The Outdoors is for All
To say it’s been a tough first half of 2020 would be an understatement. Coronavirus hit the human race with astronomical force, and the world we once knew has changed forever. Some welcomed the changes with a smile, and some wish things could go back to the old ways. I won’t disagree; change can be frightening and uncomfortable, but I believe it’s one of the most giving gifts you can receive. Humans have evolved over millions of years, and we will continue to evolve long after this virus. The most fascinating change I’ve witnessed is how Americans rekindles their relationship with nature. Homebodies—and people who didn’t think the outdoors was for them—are out riding bikes, taking hikes, picnicking, and just flat out enjoying nature.
As most of us have experienced, one of the safest places to go during quarantine is outside. Thirteen years ago, when I sustained a spinal cord injury, I didn’t let the loss of functioning legs stop me from exploring all the beautiful landscapes Earth has to offer. I knew I belonged in nature no matter my mobility limitations. The outdoors has been a huge source of healing for me, and it would be ignorant to think it isn’t for many others. Science shows us the many benefits of outdoor access, from physical to emotional health. Sadly, being on the trail, or even sitting around a campfire, hasn’t been the most welcoming place for a certain group of people—I’m talking about Black Americans.
Coronavirus hasn’t been the only outbreak we are dealing with this year. After the videotaped murder of George Floyd by police went viral, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, and I truly believe it will create more change in America than the coronavirus will. It’s sad it took multiple deaths by cops to help America realize systematic racism is real. If you’re anything other than a white abled-bodied man, you’ve most likely experienced some type of systematic adversity. I know I have, and it’s been based on my disability. I can’t compare living with a disability to living as a Black person, because they aren’t the same. You can’t compare 400 years of systemic oppression to being disabled, and I get that. However, my disability helps me be empathetic and understand types of discrimination and lack of access. It has also helped me realize how it feels to not fit in and be the only one in a space that looks like me.
This is a time to listen and learn from a community of people who want to be treated as equals, especially when it comes to being outdoors. There are two Black outdoor enthusiasts and leaders that I’ve been following for a couple of years now. I’ve looked up to these people because they’ve pushed boundaries; they’ve attempted and conquered phenomenal feats, and bring up others with them.
Will Robinson, aka Akuna Hikes, is the first Black male to complete all three long trails in the United States. Will is also a military veteran who sought out hiking as a healing force to manage PTSD. Yes, Will has completed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Being the first Black male triple-crowner set him up to be one of the Black community’s biggest outdoor ambassadors. Hiking 20 miles a day for a few months was hard for Will, but the racism he faced along the way had to be harder—racism actually turned into fuel that helped him push on. Will’s hiking career isn’t over. Coronavirus forced him to change his 2020 plans, but I think you should expect to see him conquering something amazing soon. Follow Will’s journey here.
Ayesha McGowan is a Black female road cyclist who races with the LIV cycling team. She’s been not only a voice for women in cycling, but also for people of color. She’s often the only Black participant in events. What I love about Ayesha is she uses her voice on social media strategically. Sometimes she posts what I take as her inspiring youth in Black communities to follow their dreams. Other times, her posts are calling out the professional cycling world for taking part in systematic racism. Ayesha is a talented cyclist and an even more talented advocate. She’s fast, smart, and is making positive changes within the cycling community daily. Ride along with her here.
It’s true, the outdoors is for all. Just because someone is disabled, black, brown, or just different from you doesn’t mean they don’t have the same right to nature as you. Next time you’re on the trail, cycling, climbing, kayaking, or just in the campgrounds, make sure you are accepting of all people and actively welcoming and including them into the community.
Header photo: Ayesha McGowan
Matthew Tilford didn’t lose his hunger for adventure when he sustained a life-changing spinal cord injury. Being outdoors has been a huge part of his healing process. Being a wheelchair-user, he learned to adapt and to be creative in order to fulfill outdoor passions.