For My Family, Hiking History Is Black History

For My Family, Hiking History Is Black History


I’m lying on copper-colored sand ground from High Sierra granite, the coarse grains pushing into my temple and knees and elbows. An army of black ants is crawling up my sunburned arm, across my muddy hiking shorts and down my legs. My lungs feel like crushed plastic bottles as I gasp for air. I want to throw up, but I can’t — my pack doesn’t have a spare ounce of food or pain medication and coughing it up is a luxury I can’t afford.

This is life in the Sierra Nevada. More specifically, life underneath Franklin Pass in the Mineral King Wilderness, in the homeland of the Western Mono, Tübatulabal, and Western Shoshone, 10,488 feet above sea level. That’s roughly 10,488 feet closer than I usually am to the harsh, summer afternoon sun, which is beating down on me now.

Behind me, I hear sticks snap as my dad treads through the thick willow shrub, searching for a stream. Finally he calls out. He needs help pumping the water.

I force myself up, stumbling as stubborn branches dig across my dry legs. I don’t care. All that matters is the blessed snowmelt that eventually slides between my parched lips. 

My dad shifts. “You okay?” he asks. He’s not the type to ask sympathetic questions. Once, when I was a skinny freshman playing varsity soccer, I injured my leg and he said I should just give it a week or so, to see how it does; he’s an orthopedic surgeon and has seen a lot worse. I winced through practice for days until an x-ray finally revealed that not only was my leg broken, but my other foot had broken and healed on its own at some point in the past. In short, he’s not a guy who normally takes pain too seriously. 

But this isn’t exactly a normal day. It’s my dad and my first time backpacking together, and my first time backpacking ever. He’s back in the High Sierra, his favorite place in the world, for the first time in 40 years.

“It’s the altitude,” Dad continues. “We can’t afford to run out of water like that.”

Photo: Benje Williams

We haven’t seen a single other person over 60, and barely anyone over 35. And we definitely haven’t seen another person of color.

Back at the visitor center, the ranger on duty hadn’t said anything about water sources or altitude sickness. Instead, she just gave us that smile I’ve gotten used to, the kind that said she was surprised—happy, maybe—to see Black people in the wilderness. She asked if we were good to do a much longer trek than we had planned — about thirty miles over four days — and we both said yes. There really wasn’t any other option: It was 4th of July weekend and there weren’t any permits left for the Black Rock Pass loop we’d planned. Anyway, we were packed, I was ready to make my backpacking debut, and my dad had waited decades to return here.

Now, huffing and puffing on the ground below Mineral King, I weigh our chances of making it. We still have two major passes ahead of us: one looming above us right now, ​​11,710-foot Franklin Pass climbing into the eastern side of the Sierra, followed by the 12,434-foot Sawtooth Pass, which would return us back into the west side.

We have decent gear, borrowed from my dad’s friend at work. We have snacks and dehydrated meals packed meticulously by my mom. Our boots are broken in from years of day hiking. But we also haven’t seen a single other person over 60, and barely anyone over 35. And we definitely haven’t seen another person of color.

That night, the wind beats against us with Old Testament wrath, slapping the side of our tents against us as we curl up in sleeping bags not warm enough for the 40 degree temperatures.

“I’m not sure I ever went to sleep,” my dad says, once the blue 5 a.m. light finally spills over the peaks above our camp. His eyes are puffy and swollen, and he’s wearing nearly every piece of clothing he brought.

It’s now my birthday, and for a second I worry that my dad—the only person who can wish me a happy birthday here, out of reach of all cell service—will forget. Not that he ever has before, but it’s been a long night.

He doesn’t. “Happy official birthday, buddy,” he says as he heats up the water. I exhale a sigh of relief, getting out of my tent and giving him a side hug. I allow myself two cups of coffee, both as a birthday celebration and as an offering to my middle-aged body.

Photo: Benje Williams

At the base of Franklin Pass, we stare up at the switchbacks until it feels like they’ve started staring back. The sun is climbing up the backside of the pass as we begin our climb. Within minutes, our body temperature is warm enough to strip away my jacket and base layer, my dad’s convertible pants and his thermal skull cap. “Just put one foot in front of the other,” he says as we round the second of probably dozens of switchbacks. This is what he told my mom, he says, all those years ago, when he got lost on his own backpacking debut.

They had taken this exact same route, but in the reverse direction. When my mom saw these switchbacks, she burst into tears. They’d already been climbing for over twelve hours, starting with an alpine wake-up at 3 a.m., and still had another seven or eight hours to go. My dad was only 22 or 23 at the time and didn’t know how to read a topographic map. Instead of listening to my mom’s suggestion, he went east when they should have gone west, doubling or tripling their total route.

“I guess I didn’t really know the ropes,” he says. 

My father had always wanted to go camping and backpacking growing up, but didn’t have anyone to take him. His dad taught him how to shoot a bow at the archery range, he went hiking nearly every day in the Vandenberg Air Force base with one of the neighborhood boys, and he read the Vandenberg library’s wilderness survival guides and Lewis and Clark stories. But then his dad went overseas on duty, and his mom was busy on her path to eventually become the first Black woman VP of the U.S.’s fifth-largest US bank. My dad didn’t fully see himself in any of his exploration books’ characters, and he didn’t know anyone else who looked like him that went camping or backpacking, so he didn’t either.

Still, we’re out here, though not everyone has gotten the message. The day before I flew out to California, I was talking with my white neighbor when he remarked that “Black people don’t really like to hike.” I winced.

“We actually do, but it’s hard to get out there,” I told him. I knew this was an oversimplified answer. I could have told him about the REI team member I’d met earlier that week, whose Instagram handle is BlaccBackPacker, or that 16 percent of African Americans in a recent survey said they’d never visited a National Park because they thought the parks were unsafe. I could have told him about the sections of the Appalachian Trail I had hiked, even though, as the New York Times has pointed out, 95{ed4a5fd24114d7ae6500c97fa7652b3915c7d898a0860a9d70161be4f9c5b00d} of all AT thru-hikers are white. I could have told him about the Black Texan I’d met on the Pacific Crest Trail, who was hiking from Mexico to Canada even though he “had never been backpacking or camping or even hiking before.” But I didn’t say any of this. Not because I was afraid of how he would respond, but because I simply didn’t have the energy or patience to educate my neighbor on things he’s smart enough to figure out himself.

on trail in the High Sierra Photo: Benje Williams

I’ve lost count of what switchback we’re on now; maybe the fifth or sixth. Despite sipping water regularly, by the seventh or eighth switchback, the lightness returns to my head and I resort to the three ibuprofens in my pocket. 

There’s a couple day-hiking below us, and two brothers we met yesterday ahead of us. A guy in a red shirt and red pack is climbing fast up the second or third switchback. I think about the camping trips our family did growing up, to Yosemite and Santa Cruz and the redwoods, and can’t help but wonder how my life would be different if I had started backpacking earlier. Would my relationship with the land where I was born be different, perhaps more whole, more restored? 

I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know for certain is that not all of my ancestors had the chance to restore their relationship with nature. My grandparents, who died before I was born, never returned to the Arkansas fields they were forced to tend as cotton sharecroppers. They left the land for Chicago and ultimately California and never went backnever having the chance to fully heal from their past or reclaim their relationship with nature. 

The man in red passes us. “Nice pace man,” my dad says, but he only nods his head and mumbles something indiscernible. I suppress the urge to yell out my dad’s compliment, so the hiker would have no choice but to respond or to blatantly ignore us. But I don’t say anything, to him or my father. I know Dad and I are thinking the same thing.

That’s the thing about being Black in America: it means that your skin colors every experience you have, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Did that man ignore my dad’s compliment because he wasn’t happy to see two Black dudes in the wilderness? Did the woman hiking yesterday ask us if we had wilderness permits because she didn’t expect two Black men to have followed the rules? Were the three flat tires I got when I was working on a forest restoration project in West Virginia a coincidence or something else? I tell myself I should assume the best in people. But now, 8.6 miles into the backcountry, I wonder if I really believe that, or if I just know deep down that if I admit the truth to myself, the wilderness might transform from a sanctuary into something more frightening.

looking out at the high Sierra Photo: Benje Williams

My dad stops at the next turn and takes off his pack, plopping down against a boulder. His tank top is layered in white sweat, as are his pack and his cap. I’ve never seen him struggle like this. Yes, he’s 65, but he was also on the 1976 Olympic wrestling team. He wakes up at 4 every morning and rides his exercise bike every night. Last year, for my 36th birthday, he cycled nearly 80 miles with me around Lake Tahoe, 6,000 feet above sea level, on the northern side of the Sierra. And now he’s struggling to catch his breath. I do my best to slow down and match his pace.

We’re barely talking now. The stories about him and Mom have stopped. It’s just us and the mountain and the unforgiving July sun. Even some of the granite looks worn down here, weathered and rounded by wind and water. My dad tries to explain the geology, but it takes too much energy to talk above the headwind that’s blowing over the pass.

Finally, we reach the col, and the trail flattens out. Straight ahead of us, over a thousand feet below, is the Eastern Sierra: A valley of dark green pine and ancient juniper spread below us, backed by a horizon of toothy, 14,000-foot peaks. We’re on top of the Great Western Divide, one of the largest and tallest subranges across the 400-mile Sierra Nevada.

Photo: Benje Williams

The next day is July 4th. I wake up at the first suggestion of morning, as Dad stirs in his tent.

I’m about to wish him a happy Fourth of July, but hesitate. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote about the great shock that comes when you discover that “the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” Dad is from a military family; his father died in a mission in Okinawa when Dad was only 20 years old. Still, the Fourth isn’t the same celebration of freedom for us that it is for so many others.

He doesn’t say anything. Instead, he shivers as he makes hot chocolate and we load up our packs. As we make our way along the meandering creek, a story from the 70s, when a landlord in Tulare evicted my mom, who’s white, after my dad stayed the night when he was visiting her from med school.

“The story of the negro in America,” Baldwin wrote, “is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” 

The path we’re walking on today is still relatively flat, but the banks and rocks in the creek we’re walking along are blood red from oxidized iron. Up ahead lies Sawtooth Pass. The name alone gives me the chills.

The pass was the site of my parents’ troubles on their trip back in the 1970s, my father tells me. They should have taken Sawtooth Pass the night they got lost. Instead, they headed east instead of west—subconsciously spooked by Sawtooth, perhaps. Their food eventually ran short, Mom’s feet started to blister and bleed, and the sun disappeared behind still-distant Franklin Peak. When they finally made it to the car, Mom collapsed.

“It was miserable,” Dad says, but they survived, putting one foot in front of the other. I tell myself I can do the same as the path abruptly turns toward the granite wall of Sawtooth Peak. Dad is quiet again. We continue on in silence, the wind now howling against us.

At Columbine Lake, roughly the climb’s midpoint, we stop to catch our breath, laughing in disbelief at the guy we’d seen at the foot of the climb. “From Columbine it’s just a tiny push,” he said, emphasizing tiny. As we scramble up slabs of granite, my dad slipping further and further behind, my glutes scream that it this hike is anything but.

“The story of the negro in America,” Baldwin wrote, “is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

After another hour of climbing, in an exhausted haze, the granite slabs gradually give way to a gradual, cairn-marked trail, which deposits us directly on the mountain top.

“You made it,” a warm voice just beyond the pass says. I look up to find a hiker in a black down jacket, with a kind sun-lit smile. He and his partner look South Asian—the first people of color I’ve seen since the flatlands.

It turns out my father’s reputation has preceded him: The hikers tell us they had heard there was someone on the trail who had been there back in the 70s. I feel a swelling pride when I tell them that my dad—the man coming up the pass’s final stretch now—is him.

As my father catches his breath at the top, the hiker in the black jacket grins at him. 

“How does it compare to 40 years ago?” he asks. My dad glances at me and smirks, hopefully feeling like the Sierra legend he is. 

“It’s a lot harder,” he laughs, shifting on his feet and taking a sip of his water.

As they leave, we watch them descend down the pass, the orange sun sinking slowly toward the interlaced layers of mountain. To the left are colored specks near Monarch Lake, where hikers are already setting up their tents. I point toward them as Dad zips up his jacket, preparing for the descent. We might be going at our own pace and might not look like all the others ahead of us. We might not have grown up backpacking or reading topo lines correctly. But we belong here too, just like the granite standing solemnly above us and the sun warming our soil-colored faces.

hiking high sierra
(Photo: Benje Williams)


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Genie Mathena

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