On Being Black Outside
Nature is for everyone — yet the outdoors are consistently offered only as a White refuge
It takes time and pressure. Six hundred million years ago, what would one day be Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area sat beneath the ocean. Nearly two miles of sediment formed into a layer of white limestone; over eons, the Earth’s crust rose, displacing more sediment, rich with iron, that oxidized into the pale red color of the canyon walls. Today, more than two million people each year flock to Red Rock, 15 miles outside Las Vegas.
Lately, I’ve been pondering the idea of what it means to be Black in historically fraught spaces but never more so than when I’m outside. Here, I’m talking about what is nominally called the “outdoors,” the mountains and canyons and desert valleys of southern Nevada, California, and Utah—places that make up my home in the Mojave Desert. But the word could also mean any number of environments in the manicured and mapped wilderness that have become synonymous with White recreation and professional amateurism.
It is certainly easier to claim that everything natural should belong to everyone. It’s also easy to slip into the comforts that arise inside invisible, seemingly facile barriers. An empty hiking trail early in the morning, perhaps. No noise from people who can’t stand to do anything without the blare of a Bluetooth speaker. Or the roving bands of boys who vibrate with nervous energy, shouting into the echoing canyons as if they’ve just broken a bone, throwing stones into the air as high as they can. Or the tourists who come in jeans and dress shoes, cameras and rented luxury cars in tow.
It takes time to truly know why things aren’t as easy as they seem. From the start, when you drive down the 13-mile one-way road into Red Rock, you notice what’s prevalent and what is missing. Errant patches of graffiti and empty plastic bottles filled with trash in the sand. Small, all-White groups of rock climbers sitting on the pavement, donning harnesses and helmets. Wiry White men running the entire length of the park in loops, seemingly subsisting solely on citrus fruit and water. In short, a…