Justin Tucker aims to connect Black community members to the many benefits of hiking, to include improved physical and mental health. | Credit: Jon Meltzer

By Jonathan Samuel Meltzer,
Special to the AFRO

Justin Tucker’s days look a lot different in Spring 2022 than they did at the start of the pandemic. 

While many of us are returning to mask-free workplaces, restaurants and movie theaters, Tucker is deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of North Carolina and Tennessee, walking up to 30 miles a day and spending most nights in an “ultralight” backpacking tent.

This is typical for someone in the early stages of an Appalachian Trail “thru-hike”: an unsupported and continuous trek across 2,194 miles of forests, highlands and mountain vistas from northern Georgia all the way up to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

“I’m having the time of my life out here, meeting so many new people,” said Tucker, 30, who has clocked just over 700 miles as of April 24. “I could just be in the mountains for the rest of my life.”

Elements of Tucker’s story sound familiar to many millennials: dreams of a glamorous, high-profile career – in Tucker’s case – the fashion department at “Gentleman’s Quarterly,” disillusionment once finding it and a pivot to something new. 

“I found that it was not so great,” Tucker said, “making $11 an hour trying to survive in New York City- dealing with everyone’s egos and personalities, all the superficial nonsense.” 

Then a co-worker and close friend took his own life. 

“It flipped a switch,” said Tucker. “There had to be something else out there. Once I went hiking for the first time, I just fell in love.”

After diving headfirst into the hiking world with a trip to Iceland, Tucker quickly found a place in the outdoor recreation industry when he was hired by Movement, a rock-climbing gym in Hampden, in 2020. 

“Justin brought a lot of what we value: a passion for the outdoors, a passion for management, a passion for equity in the outdoors,” said Joe Stedman, who was the gym’s director at the time. 

While Tucker did enjoy and value the experience, it frustrated him to see so few Black members at the gym. Hampden is one of the city’s only majority White neighborhoods, and White Hampden residents made up 90 percent of the gym’s membership body. 

Tucker’s misgivings about the demographics of outdoor recreation have been- at least partially- have been reaffirmed by his Appalachian Trail experience.

In a recent Instagram story posted from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Tucker said, “Yesterday, I was reminded in a few different ways that I’m Black. When those Confederate flags came out I said ‘Oop, time to hit it!’” 

Experiences like this could be behind some statistics that have troubled outdoor advocates for decades. A recent National Park Service survey found that just seven percent of national park visitors identified as “Black or African-American.” That number dwindled down to only two percent for thru-hikers polled by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

“There is an assumption out there that people of color and Black people don’t … want to be outside, to enjoy being outside,” said Kate Van Waes, executive director of the American Hiking Society. “There is a history of and still existing systemic racism.” 

Van Waes says The American Hiking Society is one organization working to overcome socioeconomic boundaries and “make [the outdoors] more accessible, welcoming and inclusive.” 

Justin Tucker at the top of one of the Appalachian Trail’s many climbs. | Credit: Justin Tucker via Instagram

It was in pursuit of this ideal, among others, that the American Hiking Society started its NextGen Trail Leaders program in 2018. Tucker was a member of its 2021 cohort. 

NextGen Trail Leaders are, according to Van Waes and the society’s website, voices of a new generation of hikers who want our leaders and the public to “protect public lands for all to enjoy and to expand and protect trail access.” 

“We provide funding, mentorship, advocacy training,” said Van Waes, on top of grants for trail leaders to chase their outdoor dreams and broadcast their deeply personal messages. Tucker, who uses he/they pronouns, used his to go on a queer rafting trip in Colorado and connect with other like-minded adventurers.

Tucker’s Instagram account, trailheadjustin, is his primary vehicle for spreading the message of sustainability and outdoor inclusion. In fact, Tucker is a member of the Outdoorist Oath, a collective of social media influencers that “is working to make the outdoors more inclusive for everyone,” Tucker said. “We are fighting for the people, and for the planet itself.” 

Pattie Gonia, the Outdoorist Oath’s founder and drag performer known for her hikes through the Yosemite Valley in platform heels, personally invited Tucker to join. Launched in January 2022, the group broadcasts a threefold commitment to “our planet, inclusion and adventure” via its website and its team of influencers and advocates, diverse in skills and expertise as they are in background. 

Tucker’s personal experiences were motivations to be a part of the group and advocate for outdoor inclusion in general. 

“My family was a big part of my motivation,” he said, “We didn’t go camping or hiking. We were afraid… about what types of people we might run into in those outdoor spaces. These are things that go through the heads of a lot of people of color.”

There are economic factors that are hard for some to overcome, as well: Tucker has spent over $3,000 on gear alone, which could be a large amount for lower-income families of any race to spend on non-essential items.

Still, the health benefits of basic hiking would be a boon to many members of Baltimore’s Black community. 

A 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that non-Hispanic Black Americans over the age of 20 are 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease than their White counterparts, and those 18 and older were 30 percent more likely to be obese. 

Sources from the National Park Service to Harvard University have touted the cardiovascular and weight control benefits of walking, and especially hiking; mental health can greatly improve by time spent walking outdoors, according to these sources.

Now, though, Tucker is chasing his dreams across the East Coast’s longest mountain range. 

While raising awareness via social media and online platforms has its benefits, offline an abundance of equity work awaits Tucker, the American Hiking Society and the Outdoorist Oath whenever – or wherever – he’s finished with the trail’s 515,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. 

For his part, Stedman thinks Tucker has a bright future ahead of him. “This trip on the [trail] is a career booster, not like other industries,” Stedman said. “This is how you grow your career in the outdoors- by actually doing it and living out your dreams.”

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