Ever since I went on my first long-distance walk, the Hadrian’s Wall Path in England, I have been wondering: “Why am I only bumping into other white folks?” In most British cities, there was a vibrant and colorful diversity of ethnicities and origins, yet out on the famous trail, everyone was Anglo-Saxon (and me German).
I have since had similar experiences on other long-distance paths or in national parks in the UK, the US and in Europe.
This could be put down to coincidence, if there weren’t many other hikers asking the same question. I was reminded of my own observations when I listened to an interview with Rahawa Haile on NPR. She had hiked the Appalachian Trail – and encountered a disproportionately low number of fellow African-Americans.
But her explanations didn’t satisfy me. I don’t think that memories of slavery and Jim Crow laws plague many people when they have to make a decision about where and how to vacation in 2017. In any case, this wouldn’t explain the absence of Turkish hikers in Germany or of Indian hikers in Scotland compared to their share of the population. Not all global phenomena can be explained by US-American history.
Nor can most things be explained by one cause alone.
Economic disparity certainly plays a role. Although hiking itself is free and the equipment costs less than a mobile phone, people struggling with several minimum-wage jobs and living in constant worry about being evicted won’t take off a few months to wander through the wilderness. Ethnic minorities are over-represented among the poor, so this may account for some of the lack of Latino and African hikers. But I am not even talking about these long hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail or such, I am more concerned with shorter adventures of one or a few days.
Although I am generally big on economic factors, I wouldn’t discount cultural factors either. Olaleye Akintola, a Nigerian journalist who moved to Germany in 2014, recently wrote that he doesn’t understand why Germans go camping and hiking. “Why do people leave their clean and safe houses and sleep in their cars, in tents or in drafty mountain huts as if they were vagabonds?” For him, sleeping outside is a step down, not something to aspire to.
This goes hand in hand with the economic situation. Maybe one needs the secure middle-class background to find a lack of comfort exciting and not perceive it as a threatening memory of the past, whether it is one’s own or one’s family’s. Also, if you already live in a leafy suburb, you are emotionally closer to the outdoors than if you live in an inner city. Just as suburbans would be afraid of going to downtown, inner-city kids may be more afraid of bears.
Speaking of bears, I remember an anecdote that perfectly illustrates different perceptions of danger. As any hiker knows, bears are no real danger and definitely less of a danger than humans. It is rather rare that you see them. I have tried and I only managed it once, in Romania. Also in Romania, I met a refugee from Syria who hosted me on Couchsurfing. When I asked him if he had been out to explore the beautiful mountains and forests of Romania, he replied: “No way! There are bears.” Here was a guy who had escaped war, bombings, oppression and dictatorship, but he associated the peaceful forests of Europe with danger and death.
Particularly with first-generation immigrants, I often sense that they feel under pressure to lead a life that they can show off to those left in their home country, thus justifying the emigration. Apparently, photos of fancy apartments, big TVs and cars or huge weddings are more impressive in India or Turkey than a photo of the son freezing in a sleeping bag. (“If all you wanted to do was freeze your ass off, you could have stayed outside in the garden,” you can hear the nasty grandmother bitching.)
Maybe cultural heritage plays a role, too. White Americans have cowboys and trappers as role models, Australians worship escaped bandits living in the wilderness and Germans have read the books by Karl May. Latinos on the other hand, and overly stereotyping, have telenovelas, Indians have Bollywood and Persians have wine-drinking poets. (I don’t know anything about Asian cultures, but I have repeatedly read that they are the second-largest group on hiking trails in the US.) And maybe some non-white groups are not quite as big on individualism and value family, friends and community higher than proving to oneself the ability to walk 1,000 miles through the desert?
Another contributing factor may be advertisement. In almost all ads for outdoor equipment, everybody is white. There is even more advertisement directed at seniors, children and dogs than at ethnic minorities.
Actually, come to think of it, the only TV ads showing black people with outdoor equipment are those asking them to sign up to die “for their country”.
Now, I don’t think that everybody should go hiking. But I do think that hiking is such a wonderful, uncomplicated and affordable way to escape one’s daily routine, to get away from the stress, to build confidence that it’s sad if certain parts of the population were excluded, felt excluded or were to exclude their children from it based on race or class.
Particularly for recent immigrants and refugees, many of them with traumatic experiences, I would think that spending a week or two in nature will help to foster calm and confidence better than staying in overcrowded shelters. US military veterans are using hiking to overcome post-deployment stress. I think it would do some good to someone who escaped war and survived a boat ride through the Mediterranean, too.
Hiking through the wonderful nature of one’s new home may even lead to a greater sense of belonging than an integration course in which people have to learn all 50 state capitals. (As always when I have a good idea, some research reveals that it has already been done: two Afghan refugees walked 1,000 km through Switzerland.)
Lastly, I should caution that all my observations are unrepresentative. That’s why I am curious to hear about your experience. And of course there are always exceptions, and nothing can be generalized, as my Iranian hiking partner on the West Highland Way in Scotland demonstrated.