Eight women are standing in a circle at the bottom of Crowders Mountain in Gastonia, North Carolina—on a day that will soon reach a stifling 87 degrees—and at least one of them is concerned. “Full disclosure: I am not an outdoors person,” says Lisa Toppin, a vice president at a financial services company in nearby Charlotte. “In fact, my husband laughed very hard at the idea of me coming out here—like the gut-clenching, crying sort of laughing. He kept calling it ‘the death march.’ Think of the person on the plane who’s white-knuckling it: That’s me if I have to be outside. People might say, ‘Hey, look at the salamander!’ But I don’t want to see him. He can do his own thing.” The group cracks up. Toppin adds, almost convincingly, “Still, I’m excited to be part of this.”

“This” is a 5.6-mile, four-and-a-half-hour round-trip hike that will wind up Crowders Trail all the way to the peak, a somewhat hairy ascent over gray gravel through a shady pine and oak forest. The crew is decked out in loose T-shirts, worn sneakers, and leggings—no yoga-babe Lululemon ensembles out here. The leader is Yanira Castro, a plucky woman with a big-sister vibe. She’s an envoy from Outdoor Afro (OA), an eight-year-old nonprofit.

Like any naturalist group worth its desalination tablets, OA takes novices and experts camping, white water rafting, kayaking, and skiing. But it also organizes excursions to urban festivals, onetime slave plantations, and D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as overnight “blackpacking” jaunts. Because as its name suggests, its members are predominantly folks you’ve never seen in a North Face ad: black women. One adventure at a time, the organization is happily demolishing the idea that black ladies don’t do nature.

“Spending time outside doesn’t have to be this extreme, stressful experience,” says OA’s founder, Rue Mapp. “Black people are not trying to invite more stress into our lives—we’re not dangling off the side of a cliff. We don’t need that extra adrenaline. We go to nature for community and for some therapy.” To that end, the organization holds about 65 events a month across the country, each announced on Meetup.com and guided by a thoroughly vetted ambassador; 24,000 people attend them annually.

Photo: Carol Von Zumwalt

Today, on what OA calls a healing hike, the group stands in the grass while Castro explains. “We hear stories of little girls being attacked for wearing their hair a certain way, young men being shot for no reason,” she says. “Then what we deal with at work, like being confronted in a way that’s not necessarily racist, but...” Nearly every hiker “mmm hmms” with recognition. Castro takes a reassuring tone: “We can talk about that here. And we’ll have plenty of time, so let’s get going.”

Heading into the woods, the hikers pass a plexiglass sign featuring a photo of Rebecca Gordon Brevard, once a slave and later owner of an expanse of local land. “The Brevards purchased 24 acres,” says Castro. “So a lot of this land was...”

“Owned by us,” interjects Leslie Scott, a gregarious health and wellness coach in a broad straw hat. Appreciative murmurs bubble up as the group snaps pics of the sign. “It took the Brevards’ descendants two years to get the marker out here,” says Castro. “Our history tends to be buried, and we have to dig and dig and dig.”

Scott navigates the trail with a gnarled walking stick while recounting a California childhood spent splashing around in lakes and rivers. “After I moved to San Diego, I didn’t get outside as much,” she says, “and I started feeling that loss. When I moved to Charlotte and heard about Outdoor Afro, I thought, African American people do this? And we can go out and talk without tiptoeing around certain topics? I need this. Need.

“Watch out for these old roots, y’all,” Kendra Jason calls back to some stragglers, weaving around tangled undergrowth with authority. Before her first OA trip in spring 2016, Jason had never hiked, camped, or skied. “That stuff was always out there, but I would’ve never figured out how to do it on my own,” she says. “And I’m literally a PhD—I understand research.”

“I think a lot of black people stigmatize being outside because they associate it with being ‘country’—especially in the South, where we battle against the idea that our part of the world is slow and uneducated,” says Jason. “Some black people have distanced themselves from all that by urbanizing themselves and moved progressively further from the outdoors. When you hear ‘Black people don’t swim,’ there’s a long history behind that.”

“Slavery’s part of it, too,” says Scott, dry leaves crunching beneath her sneakers.

Mapp shares the belief that black people may link nature with the trauma of the past. “Think about the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’: Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” she says. “That image—of terror in the woods—is seared into a generational memory, and it perpetuates fears of the remote wild. It’s no surprise that some of us feel more comfortable being in nature in groups.”

A third of the way into the hike, the North Carolina heat is on full blast—the women look as though they’ve wandered out of a steam room. Sonia Clarke’s nose stud glints in the sunlight; she’s a longtime runner and hiker, and relocating from Washington state to Charlotte in 2004 left her feeling marooned. “I couldn’t find anybody who wanted to do the same things I did. Everybody only wanted to go eat,” she says. “So I finally got on Meetup and found Outdoor Afro. Charlotte can feel cliquish, but not this group.”

Lisa Ward is a nature lover but an OA first-timer; a skilled photographer, she typically points her lens at woods and oceans. She observes her fellow hikers with detached calm, stopping at the trail’s edge to capture shots of the forest canopy and gargantuan downed tree limbs fit for The Lord of the Rings. “Nature just does it for me,” Ward says. Meanwhile, Toppin, Ward’s buddy from their days at Howard University nearly three decades ago, is breathing hard, grimacing, and signaling Castro for a break by raising her hand as if for a middle-school hall pass.

Photo: Carol Von Zumwalt

The talk returns to the outdoor disconnect. “Almost half of the people who do outdoor activities earn more than $75,000 a year, so you can just imagine who that excludes,” says Jason, waving off a small cloud of gnats. “That’s another reason people of color are less likely to engage in these activities—they require an investment.”

“But you’re talking about suburban campers who need to have everything. Camping has always been for the poor person,” says Scott, picking her way along the path with her walking stick—a literal stick, not some carbon composite “trekking pole” that retails for $139.95. “We weren’t rich, but we had a fishing boat, and we’d invite anybody to come along. We Jet Skied in the summer, all of it.”

Toppin, listening from a few trees away, brightens. “What usually goes through my mind when people start talking about camping is, Who’s gonna put a mint on my pillow? But you all make it sound fun.”

“People want to try fishing and other things, but they’re afraid they don’t know how,” says Castro. “That’s what Outdoor Afro brings to the table: Come hang with us. You don’t have gear? Someone will lend it to you. You need a ride? We’ll get you there. No sleeping bag? I got you. Come out for the first time, and we’ll do it together.”

Clarke gives Toppin a supportive squeeze near the pinnacle.
Photo: Carol Von Zumwalt

As a kid in California, Mapp, the OA founder, relished riding her bike along country roads and exploring local creeks. By her mid-30s, she was a divorced mother of three. Then a mentor asked her a question: If time and money weren’t an issue, what would you be doing? “I opened my mouth, and my life fell out,” says Mapp. “I said, ‘I’d start a website to reconnect African Americans to the outdoors.’” After creating OA as a blog, she realized the potency of her message. “People around the country raised their digital hands and said, ‘I love nature, too, and here’s how.’”

Mapp’s community-building powers are on full display on the trail, where the combo of mugginess and exhaustion is like a magic solvent that breaks down barriers and dredges up serious ideas. Castro recalls a white coworker admitting he’d been “so intimidated” by her when they first met. “And I thought, Why was that? Have you never met anybody who said what they felt and looked like me?” Soon, they’re all trading stories on tensions and expectations.

“Every day I watch my black colleagues working: heads down, speaking when spoken to,” says Toppin, under a beech tree. “I was trying to get one woman promoted, and a higher-up said, ‘We need more of a point of view from her.’ The woman tells me, ‘I was taught to be seen and not heard. I’m deferring to the leadership.’ We worked through it, but a lot of those old messages still come through.”

As if sent by a Hollywood rom-com director, a shirtless black guy jogs around the bend toward the group. He’s square jawed and silly hot with a body fat percentage in the single digits. All conversation stops. “Oh, hello,” say a few of the women in their silkiest Olivia Pope voices, and he nods back, “Ladies.” The second he lopes past, Toppin, knees high, pretends to run after him at full speed while the others shriek with laughter.

“We met on a mountain...,” Jason jokes, rehearsing the speech she’ll give at her wedding to Running Buff Dude.

Baker (left), a new OA leader, and Ward, who has hiked in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and Great Falls Park, gab along the first part of the path.
Photo: Carol Von Zumwalt

In the homestretch, the women splinter into pairs and trios: Clarke and soft-spoken IT professional Cheryl Baker are chatting while Toppin bounces among clusters, offering mixed nuts from an oversize ziplock bag. They’re hashing out everything from dating (“The online thing was not my scene,” laments one) to barbecue restaurants (“You haven’t been to Hawg Wild?” someone says with disbelief and a little concern).

The last ten minutes to the top of Crowders Mountain features a set of railroad-tie steps so steep and precarious, they’re like Satan’s StairMaster. The midday sun is a heat lamp, and the ladies gaze up at the curving gauntlet of wood with consternation. The giant sign that reads warning: serious injuries and deaths have occurred beyond this point doesn’t seem super encouraging. But they came to climb, and climb they will—no one is not seeing this through.

The women take the stairs slowly, their T-shirts growing soggier by the minute. It’s eerily quiet—save for panting and birdsong—until someone shouts “Breathe!” Now they’re cheering one another on, a warm wave of encouragement. “Oh my goodness!” yells another, as a voice echoes back, “What the hell?” One starts singing the theme from Rocky, and now they’re all singing it, huffing and puffing to the beat. And then they’re at the top of the mountain, where eagles trace high arcs across the vista. With dappled light hitting their faces, eight sisters gasp at the horizon line, squinting at the 25-mile view. It looks better than they could have imagined.


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