up to them. Or we’d get somewhere, and people were surprised that we’d made it. They’d say, somewhere between the lines, “Oh you’re here!?” or “You made it?!”
What’s so strange is the Pacific Crest Trail should be one place we are all able to get together and connect. We all started from the Mexico and California border. We all hiked to the same place. We saw the same people and groups throughout the trail. In my eyes, we are the same — we are all badasses! Yet it didn't matter. I often felt like I didn't belong.
Let’s be clear. Many others did not make me feel this way.
The point is that some people of color are uncomfortable on the trail because of this form of subtle yet hurtful behavior. That needs to be addressed. As a larger community, we are failing to recognize it because the blatant acts aren’t there.
There’s another issue as well. According to the halfwayanywhere.com survey, 7.6% of thru-hikers on the PCT are BIPOC. That number has barely increased year over year. In California, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 28.1% of residents are nonwhite.
We need to find a solution to increase diversity on the PCT. During our hike, I only saw a handful of other brown people over 44 days, and we passed all of them. I did not see anyone who looked like me at Kennedy Meadows. The lack of diversity on the PCT contributes to these ongoing acts of bias.
This is how racism looks and feels on an everyday basis. It might not look like your experience, but that doesn’t make it invalid. It’s crucial to understand the deeper levels of racism beyond the blatant hate and statements.
It starts with checking privilege and implicit bias that we may have unknowingly inherited. It doesn’t make us bad people. It’s a bad habit society created, and it needs to stop if our community is to make progress.
Our first step forward as a community is to acknowledge there is an issue — that implicit bias exists on the trail. It contributes to racism, which is why we need to check our privilege at the door before heading out to the wilderness.
Thinking back, it makes me upset that we rationalized the situation when there were red flags everywhere since day one. As a result, it’s my goal to find my voice, speak out and share my thoughts and experiences. How can we move forward if we don't speak up? These are everyday thoughts and emotional battles for people who look like me. It's more challenging when you are the only Latina in the area and there is no one to speak with who can relate or feel these same emotions.
To new BIPOC hikers: Don’t be discouraged. We found a space where we belonged, and so can you. Persistence, being prepared, finding people who welcomed us, and embracing the support from our loved ones kept us going.
Everyone: I encourage you to see the value of thru-hiking beyond the hike itself. You can meet tons of amazing people from all over the world on the PCT. The thru-hiking community is generally good about being open. Go the extra mile and genuinely try to get to know people beyond a small circle of friends. Speak up if you see something wrong. You can do this on your local hikes too. If you are in a group, don't get consumed—and branch out.
I love talking to people on the trail to this day. I make an extra effort to make BIPOC feel welcomed by nodding my head, saying “hi,” or asking how their hike went if they look a bit nervous or out of place. I can spot newbies in a second because I was once there. If you are an experienced hiker and see a newbie, please make them feel welcome. You can simply ask, “How is your hike?” We belong out there.
I will never forget those who were immediately nice to me on the trail. It’s a rare treat and surreal feeling as a BIPOC hiker. Thanks to those who made me feel better and for helping me get past those first 1,000 miles. It gave me the courage to push everything else aside. It allowed me to hike almost 2,300 miles.
Finally, thanks to everyone who supported us and believed in us, the Trail Pirates: the hikers, trail angels, Hops, Ziplok, Rhino, and the group of 12 who welcomed our group to join their ascent of Forester Pass. Thank you to my mom and dad for your love and support, even though you did not initially agree with my quitting my job to live on a trail. Most importantly, thank you to my partner, Stephen, who always believed in me and never left my side.
Heather Diaz is a first-generation hiker from the suburbs of Houston who now lives in San Jose. She helps even the most novice feel included, prepared and empowered in the outdoors. Learn more at hikeandlift.com and also follow Heather on Instagram. In 2021, she plans to finish the Sierra section she and her partner skipped. “We hope to see you on the trail!” - Heather