The outdoors, though it may seem otherwise, was not made for everyone.
by Joanne Xu
Evelynn Escobar-Thomas remembers rarely being surrounded by nature growing up in Virginia. Her family didn’t go on camping trips or lodging in the woods for vacation. Instead, there were mostly trips to big city skylines or Disney World, urban jungles with lots of people. Escobar-Thomas didn’t visit her first national park until she was 23 years old, a full grown adult, when she was visiting Los Angeles.
Escobar-Thomas isn’t an anomaly amongst people of color either, many of whom grow up in families that just don’t particularly prefer nature. The outdoors is a foreign concept, a place that doesn’t necessarily give off welcoming vibes, given its penchant for being the “great unknown.” Being in nature requires a surrender of control; you’re vulnerable. And most of all, it’s not built for dark skin.
The latter is a puzzling notion to make sense of. How can the outdoors — a place with no walls, our very ecosystem — be exclusive or isolating against any group of people? How can rocks discriminate? As with understanding all else, taking the rose colored glasses off the history we’re taught tells you exactly how. To begin, “most national parks and other beautiful places are built on sacred, stolen land from the indigenous people of this country,” says Escobar-Thomas. “Then the people that had to do the actual work to create the space that we now all enjoy … it’s the same story of slavery and labor that went into building this country off the backs of Black people.”
Realizing that some of the perceptively freest spaces in our country, the outdoors, are not actually free for all people is a heavy thing. That aforementioned vulnerability that you feel when you’re surrounded by open land is liberating for some, and dangerous for others. Reversing this systemic segregation of the outdoors is inherently why Escobar-Thomas founded Hike Clerb, a physical (and now digital) hiking club that encourages intersectional women to reclaim their rightful space amongst nature. For Escobar-Thomas, convincing someone to finally experience nature for themselves is the ultimate first step toward a truly inclusive outdoors.
On Hike Clerb
The Recreationalist: When did you start realizing how segregated the outdoors was?
Evelynn Escobar-Thomas: It wasn’t until I started visiting my aunt in LA and going hiking with her as a kid. I realized there weren’t very many other people who looked like me out on these trails. Which was, I guess, surprising? As a person of color in this country you’re very aware that’s the norm, but I didn’t really realize how much the outdoors community lacked inclusion until I immersed myself.
The Recreationalist: How did it feel to realize you didn’t see yourself represented?
Evelynn: It’s not a new feeling, it was just an observation I had in that space. Being Black in this country, you’re usually maybe the only [Black] person in the room or one of a small group of people. So it didn’t necessarily strike me on a visceral, emotional level. I just didn’t realize how bad it was outdoors as well.
The Recreationalist: And that’s what inspired you to start Hike Clerb?
Evelynn: Yes, that really inspired me to take action. I’m Black and Latinx and I love the outdoors, and I know other people of color who also love the outdoors.
The Recreationalist: So it’s just the systemic conditioning, so to speak, that stops them from actually going.
The Recreationalist: Why did you decide to make Hike Clerb especially for women?
Evelynn: As an LA resident, I’d go on hikes as regular exercise and by myself a lot of the time, which in itself isn’t safe. So I started this group to bring women of all colors, shapes, and sizes together to hike safely and experience what nature means to them.
The Recreationalist: What about the community makes it so great?
Evelynn: It’s been really awesome to see that no matter how big or how small the group is it always meshes. The beauty of Hike Clerb is its growth, because everyone who has come out for the first time has come back with a friend, so the cycle just continues.
The Recreationalist: Why do you think that is?
Evelynn: I think it’s because of the tone that we set for each hike. Hike Clerb is rooted in inclusivity and accessibility, it’s fun and lighthearted. Now being someone that’s in the outdoors space, I think it’s important to be that middle man who’s into nature but is also welcoming and inclusive, and lets people get into it with no barriers.
On The Nature of Nature
The Recreationalist: With everything going on in the world right now, how do you hope it’ll help drive more inclusion in the outdoors?
Evelynn: What I love now is that we’re going way deeper than just the surface drivers of how we view everything. People are seeing just how systemic everything is. The outdoors is no different. There’s a shift now in which people are realizing the traumas that Black people specifically have had to endure from being oppressed, and from that there’s now a focus on addressing mental health, and seeing nature as a refuge from trauma. I hope that’ll help draw more Black people out into nature to help explore those emotions.
The Recreationalist: How did your childhood influence how you feel about the outdoors today?
Evelynn: The outdoor space felt very much like a homogenous, White space. And because of that, looking at the outdoors as an open, accepting space for other cultures wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that one of the national parks in Virginia was integrated. These places weren’t historically meant for people of color, period. So if my grandparents didn’t feel welcomed there, why would they teach my parents to feel welcomed there, and why would my parents teach me to feel welcomed there?
The Recreationalist: Do you think it’s still that way?
Evelynn: There are overall themes that I think still play into the traditional view of the outdoors. In marketing in general, it’s still pretty homogenous. But there are brands pushing the envelope who are really committed to telling the stories of different people, different perspectives.
The Recreationalist: Is that a step in the right direction?
Evelynn: Yes! As a kid, when you see those stories on the biggest screens, whether it’s on social media or in commercials, it makes a lot of difference. There are so many different groups telling those stories in real life too. Latino Outdoors, Black Girls Trekkin’, Unlikely Hikers — they’re all doing the work in telling these stories and getting different people out there. It’s just a matter of continuing to uplift these voices, and then we’ll eventually break down the barrier that the outdoors is not for everyone.
These places weren’t historically meant for people of color, period.
On Easing Into It
The Recreationalist: A lot of people, Black people especially, have an understandably heightened sense of caution against the outdoors right now. How would you suggest they start exploring?
Evelynn: This is not the time to necessarily go out alone, but go out with someone you trust and just start with what you have around you. If there’s a nice park that you can go read a book with a friend in, start there. If there are hiking trails around you, maybe go on a short hike with someone. Just explore what’s around you and take some time to reset spiritually and mentally.
The Recreationalist: You seem so comfortable with your earthy side.
Evelynn: I’ve always just had a strong calling to nature. Once I went on my first hike it kind of snowballed. It’s very Virgo of me to be in touch with my true nature. [Laughs.] But it’s just genuinely something that has always been instilled in me spirit wise. I think back to my fifth grade field trip in Virginia when we went to this little outdoor adventure park and had to do a zipline and rope swing over mud pits. Obviously it was a big memory if I’m still thinking about this fifth grade field trip 20 years later.
The Recreatioanalist: What do you find so inspiring about nature?
Evelynn: It really comes down to the healing effect of it all. When you’re around these beautiful red rocks in the Southwest and you’re literally feeling the energy from the minerals and things in the rocks — it changes how you feel. It’s not something that you’re even aware of until you’re out there and experiencing it, and it’s totally life changing. You don’t really realize how much you were missing until it sparks something in you.
Written by Joanne Xu