I’m a Latina who hikes. These words still sound foreign to me, as if someone else has entered my body and scrambled on rocks these past four years. I only ventured on my first hike on a random day to appease a friend that was visiting me from another country. I have long hated the repetitive motions of walking on the treadmill but somehow remaining in the same place from which I began. When I got on a trail for the first time, I had to be aware of ever-changing surroundings, and the thought of skipping a marker and making a wrong turn made me nervous and eager to continue on the path. The idea that I could learn how to read a map, use a compass and gain survival skills made me believe that I could somehow also endure a zombie apocalypse. I was hooked from day one. But I fell in love with a sport that was foreign to me, and it wasn’t until much later that I grasped what it means to be a Latina and immigrant hiker.
I spent more than two decades merely walking on cement and treadmills. Nevertheless, it’s completely understandable why I never hiked until I was in my twenties. My parents moved from Ecuador to the United States when I was 5 years old. My father became a garbage man and my mother, a nanny. At times, when they couldn’t cover all the bills, my father took on odd jobs and worked at the local Walmart. They both came home exhausted and the sports they enrolled me in consisted of them solely being spectators. There was no way their bodies could endure weekend day hikes. Who would want to do more physical exertion on top of heaving trash cans throughout the week? The weekends were days for resting, not at all to get dirty and work up a sweat in the wilderness. As I was growing up I never had opportunity to even try hiking. Thus, at that time I never felt like I was missing out on something.
Since I did not have a single family member or friend who knew about hiking, I unsurprisingly made many mistakes once I started doing it on my own. I have made mistakes in regards to clothes, shoes, maps, trail difficulty and even misconstruing hiker culture in general. There was no one around to show me the ropes or to give me any tips. But in the beginning, I felt like I didn’t need any tips. I naively thought that hiking consisted of getting my body to a trail in comfortable sneakers and walking. Nothing more, nothing less. I was wrong. I was so wrong that I lost some toenails and had to hide my feet for months. I bought some hiking boots that were discounted at $30 and went to hike Panther Mountain in New York. A few days later, my toes were black and bruised. I was surprised because I hadn’t gotten any blisters or felt uncomfortable when hiking downhill. Then I realized, after googling, that I had made a rookie mistake. I had bought hiking shoes the same size I would buy sneakers, pumps or sandals. Instead, I should have bought a pair half a size or a complete size up. I went to my local REI and finally asked questions, tried on different pairs of boots, invested in some thick hiking socks, and decided on some Keen shoes for $130.00. That’s the other aspect of hiking that I naively misunderstood at the beginning: I thought hiking was going to be cheap.
I can afford a pair of Keen boots today, along with a large backpack and hiking poles. But just a few years ago, affording this would have been impossible. In 2014, I was working full-time, going to school full-time and commuting between two states almost every day. Just the monthly commute pass was more than $300. Buying a pair of boots priced at more than $100, whether for hiking or just to look cute, would have been a ridiculous splurge.
Even today, when I go into REI, I laugh when I see the prices. I wait for the REI garage sales. Most of the time, I search through Facebook to see who’s offering a used product at a lower price. I wait until Black Friday with a list of stuff I really want to buy or go to tag sales around my state to see if I get lucky. My dream of eventually becoming a section/thru-hiker hiker is years away due to a) my lack of experience and b) the amount of money I will have to spend on gear before venturing out on such a challenge.
It was ultimately the money factor that made realize how much I love hiking and how much I want others to love it too. In October 2017, I learned that the National Park Service proposed to more than double the daily entrance fee for 17 U.S. national parks. I firmly stand with the notion that parks should be accesible for all, regardless of the color of their skin, gender, weight, sexual orientation, and of course, income. That families and Americans can be priced out of their public parks is a direct contradiction of what the national parks are supposed to represent. I knew I needed to do something, and my immediate reaction was to disseminate this information and to allow others to participate in the public comment period. So, I contacted some of my favorite bloggers, mostly women of color, and each of us wrote a couple of paragraphs on why we disagreed with the increase. I shared the post all over social media and in different hiking groups online. On one thread, the divisive points of view created a conversation so toxic that the moderators had to turn off commenting. On another group, someone indicated that they were looking forward to the increase and hoped that this meant there would be fewer people on the trail. I responded with, but what about people that want to visit who can’t afford to go with these new fees? The individual’s response was: “That’s not my problem.”
The biggest mistake I made when I began hiking was not losing my toenails or realizing how clueless I was about basic information… it was realizing that I never imagined how anyone could directly or indirectly support the exclusion of people like me from our national parks. I grew up lower-middle class, I did not step foot in public lands until adulthood, I have brown skin and I am a Latina. According to the last NPS survey, 78% of national park visitors are white. Likewise, 96% of thru-hikers on the Appalachian trail in 2016 were white. I’m sure that there are some that justify these results by indicating that, well, [insert race/ ethnicity/ nationality] *don’t* like to hike. But how can those who have never even had the opportunity to try hiking (and I was one of them for the first two decades of my life) even know that they like, love or hate to hike? The NPS has been creating initiative these past few years to increase diversity and opportunities for minorities to visit parks, but they can’t be the only ones held accountable to promote change. Ways to promote a welcoming environment and providing avenues of inclusion have to come from those who are actively part of the hiking culture (the 78% of white attendees) and from people like me, who are new to hiking and want to pave the way for others to access our public lands.
There were many aspects of hiking that were foreign concepts to me and, therefore, why I made so many mistakes. The need to invest in and choose gear. Magnetic North vs. Geographic North on a compass. Leave no Trace. Hiking insect prevention. Elevation gain and loss on the trail. Hiking poles. Rock scrambling. Section hiking. I had no idea what any of this meant, and it’s simply because I had never been exposed to this culture. Not at home. Not at school. Not at any of the local afterschool programs I attended. I wish that there had been someone to provide me with the opportunity to hike when I was in middle school or high school. I wish that there could have been a local organization, a friend, a school program or anything that could have shown me that hiking was something that I could have been involved in and that I belonged.
And while the opportunity never came for me when I was younger, I hope to at least inspire and support someone who has never hiked to try it and maybe, just maybe, that person will end up loving it as much as I do. If you’re reading this and have never hiked, know that the national parks belong to you and once you step in them, you’ll realize that you always belonged to them. If you thought, like some of my friends and family members do, that hiking is for only white people, only for rich people, only for fit people… you’re wrong. And I hope to prove to you that you’re wrong by inviting you to come hike with me (or find you a group of local cool people for you to hike with). I’ll convince you, just like my friend convinced me that first time. And you never know, maybe you’ll end up writing a blog post about how hiking changed your life.
I recently created Latinas Who Hike to:
1. Combat the idea that Latinas in the US & around the world don’t hike.
2. Inspire Latina women to hit the trails & get out of their comfort zones.
3. Show REAL photos of women on hikes: sweaty, dirty in all shapes and colors!
4. Set up meetups where Latinas and WOC can get together and hike.