Appreciating Rahawa Haile’s “Going It Alone” for the Hiking-Justice Connection

As someone interested in and impacted by the outdoors, hiking, human connection, harmful historical legacies, and ever-present white supremacy, I absolutely love and highly recommend Rahawa Haile’s article “Going It Alone”:

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Haile shares her experience through-hiking the Appalachian Trail as a queer black woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • “By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.”
  • “Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American ­history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.”
  • “There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy.”

In trying to figure out why this piece so deeply speaks to me, I realize how much I crave stories of hiking (like Amanda “Zuul” Jameson’s Brown Girl on the (P)CT and Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black”) that challenge the assumptions of whiteness, walking as white activity, and the outdoors as white space.

I crave so deeply ways of re-seeing and relating differently with my childhood home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Haile names places where I’ve spent much time and where I’ll be visiting again this summer: the Smokies and Shenandoah, Roan Mountain and Gatlinburg. These are places I feel within my body, both in the sense of heart expansion and heart ache. These are places I’ve fled and yet still seek again. These are places with deep legacies of racial, colonial, and other traumas that underwrite contemporary white nationalism.

Haile gives voice to the struggle of craving the expansive mountains, the blue ridges, and the relationship with birds and bears, while confronting Confederate flags, Trump signs, and stores selling blackface soap.

Haile gives voice to the differential risks, to the differently embodied realities, and to the significantly different threats that she (a queer black woman) and I (a straight white woman) face when walking in the woods.

Haile also gives voice to the need to keep going, to keep walking, and to keep writing. To put one’s “boot to the granite face of white supremacy.” Haile reminds me to commit yet again my body, my words, and my actions toward justice.

So, how do I “make actionable” a commitment to racial justice, especially as a hiker?

I certainly don’t have a full answer, but the work includes:

  • Intrapersonal work: ongoing reflexivity and introspection, especially toward noticing more, disrupting biases, and changing my own limiting self-talk;
  • Interpersonal work: writing, teaching, and interacting—with others and often in relationship—to raise awareness and to make change; and
  • Institutional work: channeling time, talents, and financial resources into organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rethinking Schools, the YWCA, and America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which work for larger institutional change.

When I’m out on the trail, I’m engaged mostly in intrapersonal and interpersonal work—talking with myself, with hiking partners, and sometimes with others I meet along the trail. Part of why I love hiking is that it allows for long timespans that become more meditative, more contemplative as the body and the brain tire. I find that the more removed I am from my everyday habits and habitat, the more I can de-normalize damaging scripts that have become internalized. Like the meaning I find on my yoga mat, time on the trail is essential for healing, reorienting with gratitude, confronting my shadow self, and refueling my commitment to justice.

As I reflect on these components of making my commitment actionable, I’m thinking also about the ways my privileged positioning (e.g., as white, U.S.-born, cis-gender, able-bodied, economically secure) makes the trail a space of such possibility for me and for people who look, talk, and move like me. And this a reality—that outdoors spaces are made inaccessible and inhospitable for many people—makes the need for justice all-the-more urgent.

A case in point:

Last summer I had too little water at the trailhead for Big Schloss, a trail running a ridgeline between Virginia and West Virginia with outstanding views on clear days. My partner Jonathan and I thought there’d be water at the trailhead; yet, the well was dry. We asked others for water, and two white hikers returning to their cars emptied their bottles for us. I felt a sense of comradery with these other hikers, and I felt courage (surely from white privilege) in asking for help.

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I also was sure that if we couldn’t get water from fellow hikers, we couldn’t do this day hike (the closest gas station was miles away, so we’d spend our time driving instead of hiking). On the drive into Big Schloss, we’d passed many confederate flags (easily more than 10), and I couldn’t see myself knocking on any doors to ask for water. I remember feeling fairly vulnerable in this rural area.

And here’s what I want to remember and communicate more widely: my feeling of vulnerability arose from a trauma that’s shared, that’s part of the U.S. collective, yet is experienced so differently and with such potentially different consequences. As a white woman—especially when hiking in partnership with a white man—my concerns are primarily about emotional hurt. In contrast, hikers of color face the U.S. legacy of lynching (the hate crime of murder) that is part of America’s Black Holocaust that continues today through both microaggressions and macro-structures like unchecked police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the cycle of poverty, voter disenfranchisement, and many other institutional issues. Haile addresses how such legacies impact not only human interactions but also basic choices like how to protect one’s body from cold and wind and not be perceived as a threat/target of hate crimes.

My pain of traveling in the Appalachian Mountains, which are so in my blood, involves being re-traumatized with each confederate flag, each Trump sign, each park or trail name that celebrates “founding fathers” and other prominent figures who took part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, forced Indian removal, colonization, genocide, and other atrocities. I think it’s important, though ever-painful, to take notice of such physical manifestations of ongoing dehumanization, especially as they show up in “the outdoors” or “the wilderness.”

Truly, all spaces are social constructed, so it’s important to keep asking: Whose stories do these spaces tell? Whose stories aren’t told? And why? What can be done toward recovery, retelling, and rewriting?

It’s important, too, to inquire into and take notice of the racialization of space and spatialization of race. As a white woman, this means asking about how my body works within spaces, especially along trails and the roadways that connect and supply trails.

Thank you Rahawa Haile for “Going It Alone”! This is an article I’m sure to come back to again and again. I so appreciate how it’s shaking up and shedding light on the connection between hiking and pursuing justice.

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with connections to many places, including East Tennessee, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. These commitments lead to me to think and write about intersectional identities, embodiment, power, and rights, among other matters. My deepest commitments are to equity, justice, and peace. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

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