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Diversity on the trail

Diversity and inclusion in the outdoor recreation community is much more than a literal metric. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

About a month ago, racial injustice in America jumped to the forefront of many people’s attention across the country. Dialogue on this front has been developing for decades, but it was more limited in its reach because the majority of white people had the option to disengage with this topic. Until recently, many simply chose that option because they were uncomfortable with the realities of racism in this country. Recently, we have begun to see a change in that pattern, however. Now that this dialogue is out in the open, more people are starting to push the limits of their comfort, ask hard questions and examine their experiences.

I had a conversation with a longtime Lake Placid resident recently who asked some questions that they were struggling with. Addressing the theme of my last column, this person wanted to know why it was that people of color might feel unwelcome, unsafe or alone in the Adirondacks. They were surprised by these ideas, having felt that they themselves and the community were welcoming to all people. Several people reached out with similar questions; they were confused but curious. Had people of color been assaulted on the trail? Were there some overt displays of racism out there that they had never encountered before? What else is happening in the community regarding racism and diversity? Perhaps most frequently asked was what they could do, as a white person, to help address these issues.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Clifton Harcum, program coordinator in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam. Our conversation then centered on the alternative Spring Break program he led in the Adirondacks. At the end of that conversation, he expressed an interest in sharing his stories about hiking in the Adirondacks as a Black man with the idea in mind of giving voice to the differences, both subtle and overt, in his wilderness experiences and hopefully inspiring others to do the same. Last Friday, he shared some of those experiences and his perspective on some of the questions noted above.

Clifton moved to the area in November 2019. He has spent a good amount of time on Adirondack trails and mountains since then. Of all the hikes he’s done so far, he said that he hasn’t felt unwelcome on the trail at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. In his words: “I enjoy the challenge of hiking the mountains, and I do feel welcomed by people on the trails. I do feel it’s a welcoming environment for the most part. People have been helpful, they tell you there’s a great view up top, and they give you advice. It’s been a great experience, a stress reliever. This is my dream location; I’m loving my time here. This is what I came here for. I’m getting the full experience, and I have no regrets.”

But in all the time he’s spent in the wilderness since his move, he hasn’t seen another person of color while hiking here.

“Since the weather’s been better, I’ve hiked about five mountains, and that’s not including the trails I’ve done. I haven’t seen another person of color. Period. The only person of color I see when I’m hiking is my son.”

Clifton noted that it can be hard to explain how impactful this is to people who haven’t experienced something like it. He described it like this: “If you go to, say, Puerto Rico or Africa or somewhere that the majority of people are people of color, and you’re the only white person there, you’re going to feel like … ‘OK … no one might be threatening me, but it would be so nice to see someone who looks like me and maybe understands me a little bit better.’

“I live in the Tri-Lakes area. I don’t see too many people of color working at the restaurants, sitting at the restaurants or owning the businesses. So when you look at all these factors, you know that you’re just not really represented here.

“It might not be something that most people would think about, but I went to Lake Placid one day and there was a Black waiter and I was so happy to see him.”

He paused and laughed here. “It was like I had seen someone I’ve known for years, and this man was a complete stranger.”

During his time in the Adirondacks, Clifton said that he hasn’t experienced any direct hostility.

“I can’t speak for everybody that’s Black, but I haven’t had a situation with anyone on a trail that has treated me badly or disrespected me … but it’s a different level of concern that I have.”

It’s the nuance of that different level of concern that seems hard for some people to grasp. For everyone, recreating outside comes with certain fears and anxieties. I still feel them sometimes, and I’ve worked in the woods for years. Whether it’s a fear of wild animals, strange people or slippery rock slabs, there is plenty out there to worry about. That worry is certainly justifiable; in many wilderness scenarios, even a minor accident could leave you miles from other people with no means of contacting help. Especially if you’re alone, the wilderness is a place where you should stay vigilant, even while you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself.

Clifton and I shared stories about feelings of anxiety that we had on the trail in different situations, but there is an extra layer to Clifton’s vigilance when he is hiking.

“Look, I’m 6’4”, about 285 pounds; I have a big beard. I’m a big guy, like football player size walking through the forest. When it comes to being a Black male, you’re dealing with all of the concerns of being in the woods in general. Then you also have to consider, ‘Am I being perceived as a threat to someone who might be alone, too?’ How does my appearance and my presence make other people feel around me?”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only extra layer of concern. There is also the very present danger of overt or aggressive racism in our community. If you need direct evidence, it was recently spray-painted on a railroad bridge right in Saranac Lake.

“When it comes to racism or when it comes to hate groups, you don’t know who they are. You just don’t know. There’s always the concern that you may run into someone who has issues with you just because of the color of your skin.”

All these factors combine to create a feeling of increased vulnerability, a heightened sense of awareness, and it can take a toll.

“I don’t want to think about those types of things. I want to be able to feel like the guys I see going through the woods seemingly carefree. But when you don’t see anyone else who looks like you out there, you feel more vulnerable. You just do.”

He summed it all up like this:

“Look, this is America, this is a home for everyone, but those are the things you do pay attention to, especially when you’re a minority in the woods. So, everything we’ve been discussing comes together, to a degree, when you’re looking at the Adirondacks and being in the mountains. If you really don’t see anyone on a daily basis you can relate to on a cultural level, being out there in a vulnerable spot is very lonely. Not as in a sad lonely, it’s just something you would hope to see.”

As for people’s questions about how they can help change this, though, Clifton said, “If you made someone feel uncomfortable intentionally, then you do just need to deal with the guilt of what you did to that person, but not just feel guilty because you’re white and you’re hiking and there aren’t any Black people out there. That’s extreme.”

Guilt doesn’t do anything to help unless it translates into action. The most important thing to do is to learn from the experiences of others and keep focused on the work of addressing racism and implicit bias in our communities and in ourselves. As a community and as a country, we can’t afford to waste this opportunity to create change just because of a desire to return to a more comfortable “normal.” As we were finishing our conversation, Clifton said, “By sharing my experiences, my hope is to generate more conversation but also to hopefully inspire people who look like me to walk the trails so we can do this together.”

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