It’s humid here, there’s a cup of warm apple cider (microwaved, of course) steeping on the table next to the printer; I am at the historic Iron Master’s Mansion Hostel, currently a hostel for tourists and travelers and the occasional thru hiker, formerly a station for iron workers and iron masters who mined nearby, and once, reputedly, one of the stations along the underground rail road.
This hostel is just past the half way point along the 2000+ miles long Appalachian Trail, in Pennsylvania. It is quiet here; only two other thru hikers and a host of other travelers in for various reasons, ranging from a section hiker who has been hiking the AT 80 miles at a time annually and many who have come to use this place as base camp for their civil and revolutionary war tourism around the hills and valleys that has made America the country it is: resilient, unabashed, dark, brutal…
I wasn’t planning singing a somber note this evening but watching those fireflies flickering through the inky blackness may have, perhaps, shifted a chord.
There’s so much history here. Pride and pain, too. And here I am, a foreigner really, wandering through the woods, having the time of my life, hardly pausing at the remnants of a stone wall here, or a field there, sitting out of place amidst dense forest that bore witness to a dark and bloody past.
Maybe it is the proximity of the hidden underground railroad station beneath my feet emanating strange vibes from a time long past but whose legacy haunt and endure.
That section hiker I mentioned earlier, he is black. The third person of colour I’ve seen hiking on this trail. I’ve thought much about the lack of diversity on this trail and I have yet to make up my mind about anything. It isn’t as if the trail places tangible barriers for racialized people. No, it isn’t as obvious or straight forward as that. But there is something lacking though and nobody really seems to want to comment on it, except a choice few.
Granted I haven’t read much on what’s written about and on the trail but what few I have read rarely picks up this problematic.
An erstwhile thru-hiker I met, famous now among some bubbles for his quirky sense of humour in shelter journals, calls himself, in third person, Black Squatch–may he forgive me for using his name and personage as an example, here, without permission.
Blacksquatch refers to himself in shelter journals in third person, as I mentioned, and in one of our brief but memorable chats he mentioned that he does so because his persona, the blacksquatch, is learning to hike this Appalachian Trail–it’s traditions and lore– where there’s so little racial diversity. Jokingly or not, he mentioned that he will write a book, once he is through, called “Black People Don’t Camp.”
This conversation took palce at Partnership shelter, where, as it happens BlackSquatch, another female hiker and I were all gathered around a fire. BlackSquatch quipped, after looking at the fire for a mere moment–for he does not stop talking, being the quintessence of an entertaining bartender that he is–‘do you realize kids, that right now 80 percent of all the coloured folk thru hiking this trail are sitting here right now?”
There are over 4000 people, at least, who will attempt to through hike the appalachian trail this year. When I passed Harper’s Ferry, there were more than 850 people had already passed before me. Granted I have no idea what the actual percentages are on the demographics on the AT and I am not even sure there is an attempt to–or if there is an attempt whether that is a ‘good’ thing, even–discern such stats. But, I was going to name myself B-GoAT, to mean Brown Guy on Appalachian Trail, because I thought I should draw attention to this stark and startling lack of colour on the trail. I didnt want to racialize or signify my racial identity so readily,either. So I opted for bitterGoat (with the prefix Swami, another tale for another time) to make the subtle distinction–still B-GoAT but a miss-pronunciation of a bitter-gourd as many often fumble my actual name. When I tell fellow hikesr this story the typical response is laughter at the wordplay, and I admit that it amuses me and I even seek it. But it also renders me uneasy, doubly aware of my racialized thru-hike.
I don’t know what to make of it…I want to go sit in the underground railroad station. But it is dark in there. We fear the dark don’t we?
I spend nights alone in the woods, secure but I hesitate to sit in that earthen cellar with a trap door…
i am at a dearth for any more words tonight. I feel drained.
Louis Armstrong comes to mine….oh what did I do, to be so black an and blue