On Being Black Outside
Photo: Vizerskaya/Getty Images

On Being Black Outside

Nature is for everyone — yet the outdoors are consistently offered only as a…

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 recreational space free to be used in almost any way imaginable, utilized by a limited number of people in a limited number of ways.

In 1967, the Bureau of Land Management designated 10,000 acres of the Red Rock area for recreational use — but some of that land, as well as a large region adjacent to it, was bought by Howard Hughes 15 years earlier. Howard Hughes: producer, aviator, billionaire recluse, arbiter of a glitzy vision for Las Vegas that included as few Black people as possible. (In a letter to a colleague, he once wrote that “the negroes have already made enough progress to last the next 100 years, and there is such a thing as overdoing it.”) Hughes died before figuring out what to do with his land, but a board of his heirs and other businessmen decided to develop it, nearly all 25,000 acres, into the suburban master-planned community now known as Summerlin.

Summerlin is as primordial to me as the land it sits upon. I suspect that might be the point. It is the shorthand for all things bougie, overpriced, overhyped, exclusive, and cheaply made. It is the essence of Whiteness, more “Vegas” than the Strip. Because of that, it envelops Red Rock within its psychic grasp — drawing the attention and patronage of those who, like the inhabitants of Summerlin, prefer their wilderness nearby but not too close, tidily bordered but not obviously so. To many residents, such a description is tantamount to an accusation, but I have yet to see the trails and rock faces of Red Rock overwhelmed by large groups of residents who look like me.

I can’t pretend that I’ve seen every corner of Red Rock at every time of day, but even now, it is rare that I see another Black person in the park. No one can claim this is an accident.

In middle school, I turned to the outdoors because I quit basketball. I started running, or rather I continued running but over longer distances. I trained for half marathons with my mom at Red Rock, starting at the exit of the park’s one-way road and running inward for the convenient 13 miles that the whole route entails. Soon, my family moved to the very edge of the Summerlin area, where running through certain neighborhoods could garner suspicious glares — or the odd Doppler effect of someone weakly shouting “nigger” out of a passing car as if they were trying on the word for size.

I tested into a magnet high school right down the street from Red Rock, at the western edge of Summerlin, where gated neighborhoods were slowly pulled up from the dirt. Sometimes, groups of us would venture into the park after class. I didn’t know it then, but I felt protected with them; not from the elements but from other people. This, even if I knew the trails better than they did and ended up there more often.

I can’t pretend that I’ve seen every corner of Red Rock at every time of day, but even now, it is rare that I see another Black person in the park. Maybe it’s because the Black population of Las Vegas has remained strikingly static over the course of five decades despite the city’s population boom, a steady 11%. Maybe not; between 2008 and 2012, 95% of the visitors to all National Forest and Wilderness sites were White.

No one can claim this is an accident. I love Patagonia products, but their marketing materials make the luxury of intentionally living in your van seem admirable, even altruistic. The activities that outdoor companies present, whether climbing or running or snowboarding, isn’t correlated to what’s possible; it’s more about who fits the concept of that activity, who is likely to afford to buy into it. Getting out there, after all, entails access to the right materials. Meanwhile, Black people continue to be framed as distinctly not outdoorsy — inexperienced in nature, unfamiliar with common recreational outdoor practices, or simply too poor to enjoy them.

Often, people cling to the idea that the solution to inequity is simply capitalism for everyone. Per The Secret of Selling the Negro, a 1954 marketing film produced by the Johnson Publishing Company (Jet, Ebony), “The secret of selling to the Negro is expressed in one word: That word is recognition. People want to be recognized. They need recognition. That’s basic in all of us. But perhaps because he’s had so little of it, the Negro needs even more. He needs to feel important and appreciated.”

But this need not merely be a screed about the lack of affordability for the imagined necessities of being outdoors, even though Patagonia’s shit is expensive. It can also be a kind of dirge for the people who are sold on the benefits of being outside. It can be about those who have been pandered to all their lives with manicured images of their friends and family climbing the rock faces of beautiful, breathtaking, wrested land. It can be a reflection on how “expertise” is posed as a necessity in the outdoor recreational realm — expertise that is implicitly granted to every easygoing White dude dressed in dirty hiking gear.

The idea that nature is “therapeutic” is a selective one. Therapeutic for whom? Where people wander or are allowed to wander is rarely so untouched. The Wilderness Act of 1964 made sure of that: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Who that “visitor” is presumed to be is often limited, as the local African American community near South Carolina’s Congaree National Park found out. Named after the indigenous people who lived in the area, Congaree later became annexed as part of the local slave economy; during Reconstruction, a Black majority legislature redistributed plantation lands in the Lower Richland area of South Carolina, Congaree among them. Fishing practices across generations of Black families grew into the 20th century — until 1988, when the area, then known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument, was officially designated as wilderness. First, hunting was banned, then fishing was increasingly restricted. In 2003, when Congaree National Park was inaugurated, the area effectively became off-limits to motor vehicles unless authorized. Many traditional fishing holes are now only accessible via hiking routes, with others completely gated off. In 2014, geographer Janae Davis conducted an extensive survey into the history of CNP. She spoke with a local fisherman about such restrictions:

One day, he arrived to find the gate open and vehicles with canoes attached driving towards the creek. When he approached a staffer with the outfitter and asked how they were able enter the property with their vehicles, the staff member responded, “If you pay the $300 fee, you can drive in here too.”

There is a trail at Red Rock called Keystone Thrust. It runs along a thrust fault that formed 66 million years ago, during a period known as the Laramide orogeny — an era of literal upheaval that also resulted in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming. A thrust fault is a broken section of the Earth’s crust where older rocks were pushed above younger ones. I’m told by the Bureau of Land Management that it, and other public lands, “are for the use and enjoyment of generations present and future.” Some things, like reality, are simply out of their control.