On the Trails with Black Girls Hike RVA
We all have that one person who first took us hiking and helped nurture our love for the natural world—a family member, a friend, an author. For Narshara Tucker, that person was Nicole Boyd. The two educators developed a deep friendship over the years teaching eighth graders. When Boyd planned to hike Virginia’s idyllic Crabtree Falls last year for her birthday, she invited Tucker along.
After that first outing, Tucker was in love. “I hike to heal,” she said. “Sometime while I’m hiking, I might cry. Or I might think about something that was bothering me. When I’m done with the hike, I leave it there. So it’s very therapeutic. It can really help you stay balanced and grounded, especially during COVID where your mental stability is really rocked because life has changed so much.”
As they continued to hike trails across Virginia together, the friends noticed they were often the only Black people at the trailhead. Last May Boyd and Tucker launched Black Girls Hike RVA on Instagram.
“With COVID, you have so much time to think and really focus on what is important,” Boyd said. “Being in the outdoors, we noticed that we were the only ones that looked like us. It was important for us to make sure we let people know that there are other people out here that look like you that love hiking and being outdoors.”
A 2018 report from the George Wright Forum found less than two percent of national park visitors were Black. Groups like Black Girls Hike RVA are essential in changing the misconception that “Black people don’t hike.” They host monthly meetups across Virginia, from hikes close to Richmond at Dutch Gap and Pocahontas State Park to trips into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several of the hikes have been in Shenandoah National Park where facilities weren’t fully integrated until 1950. Along the way, Boyd and Tucker are helping other women of color discover the joy of the trail one hike at a time.
As they establish the group, Boyd and Tucker hope to start offering more programming for kids in the area, introducing them to the wealth of natural resources in Virginia. In September, they led their first hike for black preteens and teenagers with the Jack and Jill Hampton Chapter at York River State Park. In addition to discussing the benefits of hiking, a therapist worked with the students on some coping mechanisms and how to unpack stresses, especially during the pandemic.
The Power of Social Media
Social media platforms tend to get a bad rap today, whether it’s for spreading misinformation or the countless hours users spend endlessly scrolling. But when used as networking tools, these platforms can help connect people across the world.
When COVID-19 hit, Sam Thibodeaux started looking for a local hiking group in the Richmond area. She wanted to get outside but knew she didn’t want to be exploring a place in the middle of nowhere on her own. When she found Black Girls Hike RVA on Instagram, right in her own backyard, she knew she had found her group. “I don’t know how else I would have found them,” Thibodeaux said. “There are a lot of groups out there. One of the appeals is that this group wanted to see Black and brown women out there. You don’t feel like you’re out there as the only Black or brown person.”
Since joining that first hike, Thibodeaux has attended every meetup and formed new friendships with other hikers. It helps that Boyd and Tucker provide consistent programming planned in advance. “I appreciate their leadership and their drive that brings everybody else into it and excited about it,” Thibodeaux said.
But with an online presence, Black Girls Hike RVA’s reach extends beyond Richmond. Gina Knox is a long time hiker prepping for a potential 2021 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Although she usually hikes solo, Knox traveled from her home in Hampton, Va., to meet the women of Black Girls Hike RVA.
“At any given time, I was the only Black person,” she said. “I thought it was important to meet them, seeing that the goal they had was the same as mine—to get other Black people out to hike. I thought it was admirable and important during a time where Black people are polarized in this country.”
After the A.T., Knox plans to go for the Triple Crown with thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails. Although thru-hiking tends to be a more solitary endeavor, Knox said hiking in a group gave her a new perspective on the trail. “When you’re hiking by yourself, you have your own individual thoughts and your own individual goal,” she said. “It’s more about how it makes you feel. But when you’re in a group, it kind of forces you to pace yourself and be more outward about the group and the group’s needs.”
Boyd and Tucker’s work has inspired other people to reach out and contribute to their communities. When Mercedes Walters decided to run the 120 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park, she planned to do so in protest of the natural gas pipelines being built in the area. But when she found Black Girls Hike RVA on Instagram, Walters started examining the intersectionality of environmentalism and anti-racism work more deeply.
“It’s one thing to post on social media, donate, and vote,” she said. “Those things are important. But I think that getting out in your community and taking action is a huge part of creating change. I want to inspire other trail runners. We spend so much time in the outdoors and so much time on the trails that I think it’s our responsibility to speak up, act out, and to lift others up that don’t have the opportunities that we do.” In addition to spreading the word about these important issues, Walters is donating a dollar to the Virginia Sierra Club Chapter and a dollar to Black Girls Hike RVA for every mile that she runs.
Encouragement in Every Step
Whether hikers connect with Black Girls Hike RVA online or in person, everyone will get plenty of encouragement. “We’re going to support you no matter how long it takes,” Boyd said. “While we want to do longer hikes to challenge the thru-hikers and the people who are avid hikers, we also want to encourage more people of color to be in outdoor spaces. No matter what your physical ability or skill set is, the goal is just to get out there.”
Through their hikes, Boyd and Tucker want to emphasize that at its most basic form, hiking is just walking. “You don’t really need a bunch of stuff,” Tucker said. “Yes, it is cool and it looks good. But it’s not a necessity. Water is a necessity. During COVID, hand sanitizer is a necessity. When we first started hiking, we would hike in tennis shoes and wear a bookbag. We see people do it all the time.”
In creating this community, Black Girls Hike RVA is extending the invitation into the outdoors to everyone. “I’m tired of being the first Black or the only Black,” Boyd said. “It should get to the point where we shouldn’t still be hitting firsts. You deserve to be out here, and you have the right to be out here as well.”
Cover Photo: A group hike to Humpback Rocks in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Black Girls Hike RVA