Just after sunrise at Thousand Island Lake, our third morning on trail. Usually a popular camping area (as it’s also accessible to day- and weekend-hikers) it was pretty quiet when we arrived, though the ranger who came to check on us and our permits was an old friend of Narinda’s!
Banner Peak is the second highest peak of the Ritter Range in the Sierra Nevada. It ascends southwest of Thousand Island lake, and can be climbed as a side trip. We used the colonized names of places when we didn’t know (and couldn’t find out) the Indigenous names, but with the understanding that these are not the original names of the lakes, peaks, or lands we traveled on.
The spring and summer before hiking, I was both more comfortable in and more scared of our country than I have ever been. Like many people, I was mourning the deaths of over a million people I didn’t know. I was also doing my best to not kill millions of other people I didn’t know by staying inside most of the time, wearing a mask, and not hugging anybody. The weird thing about sheltering in place is that if you have enough money (which means having enough power), cancelling plans, not seeing other humans, and not doing things that are pleasurable but that require effort can begin to feel extremely comfortable. By April, staying at home felt so comfortable.
By June, I was once again grieving the deaths Black people I didn’t know, killed by people who knew them even less than I did. People were protesting all around the world. I felt both relieved, unsurprised, and wary as some white people and many institutions started using words like “white supremacy” publicly for the first time, and sharing analyses about race, power, and equity that Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people have been sharing for decades. It wasn’t the fact that some people were sharing these things that made me wary—that more and more people are open to learning new ways to analyze power makes me feel hopeful. I was wary because even though I’ve used words like “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” to describe the ways power operates in our country for years, I’ve also had years to get used to feeling really uncomfortable in public. I was wary because I worried what people who weren’t used to feeling uncomfortable in public would do once people started getting angry with them for saying words like “white supremacy” and “patriarchy.” I felt comfortable because more people than ever seemed to be committing to understanding power in a new-to-them way.
I was scared of our country because I was thinking about how having power can make you feel really, really comfortable, and how not having power can you make you feel really, really uncomfortable. I thought about how many people, used to feeling comfortable in a country in which the words “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” weren’t ever used, were now being forced to feel uncomfortable because more people than ever were using those words to condemn a system that worked really well for them. I knew from backpacking, climbing, running, and being Black, that feeling uncomfortable can make people do weird, dangerous, and violent things.
Hiking Nüümü Poyo reminded me that there are other ways to respond to being uncomfortable. I was tired all the time. My ankles, shins, hips, and feet hurt. I hated my food. I stopped feeling like mountains and alpine lakes were the most beautiful things in the world. They were just high things I had to climb over, and cold things I had to wash my already cold body in. Climbing slowly over passes, I would play scenes of my body tumbling from the top and lying crumpled at the bottom over and over again. I was so surprised that I was so uncomfortable. I had gotten so used to being really comfortable that spring and summer. I was not happy most of the time that I was hiking. But I kept hiking. Mostly because I felt like I wouldn’t really understand what I was experiencing until I finished, and I wanted to understand what I was experiencing more than I wanted to stop experiencing it. I smiled, laughed, and felt joy every day. I was irritated, exhausted, and achy every day.
Since coming back, I have felt alive and grateful. I’ve understood what “tired,” “scared,” “painful,” and “dirty” means so much better than I did before starting, and that understanding has increased my ability to feel rested, clean, grateful, and happy in my day to day life. I’ve thought about how I trusted myself and my friends to carry me through the parts of the trail when it felt like I was uncomfortable for no reason, and how, in the future, I’ll be able to call on that trust even more readily when I’m in situations I don’t fully understand. I’ve thought a lot about weak metaphors and corny similes. I’ve thought about whether I can trust people to believe long enough in the worthiness of reshaping our country that they can tolerate the discomfort of reshaping themselves. I’ve thought about how we won’t actually know what “white supremacy” or “patriarchy” or “healing” or “justice” or “liberation” mean until we’ve finished this extremely long process of trying to be a country that doesn’t enslave, kill, or incarcerate Black and Brown people. I’ve thought about how being uncomfortable means holding yourself in a weird position long enough that you can be changed. I hope we can stay in this weird position long enough to be changed.
Kaily and Isa snuggled into their bags (that zip together into one cozy bag!) on a below-freezing morning.
To remember that this land gives us so much.
That we owe so much to it.
That we owe so much to one another.
To remember, in the midst of this visceral terror, the beauty that we can find, honor, protect, create together.
When I got back from Nüümü Poyo, there was relief at finding my loved ones unharmed. The fortune of that. The grief and sadness that covid did not get under control.
I had gotten into a rhythm on the trail. It's a rhythm I'm comfortable with after years as a backpacking instructor, though I am aware of how carefully composed and supported by external factors it is—yes, life seems simple, but oh the months of planning and hours of preparation that went into this brief time away from the conveniences to which I've become accustomed.
The idea that we are "returning to..." is strange to me. I never left the context, though the immediate environs were different. White supremacy was there on the trail. Covid caution and covid danger denial were on the trail. Anxious election energy was on the trail.
I've never gone outside to escape reality; I go outside to seek the strength to bear it. To remember that even when bombarded by human-made ugliness, I am being held by the same wide wild strong brave earth that holds up these spectacular ranges, the sparkling pools, the broad capricious sky.
I felt fortified by the experience of being surrounded by beauty and exerting so much energy. I want to say that I've internalized the sensation of what it is to push onward when there is pain and difficulty. I've learned to accept and love my slowness. I know that I can walk for a very long time, and carry what I need.
I want to be able to say that I've embodied that feeling enough to translate it to the work that needs doing. The dismantling systemic racism work, the building relationships work, the managing covid anxiety work. But so much of the sensation here, now, reminds me of the sensation at the ends of our longest hardest days, body weary, every process slow, from changing socks to cooking dinner. Just. Slow.
And I guess it's good that I understand: as slowly as things might move, we can still move. And we can make it to our destination.
For me, returning to San Diego (Kumeyaay land) meant returning to the never-ending humanitarian work on the “border”. While people that hike the outdoors (mostly White people) might be seeking “freedom” from life’s distractions, migrants “hike” the desert (and hundreds of miles south of the desert) seeking a different freedom… a chance to stay alive. They do this with minimal supplies and the anxiety of being hunted by government forces.
Hiking and migrating are not the same, but the subjects of those actions are both… walking… and I can’t help but compare our approach to both, especially in today’s political climate. When White people hike in the desert or walk “the John Muir Trail” (Nüümü Poyo), they’re traversing miles of land that is not theirs (of course, it’s Indigenous land), but they do it without any fear of retribution. The same privilege is not afforded to many non-White communities, especially migrants, though they too are traversing stolen land. It is this dichotomy that baffles me. Even members of Indigenous communities aren’t free to walk over their own land. (The US-México border wall divides the Kumeyaay land, and Kumeyaay people are still fighting against further construction of the wall.)
Moving freely should be an unquestionable human right, and it is—as long as you’re White. No one questions why you’re going from point A to point B, if you’re White. On our second day of the trail, a man stopped us and asked how we “got into hiking”… as if hiking/migrating isn’t something that humans have been doing for thousands of years. This question exposes an expectation that existing barriers will keep people of color from wanting to wander the outdoors.
How can we remain content with this status quo? Why are outdoor magazines, ads, blogs, etc. written mainly in English, which is one way of perpetuating this barrier? ¿Por qué asumen que los únicos que quieren o pueden disfrutar de la naturaleza son los que leen en inglés? ¿Por qué excluyen a, por ejemplo, los hispanohablantes? ¿Es que nosotros no podemos recorrer las montañas también? Hiking and migrating should be a right, not just a privilege…
Not the best night to camp out under the stars at Wright Creek. As we hiked south, smoke from wildfires to our south and east (likely the SQF Complex Fire and the Rattlesnake Fire) increased in intensity. Endria awoke the next morning tired, with a terrible stomachache (that lasted about a week), and generously coated in ash. We camped at smokey, copper-skied Guitar Lake the next evening before a dawn summit of Tumungaya (Mt. Whitney).
Whoever said that going backpacking is a kind of escape from politics or “the world” clearly never tried to hike as a queer woman of color during a pandemic and blazing wildfires.
Before we began the trail, Black Lives Matter rallies and protests consistently swelled in the streets. Black people were dying at atrocious numbers from COVID-19 and police brutality. By the time we left, the ache that these events left in our chests hadn’t gone away. It was a spot more tender than our blistered feet and tweaky joints; and so we all flinched when Isa, eager to rip the band-aid off of our painful “re-entry”, began reading the news in the car ride down from the mountains. There was a certain bliss of being disconnected from the relentless news of death and destruction. It’s as if the words were the needle piercing skin, opening wounds again and again, rather than the knowledge itself. We were silent in the car after this. I longed for the balm of forest news—the thrush passing its warbling message about our presence along to others, the shushing of the streams, the thunder that announced fair warning.
There are those we encountered along the way who preferred to stick their head into a mountain rather than walk its razor edge. “Why are you still wearing a mask?” asked one shirtless man (at 12,000 ft no less) who had been leapfrogging us on the trail the whole time. We were all panting our way up the final big pass of the trail before Tamanguya—”Mather”, a long and impressive climb. Out of courtesy, I had lifted my neckerchief above my nose and mouth to pass him on the narrow skree trail. He acted as if he knew me because he had peered skeptically at my partner’s knee wrapping technique while waiting for a burger at VVR, and questioned her own testimony to how it had helped her joint pain. And he acted as if this suddenly made him entitled to my air space. Infuriated, I kept walking and made it my mission not to stop until I got to the top in the hopes that he would not have to pass me again.
Being immersed in the politics of the world as it existed in the mountains was humbling. I came back from this hike with a refreshed perspective of myself—and how I too dove headfirst into the mountain soil from time to time. I was confronted by my own stubborn determination. I didn’t want to see, for instance, how my willingness to expose my lungs to the thickening smoke also put more vulnerable lives at risk. If shirtless man and our group had been together at VVR just a few weeks later, we would all have been exposed to the same merciless threat of (climate change driven) wildfire closing in only 20 miles away—how might we have made sense of one another’s risk tolerances as being a function of privilege and cultures of individualism or communalism?
Nature does not make us equals when the idea and space of “nature” itself is dominated by unequal, exploitative institutions. We carry more than the weight of our packs, but the weight of communities, families, threats and pressures to survive that often feel heavier back home than on the trail. And we carry this burden unequally. Shirtless man, visibly freer of these burdens, can outrun a fire much more easily than we who are limping along with aching hearts.
The moments we had after the hike gave me the opportunity to understand that although we left the city, we (of course) never left white supremacy, the pandemic, or climate change behind. We were confronted by the politics we live and breathe daily in the choices we made on the trail—to act out of self-interest, or with care for the people and creatures/environment around us. The trail accentuated the consequences of choices as life or death (or at least significantly burdensome), i.e. exposing one of our group to COVID-19 on the trail posed a very bleak scenario: hiking many miles, up and over mountains to get to one of very few medical centers with limited resources in a remote town.
I found that it is easier to look away, to be careless, even to shut off the news when we are all so hyper-connected by highways and internet streams. To be so remote and “dis-connected” actually enhanced other forms of connection—trails and streams of care rather than callousness (or numbness). Stripped of the fat of urban life (literally), our politics and our hearts were laid bare on the trail. This political moment calls for the same brave truth, and to walk the mountain’s razor edge.
Endria Richardson is a queer Black and Malay writer, climber, and semi-retired lawyer. You can find her wandering amongst the redwoods on Ohlone land in Oakland, California, or the gray birch on Nipmuc land in Worcester, Massachusetts. Find her work at endriarichardson.com.
Isabella B. Arzeno Soltero is a queer Puerto Rican postdoctoral scholar in the field of Oceanography. She is a route leader for Border Angels, a member of the Detention Resistance collective, and, as of recently, a community science fellow for AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange.
Kaily Heitz is a queer Black writer, climber and PhD candidate of Human Geography at UC Berkeley. She can usually be found participating in arts and cultural activism in Oakland, CA, and, lately, learning how to surf in San Diego, CA.
After pushing through a surprise 13.5 mile day (oops, someone--ahem, Endria--miscalculated the mileage), Narinda (foreground), and Isa (background) collect water for dinner at McClure Meadow. This was one of our favorite spots on the trail, and ultimately, worth the sore feet and extra miles.
At the top of Mather Pass, dry, dusty, tired, and looking forward to (read: dreading) bouncing seven miles downhill. From Left: Kaily, Narinda, Isabella, Endria.
Morning writing and pour over coffee, the necessary luxuries of backpacking. Narinda wakes before everyone (always), braving the cold to write. This morning was especially cold, at Kearsarge Lakes (hovering somewhere just below 11,000 feet).