Behind the story: Rahawa Haile on ‘going it alone’ on the Appalachian Trail

Photo courtesy of Rahawa Haile.

The first time I readGoing It Alone,” Rahawa Haile’s memoir of her Appalachian Trail thru-hike for Outside, I was surprised the piece was so much more about race than nature. The second time I read it, I realized how stupid I’d been to be surprised.

When Bill Bryson hiked the trail for what would become 1998’s A Walk In The Woods, it was the pale-faced, bearded Iowan’s privilege to not be constantly reminded of his skin color. But Haile, a writer whose family is from Eritrea, was afforded no such luxury. She could not help but think about her own skin—her own origins—because her mostly-white fellow hikers often wanted to know where she was “from from” (they didn’t mean Miami, where she grew up).

Writers of color often feel conscripted to write about race. Not a month goes by that I don’t think of something Ezekiel Kweku wrote a couple of years ago, after yet another black person was shot by a cop: “I’d rather be tweeting about basketball and telling my bad jokes. That’s what I’m interested in. House music. Kate Bush. Sci-fi movies. … But no, this. Again.”

Haile’s essay is exceptional not only because its language is musical and beautiful, but because it is a quiet cri de coeur against nature writing—a literary genre that remains terribly, inexcusably white—and the commonly-accepted view of how Americans interact with the outdoors. As she notes, “Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American ­history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.”

What follows is another installment of Behind the Story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain at how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited—as told to CJR by the author, Rahawa Haile.

***

At the outset, I just needed some time for myself. I was in a relationship that wasn’t going very well. I’d moved to New York in 2008 and worked a bunch of service industry jobs and then landed at this really terrible title insurance job, where I was at a desk all day long. After a few years, I felt completely divorced from the natural world and from my body. Black women who freelance tweet about this a fair amount—about how much time they spend at their desks trying to pitch, trying to write, trying to edit. And how, after a while, it can feel very disorienting because you spend more time in your brain than you do in your body.

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I grew up in Florida, so I was outside my entire life. And I came to this terrible moment where I didn’t feel like me. A few years back, in 2014, my friend John took me on a hike up Bear Mountain, near New York City. It’s on the Appalachian Trail. I felt so free in a way I hadn’t in a long time and I remember looking at these blazes [trail markers painted white] and knowing that they went all the way north to Maine and all the way south to Georgia. I wanted to feel this kind of freedom and peace for an extended period. I needed to. Hiking the Appalachian Trail was an act of self preservation.

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I started the hike last year on March 22. A few weeks later, when I was in Gatlinburg in the Smokies, I came upon some black-face soap and I tweeted about it. The next day, Outside’s Alex Heard contacted me through Maud Newton, who had tweeted about my tweet.

If it weren’t for Maud’s tweet, this piece probably wouldn’t have happened. It felt fantastic, as somebody who’s long admired Outside. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d get a chance to write several thousand words in a magazine that would be read by many people. What story would I tell? So I never pitched this story; it found me.

I took all my notes on the phone. On the trail, every ounce matters. Some people carry journals, but I didn’t want to carry any more weight than I absolutely had to. I used the iPhone’s Notes app; that’s where I took every single note from when I began until about October 16, when I finished.

It’s definitely easier than carrying a laptop. Some people I met carried those keyboards that fold in half. They could type into some app on their phone. But for the most part, people took notes on their phones. I don’t know if many of them intended to turn those notes into a piece of journalism, but I sure did.


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I took photos, too, and would scroll through them maybe once a week. They’d tell a story. They were also useful if I couldn’t take notes, if it was raining, or I had some gloves on, or I didn’t want to type on my phone. I considered my camera an essential part of my note-taking arsenal.

When you’re on the trail for that long, having a bit of a break is not bad. I’d wake up, and I’d start hiking. When I saw or heard things I’d want to write about later, I would take a photograph just as a note to remind myself, Hey, remember this thing that you saw and didn’t have the time to write about? Write about it now. Most of my actual note-taking and my writing on the trail happened at night when I was in my sleeping bag. Not every night, but maybe a few nights a week. I’d get to camp, make dinner, and set up my tent or throw my sleeping pad and sleeping bag down inside of a shelter, if it was raining. Ideally I’d have a little bit of time with my telephone to write notes.

I don’t think I could’ve written during the day, during lunch, or a break to rest my feet. There was so much pain, and it only ever really subsided at night, after I’d stretched and massaged my muscles and eaten a good meal. During the day it was just go, go, go, so it was very hard to focus on anything other than the present.

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I interviewed five or six black hikers for the piece. As you can imagine, there weren’t that many. I interviewed two who hiked in 2016. Not all of the people I interviewed made it into the piece. Bumblebee, who I met briefly on the trail in Vermont, did. She’d gone northbound in 2011 and completed the thru-hike and was trying to go southbound in 2016 but was finding it difficult. It’s much more difficult in the northern part. She’d started in Maine and tried to head south to Georgia. We exchanged information. She’s one of those people who hiked the Appalachian Trail, completely fell in love with it, and moved to Maine a year or two after. I also talked to Brittany Leavitt, one of the Outdoor Afro leaders. She’s a wonderful source of inspiration.

Starting out, I met one black couple: Dr. C and Rhythm. It was important to them to make their own adventure of the hike. I don’t know that they made it all the way to Maine. I met one older black woman named Hazelnut who is in her 50s, but looked like she was 30 because black women. This was around Max Patch. Her goal was to get to New York, but I don’t know whether she ended up getting that far.

I didn’t see another black woman for a very long time.

I didn’t have any writers or stories I looked to as a North Star. If anything, I took my comfort and guidance from books I carried on the trail by black authors—Hurston, Baldwin, Whitehead. It was only a few books at a time, mostly through Amazon Prime; I wasn’t carrying 30 books because my pack would’ve been over 60 pounds. The difficult part was planning the logistics because post offices in small towns are often closed. Most hikers mail packages to hostels or outfitters—any business that’s willing to hold hiker mail, in the hopes they’ll ultimately spend money there. That’s what I did. For me, the variables—where I might be, what books made the most sense to carry at that point in my hike, what I needed mentally—made post offices untenable.

I devoured Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, one of the few newer books in my pack, in one go. I took an extra day off in a trail town just to read the whole thing. It was really moving because it’s about black bodies moving through the American wilderness, in one way or another.

For part of a series I’d done on my Twitter account, I took a photo of myself with the book in Vermont. “Climbing fire towers with Colson,” I wrote. “wow! Because I sure am not!” he replied.

 

I did not start writing a draft in earnest until I got back, probably around Thanksgiving. Writing is very hard for me. I don’t believe people who say otherwise. Of course, it depends on the kind of writer that one is. Some creative-writing folks like to talk about vertical versus horizontal writing, writing draft after draft versus word by word, sentence by sentence. For me, the musicality of what I write is something that matters a lot. I am definitely a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence writer. I’m trying to get better about that because a certain amount of it is preciousness that I could do without.

It’s hard to say how long it took to write that draft, but maybe three weeks to a month? This was in the aftermath of the election, and I spent most of the following months pretty depressed. But I’d had six months to think about what I wanted to say. And if I’m being honest, I started writing the article the day I opened my notes app on the trail.

Beginning the story with the hike already in progress—and meeting the man who wanted to know where I’m really from—was Alex’s idea. It conveyed how easy it is for these slights to happen without anyone really noticing. This man didn’t attack me, but these small slights have a weight to them, and that weight adds up, and that’s something that I carry.

I didn’t have to say the man was white, because why would I?

 

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The sentence beginning “As a queer black woman…” was for me, you know? I never thought I would come out in print. I don’t think many people do. That sentence was definitely for me, and for any other queer people, and queer people of color. I didn’t want to turn it into anything more, necessarily. I didn’t want to explain myself. I didn’t want to write about my queerness and what it was like for me. This was just to say, Here you are. I am representing you. We are out here.

Listen: Being a queer black woman is not the easiest thing, as you can imagine. It’s not something I was very open about. I said “I thought you knew” in kind of a half-joking way because it’s not something that I advertised. It’s not something I felt comfortable writing about in the past. I’ve turned down assignments from editors who’ve asked me to write for queer issues, saying, No, I’m not out. My family doesn’t know about this. Most of my family still doesn’t know about this. My mother does, but I’m not sure about other family members.

Let’s be realistic: Who are Outside‘s readers? I’d be surprised if they’re familiar with The Negro Motorist Green Book. Ours is a pretty rough history, to say the least.

I knew this piece would circulate within communities of color, which is great, but I don’t know that white people understand the need for these kinds of conversations—why we talk about race and the outdoors. I’ve seen a lot of resistance. There are many white people who say they go to the outdoors to get away from it all, of course, and they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to feel accused. I definitely wanted to write to those people and have them see why this is an important conversation and why this is an important experience. Because most people don’t know.

I’m in a tug of war between the trail and home. Home’s a hard thing to escape for writers of color, especially for me. It’s hard for me to write any essay without writing about home. I think there’s always a longing. It’s hard to explain how it’s possible to crave a place that you fled.

At the end of January, I filed a draft that was maybe 1,000 words longer than what was published. Alex, who was my primary editor, had some suggestions and asked for another draft. And then another. If I’m not mistaken, there were three drafts, and then we tweaked things here and there. The first draft had too many disjointed sections. It wasn’t cohesive. If this were a cooking show, they would say, Oh, these flavors just didn’t come together.

I tried to fix this by cutting some of the points that seemed to come out of nowhere and adding to other sections to strengthen them. That helped, because it’s hard to condense six months into 3,500 words. The second draft was far better received; a few more structural changes but not so many, and a request to add some levity because it’s not the lightest of pieces.

The part about the Everglades and growing up in Florida was Alex’s idea. We had talked on the phone before I started writing the piece to get a sense of what I wanted to write about, what I saw this piece looking like. I told Alex about growing up in Miami and how much its nature and outdoors shaped me. But it wasn’t present in this piece. Alex remembered that.

Alex is one of the most phenomenal editors I’ve ever had. His attention to detail and eye for what makes a story a story was, to a unique degree, writer-specific. He understood what kind of writer I am and what my strengths are and what kind of story I could tell.

It was a rigorous fact check. It may not have been New Yorker-level intense, but even so. There was a sentence in the opening where I referred to a Trail Day when the temperature dipped below freezing. My fact-checker looked it up, checked the weather, and confirmed that it was in the 30s. Cold, yes, but not below freezing. He’d also have to call people and review my recorded interviews.

I was careful to cite my sources. The draft I gave the fact-checker looked kind of like a Slate piece; there were links everywhere, so he could see where I was getting these numbers. I looked up county by county, to see how each county along the trail voted in the most recent election. That’s how I got the line about how you’d “have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump.” Then I sent the fact-checker a spreadsheet with all my data. I wanted to make his life as easy as possible.

I had some concern about doing this in print. One of my biggest fears was for my mom, because any kind of queerness in many places throughout Africa—but absolutely within the Horn—is taboo, and she’d have to explain herself to friends who asked, I read this article that Rahawa wrote and she said she’s queer, what does this mean? She’d be embarrassed. I don’t know that my mother has fully come to terms with my queerness. I came out, well before the story ran, and she did not respond well, and we didn’t really speak about it for months following that. We’re on good terms now, but one of my fears is how my mother would react if one of the people from my country asked her about it. Which is the most diaspora response ever, right?

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There are so many nature essays, right? But how many black-women-in-nature essays are there? Very few. My biggest hope is that some black woman reads this essay about what it was like for me as a black woman, and sees that I finished the trail, that I wasn’t killed, and that it’s not impossible. That was more important for me than talking about all the different rocks and wild flowers and the geology of it.

I wasn’t sure that Outside would let me write like this because writing about the nature can be so immersive. But they did, and I’m grateful for it. It’s hard to write about nature and blackness without it being politicized. There were things I wrote about, like access to green spaces, through a far more political lens than appears in most of the piece; that was cut. I’m glad it was, to be honest, because it’s something I would like to write about at length elsewhere, and it would’ve interrupted the flow.

Outside doesn’t have many black writers, let alone many black women writing for their print issues. I really hope this helps encourage women of color to pitch. Representation matters so much. Sometimes people need to see that “X” is possible, that it has been done, before they are inclined to do it themselves.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.