Why People of Color Often Feel Unsafe in the Outdoors

Racism surrounds some of the most beautiful corners of this country

By Amanda Machado

July 30, 2020


Photo by nattrass/iStock

On the Fourth of July, white men in Indiana tried to lynch a Black man while he was camping. As Vauhxx Rush Booker explained in a Facebook post, he had gone to Lake Monroe with friends to watch the lunar eclipse. He was "simply looking forward to a night of enjoying nature's awesome beauty." Instead, he left with a concussion and bruises across his body. When the police finally came, they refused to arrest any of the five men who committed the assault.

By the time my Black partner and I heard the story, we had already planned to take a mini-camping vacation to a lake and a waterfall to celebrate our anniversary. So we decided to spend the first hour of our drive to the campground talking about worst-case scenarios. What if someone tries to assault him? What would we do? How could I protect him in that situation? Would it even be any safer if I were to call the cops? 

During the last hour of our drive, we passed towns with State of Jefferson billboards, Trump 2020 posters, American flags modified with the “thin blue line.” Our nervousness increased. We came up with a code phrase, something we would say to each other if a situation felt unsafe, something to signal to the other person that we need to leave immediately.  

I've spent years working as a "diversity facilitator" for white-led companies and nonprofits in the outdoors and environmentalist movement. I’m often asked, “Why don't people of color like camping?” When I answer, "A lot of us love camping, but a lot of us still feel unsafe," the comment is always taken as an exaggeration.  

"Unsafe? Like really?" 

Just last week, the Pacific Crest Trail Association posted on its Facebook group page that “it’s fine to argue against the existence of racism on the trail” (the organization later apologized).

Whenever I get this reaction from folks in the outdoors community, I feel forced to go down the long list of proof: I remind my clients and trainees that US beaches, pools, parks, and lakes did not all desegregate until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to historian Jeff Wiltse, even in public pools that did not have an official policy of racial segregation, it was common for police city officials to allow "and in some cases encourage, white swimmers to literally beat Black swimmers out of the water." I remind my white-dominated audiences that the outdoorsy state of Oregon was the only state to write the exclusion of Black people directly into its constitution and that in the 1920s the state had the largest Ku Klux Klan organization west of the Mississippi River. I remind them that the states most known for their beautiful outdoor areas—like Montana and Idaho—also report the highest rates of hate crimes. I tell them about the swastikas carved on rock-climbing boulders in Colorado and the racist names of rock-climbing routes that the community has never renamed. I tell them that, when I was growing up in Florida, I could not visit any state park without first passing through a row of Confederate flags draped in front of almost every house leading up to it. After this month, I will also mention Ahmaud Arbery, Chris Cooper, and Vauhxx Rush Booker. I will share the story of how I could not visit a lake with my partner without first hearing of an attempted lynching at a lake just days before, and that as we drove toward our "vacation," we carried the nervousness of wondering, "Is he next?"  

In so many ways, any person of color in the United States who loves hiking and camping is used to this. We have always known that in order to access the most beautiful corners of the United States, you must first pass through some of its most racist corners. In all my years of loving the outdoors, I've always just accepted that this was part of the deal.

But even as a person of color, I have never felt as unsafe as I have this past month exploring the outdoors with a Black partner. On another camping trip together earlier this summer, we entered small towns along the route to grab a cup of coffee, wait in line for a sandwich, or buy tissues at a general store. And whenever we did, white men would literally crane their necks staring, stop everything they were doing to stare, and look slowly down our bodies from our head to our toes. 

When I first met my partner, I felt excited to share my favorite spots in nature with him. I was the one who had spent more time in the outdoors, and I was eager to share with him the freedom and joy I had felt in those spaces. But I had to acknowledge this truth: By showing him the places where I have felt the closest to being truly free, we would have to enter those places where he is still most likely to be in physical danger. 

Thankfully, we were safe during our anniversary getaway. Driving up to the entrance to the park, we both sighed in relief upon seeing several families of color camping near us. Once we reached the waterfall, the mist from the raging water instantly cleared all the stress left in our bodies. We took deep breaths. We let ourselves enter that waterfall trance you can tap into if you stay focused on the water pouring over the rocks, in the same motion, over and over and over again, your whole body feeling almost carried by it. We hopped on a rock island in the water to feel the mist more intensely. I felt the happiest I had in weeks.  

So much is written about people of color's intergenerational trauma, the many ways Black and brown people have passed down pain. Yet I wanted to believe that the reason some of us made it this far is because we also had inherited intergenerational joy—a staunch determination that runs through our families to enjoy any slice of freedom wherever we can find it, a stubborn capacity for pleasure even under oppressive conditions. I’ve seen that determination and capacity for joy in practically every space I’ve been in with people of color. Writer Christiana Cola has even argued that it’s what makes people of color stereotypically better at dancing: Our experience of oppression has facilitated our capacity to feel everything intensely, the bad and the good, to have an intimate connection with every visceral experience.  

Even with all the racial violence associated with outdoor spaces, I want to believe that the outdoors is our best chance at that kind of visceral joy. I want to believe that the moment we had at the waterfall is worth all the anxiety that came before it. As a traveler and writer, I have built my whole life and work around chasing after those moments—total presence, total lightness, total safety. But now I am wondering if that means I have built my whole life around chasing after something that my partner may never find, at least not for longer than a few minutes breathing in the mist.  

Days after our trip, I came across this line from June Jordan's "Poem for My Love": “I am amazed by peace. It is this possibility of you asleep, and breathing in the quiet air."  

That is all that peace in the outdoors feels allowed to be: a possibility, a brief moment in the mist with the potential for freedom, but never quite freedom itself.