As a minority community, black people often succumb to the pitfalls of being perceived as a monolith. Ideas of black people’s “dos and don’ts” circulate within our cultural perception: “All black people love coconut oil,” “all black people are superb dancers,” “all black people hate outdoorsy stuff,” and so on. Not only do these stereotypes influence behavior, but they can even discourage personal growth and exploration.
So when Toyota Rav4 Adventure Grade presented me with the opportunity to challenge an irritating aforementioned stereotype — that outdoor activities are only for white people — I jumped at the opportunity. I was to try a challenging outdoor activity and write about the experience.
Contrary to the stereotype, I was raised in a family that had a penchant for spending time outside. My grandfather, a veteran of the Great Migration, moved to Ohio from Mississippi and brought his love of gardening with him. He kept multiple gardens around the city where we lived, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to wrangle his grandchildren together to help him water the plants or sow a new crop of tomatoes. I’d groan and complain about having to abandon the TV screen in favor of toiling in the sun, but I’m now very grateful for those experiences. While spending all of that time outside at the behest of my grandfather, I found there was a lot I could learn about myself and the world when immersed in nature.
Gardening, however, is very different from adventure-based outdoor pursuits. When a few friends of mine suggested we hike a treacherous mountain called Breakneck Ridge for my outdoor activity, I immediately thought, but black people don’t hike, followed by a stream of expletives — because who would voluntarily decide to visit a place with both “break” and “neck” in the name? The trail was described as “very difficult” and a “crazy steep hike.” My friends were clearly crazy. Nonetheless, I gave in and agreed to go on a hike at what I had nicknamed Hope-You’re-Ready-to-Die Mountain.
We set out for upstate New York early on a Sunday morning, chattering away about what we could expect to encounter on the trail. Despite being someone who doesn’t normally shy away from adventurous things, I admittedly became nervous at the mention of the steep ascent and the giant boulders that made up the entire mountainside. We stopped at a roadside gas station to gather provisions, where I was advised to eat what I could in anticipation of a day-long hike. I guzzled down a breakfast sandwich, tater tots, and an iced green tea — essential energy-restoring food, obviously — and told myself I was ready.
Upon arriving at the foot of the mountain, we congregated around a kiosk with detailed information about the hike. A large warning sign read, “THIS IS NOT A WALK IN THE PARK” in big, bold letters. “What did I get myself into?” I thought for the billionth time. After a short discussion, more experienced members of our group decided we should follow the route fittingly titled the “white trail.” I resolved to save my side-eye for later, and we began the hike.
The ascent was steeper than I could have imagined. At moments we were scaling near vertical portions of the mountain, composed of an assortment of sharp rocks of all shapes and sizes. I was warned not to look down, but I ignored this advice and looked back often to see how far we had climbed. There was no turning back.
Our group of four hiked in silence, panting, as we advanced the steepest portions of the climb. We encountered other groups of mostly white and Asian hikers along the way who would cheer us on or share directions when the trail became hard to follow. I realized there’s a certain camaraderie felt between yourself and fellow hikers no matter who they are.
We even encountered a group of black guys in their early 20s who looked as if they had strolled up the mountain directly from a photoshoot for a special #blackboyjoy edition of the latest Urban Outfitters catalog. Maybe black people DO hike? Here were 3 young men with fresh haircuts and stylish clothes that made hiking look like it was the thing to do! It reinforced my conviction that it’s time for this stereotype to be left in the past once and for all.
When we finally reached the summit, I saw that the views were worth the trouble. That wasn’t all: The bonding experience of traversing the mountainside with my friends — and seeing a group of fellow young black men doing the same — helped completely change my outlook. Hiking, as with anything, should be for everybody. Sometimes all we need is to see someone like us to pave the way — someone who can offer a tastefully accessorized outstretched arm to help us reach the mountaintop.
Zack McKnight is a culture writer living in Brooklyn.