Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer who spent most of 2016 as one of a very small number of black women hiking the Appalachian trail. Trail hikers are thought to be between 66 and 75 percent male, and overwhelmingly white; there’s also a long history of formal and informal racial exclusion in national parks, wilderness areas, and other outdoor spaces, through statute, violence, and “soft” racism. And in Appalachia, many of the small towns along the trail where hikers stop to get food, mail, clean clothes, and other supplies are often unwelcome or hostile to black people.
Haile brought, photographed, and left behind books by black writers at points along the trail. She explains why in an interview with Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow:
In 2015, I started a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day. This was a way to say, “This is the extent that I can participate in literature at this moment.” Diversity matters to me. Many of the most celebrated short story collections are by white men, so on Twitter I published one short story a day by underrepresented groups.
When I thought about 2016—how can I participate in literature this year?—I thought, I want to bring these books places no one likely has. I want to document where black brilliance belongs. There’s so much talk about where the black body belongs. Most of my hike was saying, this is a black body, and it belongs everywhere. These books were a way of me saying, black intellect belongs here, too. I was hoping that by carrying these books and taking them to these incredible vistas, fellow people of color might say, “If those books can go there, so can I.”
In an essay for BuzzFeed, Haile lists a remarkable catalogue of the weights she carried on the trip. (Hiking, as I learned this year from Rahawa, is in large part about managing weight):
Pack: 40 ounces. Tent: 26. A pound to “love myself when I am laughing…and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” Seven ounces of James Baldwin. Thirteen of Octavia Butler. Nine violent ounces of home, the from-from, “originally, I mean.” 7,628 feet: the elevation of Asmara, Eritrea. Rain jacket: 5.5 ounces. Options for ZZ Packer. Blues for Toni Morrison. Dragons for Langston Hughes. A river for Jamaica Kincaid. Nine ounces, eight ounces, ten ounces, six. Fifteen: the number of years I spent watching my African grandmother die in the flatness of Florida. Gloves: 1.3 ounces. Warsan Shire: 2.4. Keys to a place I call home: none. Colson Whitehead: 1 pound. Assets: zero. Resting mass of light: none. Headlamp: 3.9 ounces. Their names: endless. Trayvon, Renisha, Sandra, Tamir. Spork: 0.6 ounces. Water filter: 3 ounces. Down jacket: seven ounces. Fuel canister: four. Current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels: greater than 400 ppm. Average elevation above sea level in Miami: six feet. Therapists I can no longer afford: one. Kiese Laymon: 9.6 ounces. Amiri Baraka: 1.4 pounds. The amount black women earn for every white male dollar: 63 cents. Bandana: 1.12 ounces. Pack towel: 0.5 ounces. The number of times I’ve told myself to put a gun to my head between 2013 and 2016: 8,000-10,000. Bear bagging kit: 3 ounces. Aracelis Girmay: 6.4 ounces. Roxane Gay: 4.8. Emergency whistle: 0.14, orange, should I find myself in the midst of hunting season.
The trail, she writes, is “considered a great equalizer in most other respects” — everyone alike has to deal with rattlesnakes, rainstorms, and sore feet. “A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience,” she adds, “wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.” Nobody else walking the trail would have to carry the same weight.