Dr. William Anderson wrote this post.
I live in Colorado, which is consistently ranked one of the most active states in the U.S. In 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 82 percent of Colorado residents reported exercising during their leisure time in the preceding month. Colorado has at least 39,000 miles of trails, thousands of miles of rivers, and dozens of 14ers, or mountains with an elevation of 14,000 feet or more. Anyone looking at Colorado from the outside would assume everyone here is the outdoorsy type. But for the third of the population, roughly, who are racial or ethnic minorities, this is not necessarily the case—including for me as a Black man, in a state where Black people represent only about four percent of the population.
My first real experience in the outdoors beyond the usual bike-riding and ripping and running through the neighborhood was when I went on a ski trip with my elementary school in the late ’80s. In Colorado, skiing is everything, but I had never been up to the mountains in that capacity. I loved it at the time, yet I had a lingering feeling that I didn’t really belong there, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I realize now that I felt out of place in the outdoors. I didn’t see many Black people like me on the mountain skiing, so I felt as though I had no place in the mountains.
Over time my thinking rooted itself firmly in the sentiment, If you weren’t going to ski, why would you go to the mountains? I didn’t spend much time skiing after that first trip, and none of my friends went skiing or spent any time in the mountains, so it was just not something I thought of as part of my life, even though I lived in Colorado. People from out of town would come to visit and want to hike in the mountains, but I always felt baffled by these requests. I thought, Why go to the mountains? The weather is cold, and there are crazy animals and insects there. There is nothing to do and no places to go, at least not for Black people. As my friend group diversified when I was in my twenties, I met more and more people—mostly white—who spent time outdoors and longed for what the mountains had to offer, and I continued to wonder… Why?
Eventually my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided maybe I could dip my toe into experiencing the mountains. I went camping for the first time, with a friend who was way more outdoorsy than I ever wanted to be. He sold me on the idea that we were Coloradans and were supposed to enjoy the mountains and nature and that I was missing out by not taking advantage of all Colorado had to offer. So we went, but it was not a great experience. We made camp off the beaten track and it poured rain for 15 minutes (in Colorado fashion), just enough to soak all of our firewood and drop the temperature. To this city guy, it was freezing cold. We could barely start a fire. My friend failed to tell me that he camped pretty ruggedly; he didn’t have the camping gear that would have helped me feel more comfortable. So I slept on the ground, angry and cold. As soon as the sun rose, I was ready to go. It was the second time I told myself the outdoors wasn’t for me. That day I blamed him for a terrible camping experience. In all honesty, it was my fault. I didn’t pack right. I didn’t ask the right questions. I went in as green to camping as one can be and expected the comforts and leisures of the city. These misconceptions, as well as not knowing the right questions to ask, keep so many of us “could be” outdoorsy people from enjoying the outdoors.
In my thirties, however, I started traveling abroad. Suddenly I was bodysurfing in the ocean in Cuba and hiking through cool rivers and rainforests, and mountains too, in Peru. I was jumping off waterfalls in Costa Rica and trekking across Kenya. When I came back to Denver, though, I stuck to city life. I would meet strangers in coffee shops in Paris or other cities who would exclaim, “You live in Colorado by the Rocky Mountains!” and be so impressed. They loved the mountains in my home more than I did, even as I experienced nature around the world. I started to question myself, asking, Am I enjoying nature all over the world and missing out on the beauty in my own backyard? The simple answer was yes. It was easy to overlook the wonder that I saw every day. It was easy to relegate the Rocky Mountains to background scenery and lose myself in the enchantment of other places. Something in my head told me that I already knew my home and therefore didn’t need to bother discovering what I already “knew.” I could not have been more wrong.
I didn’t make peace with my local experience of nature until I injured myself and my physical therapist suggested I start to run. In my naivete, I assumed Black people like me didn’t run, which is completely ridiculous. I made running out to be something only professional athletes and players being punished by coaches did. Until I needed to do it. I started slowly by running the fields around our school, then I expanded into my neighborhood, and before long I was running trails along beautiful natural settings. Running was my entry into exploring the outdoors at home, and running became my connection to nature for a few years. When the pandemic hit, I decided to try biking and quickly became hooked. I love the feeling of riding and resting but still moving forward. I loved being able to create a bike ride playlist that didn’t need to be as up-tempo as my running mixes. I loved being able to cover 10, 20, or 30 miles on a ride. I loved packing sandwiches in my backpack and exploring on my bike. Soon, my bike became a place of healing and refuge, something I would never have imagined. I reconnected to my younger self who found freedom being outside.
Before long, I found myself craving more time outdoors. So my wife and I took a trip to Pagosa Springs, a mountain town about five hours from Denver. When I saw this place, I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. My wife and I were floating down this river with mountains on both sides of us. The sun was shining down on us, and it hit me then: This is where I want to be. I’m so glad this is home. It took 30-plus years, but I was starting to feel some peace with the natural world around me. I began to take ownership of my home state’s outdoors on that trip; it was no longer a place only other people experienced. The glory that is the Colorado outdoors became mine on that trip.
Once I started having these outdoor experiences, I realized I had largely perceived the outdoors as a place Black people simply didn’t go. I didn’t know many other Black people who were curious about spending more time in nature but were also beginners. So I created my own community. Over time I have let some of my fear go and have started saying “yes” to opportunities to explore the outdoors when they come. I think part of my prior resistance to saying “yes” came from the feeling that I wouldn’t be accepted in the spaces I explored. The feeling I had as a kid, that I didn’t belong skiing on the mountain like my white friends, never totally went away. When you enter new terrain as a Black person, you take the risk that racism will meet you there. You risk entering spaces and meeting people who believe nature only belongs to them, but it doesn’t. I remind myself that I also belong on the mountain or in the water or in the forest. I too have a right to adventure. As educators, it is so important that we help students push back against feelings that alienate them from spaces—especially public spaces. Educators can be conduits for students to embrace what they may not know about nature.
I went from feeling out of place and resistant to fully embracing outdoor experiences in nature. However, this journey has taken time, and my experiences do not necessarily change the fact that exploring the outdoors, for many Black people, can actually be dangerous in ways that it is not for white people. Yet there are folks making it their mission to build community and make the outdoors safer for everyone, especially young Black people and other young people of color. Two of my favorite people leading this effort in Colorado are Jessica Newton of Vibe Tribe Adventures and Quincy Shannon, who’s on a mission to “diversify the mountains.” I spend time learning from them, and I encourage others, especially educators, to support and learn from people and organizations like these in their own communities.
As my own outdoor journey continues to unfold, I plan to continue to take up space, to explore the natural world, and to say “yes” to adventure whenever I can.
This post is a refreshed version of one originally published in September 2021.
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Dr. William Anderson is a Colorado native who attended Metropolitan State University for his bachelor’s degree, the University of Phoenix for his master’s degree in education, and the University of Colorado at Denver for his doctorate. He is currently the director of the Teacher Education Program and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Denver. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council from 2014 to 2016 and a member of the National Geographic Society’s Teacher Advisory Council from 2019 to 2021. He is the founder of Love 1st Education Consultation LLC. William is a father, husband, dream-chaser, reader, and runner, as well as a lover of history, music, and junk food. A quote that sums up his teaching philosophy is, “Of all of our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” – Malcolm X
Featured image: William Anderson explores the Greek island of Santorini, in the Aegean Sea. (William Anderson)