Cats and the Sociology of Outdoor Recreation

I didn’t go camping for the first time until I was 28 years old. It has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The last five years have snowballed from car camping, to short walk-ins, to backpacking a couple nights. Everything has worked its way to where I am now, planning to leave on my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in March. All because my husband, before he was my husband, said one day, “I haven’t been camping in a while.” It made me start thinking of reasons why I had never done it before. I’d actually wanted to on several occasions. I know it isn’t for everyone, but you really don’t know if you’re going to like it until you try it.

Why did I wait so long?

Dollars

My mother never took me camping. It’s not her fault. She loves being outside. She spends most of her time there. She has this magical ability to not only grow anything but to make it thrive. Camping is just something we never did. I don’t blame her. My dad died when I was a year old and I wouldn’t have tried to drag four kids out in the woods by myself either. Plus, even if we were thrifty on gear, I think trying to outfit five people would’ve been too expensive for my single mother to handle. But was it that she had no desire or was it because she didn’t think she could afford it? I don’t know if that’s her reason, she probably just didn’t want to, but I know that that’s why I didn’t take my own son when he was little. Sure, backpacking itself is free or at least cheap most places. What’s the big deal? That’s how people with money see it. People with limited funds, see what it costs to buy all that gear. It adds up. Especially when you’re buying for more than one person. They see that not everyone gets vacation days so there’s money lost from taking extra days off. There’s also an assumption that these people have a vehicle to get themselves out there. I doubt many buses drop you off right at a trailhead. Not everyone has a car. A car that needs gas to get there. Gas that costs money. So, yes, it is a big deal to some people. Not impossible, but you have to really want to do it to make it happen.

When my brothers and I were older, they went on camping trips with their friends, but I was either not invited or I was too busy being too angsty to care. I don’t actually remember which but, either way, I never went.

Gender

As an adult, I had begged my ex-husband to take me on a camping trip but the closest we ever got were a few drunken overnights at the Texas Renaissance Festival. I’m completely ashamed of that sentence by the way. Not just the Renaissance part but the begging to be taken camping part. It never occurred to me to just take myself. That fear-based damsel-in-distress assumption that I needed to be shown how to camp by a man is something I assume to be fairly common. Man make fire. Man eat of the beef. All joking aside, I know there are real dangers and you can get yourself into trouble pretty quick, but realistically how much trouble could I have gotten into at a state park ten feet from my car? I could’ve looked up information on the internet and I could’ve gone, but I didn’t. I was scared to go alone. While I’m happy to not be that person anymore, I can see how that fear stops a lot of people from trying it, male or female. Luckily, I met a man who did take me camping and now I’m the one telling other people not to be scared.

Race/Ethnicity

I had several co-workers and friends, on separate occasions, ask about how to get started with camping. A few of those conversations briefly touched on race and ethnicity. Some were concerned they’d be the only black person out there. Some weren’t concerned with other hikers at all but with trying to convince their families or friends to go along with it. They didn’t know anyone that did it or had experience with it. They had brought the idea up to their families who thought they were crazy. Sleep on the ground?! Are there roaches?! This wasn’t just fear of a lack of comfort they were up against. It was trying to wrap their heads around the “why” of it. Why would you sleep on the ground on purpose? Why would you walk if you didn’t have to? Why would you want to do this? I thought these weren’t uncommon reactions. People generally have questions and reservations when presented with the idea of something new. Then I was told, “Black people don’t camp. They got enough problems.” What? I tried to think back and see if there was any truth to it. I couldn’t remember running into any black people on the trail but was it because I wasn’t looking?

Talking about race makes some people uncomfortable. Click for comic relief >>> Black Hiker with Blair Underwood.

I very rarely identify myself as being Vietnamese. Most of my brothers and I were born in Texas and have never met our relatives in Vietnam. I don’t even speak Vietnamese. The most Vietnamese I get is being snobby about what kind of egg rolls I like and using it as an excuse to take an extra New Year’s Day off of work. However, that hasn’t stopped people from being hateful. I’ve been called a gook and a chink, been literally spit on, and had a guy tell me he couldn’t date me because his dad would kick his ass. P.S. None of these things happened on trails! I’ve actually had it pretty easy compared to what some people go through. Mostly people just assume I’m good at math or have a superpower that allows me to pronounce Chinese names even though I’m Vietnamese.

I’m only mentioning the bad stuff to help you understand that when I’m in a room full of white people, I notice. It doesn’t make me nervous or paranoid. I don’t think everyone is racist and out to get me. It’s just something that I notice… and I noticed it at the Gathering. It’s not their fault. I’ve already written about how welcomed everyone in ALDHA made me feel. I remember thinking, “Maybe lots of minorities hike, they just don’t join clubs about it?” This is 100% not an insult, merely an observation. I never felt an inkling of discrimination while I was there, but noticing the lack of diversity did make me think about those conversations I’d previously had. Is it really something that “black people just don’t do” or was it something else? When I got home I went through every Backpacker and Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine I had laying around the house and sure enough they’re full of white people. Is this subtle discrimination or just a coincidence? Do they not market to minorities because statistically minorities won’t be interested, or are minorities not interested because they’re not being marketed to?

Thoughts!

So, I’m a chubby Vietnamese woman and I will not be on the cover of an outdoor magazine any time soon. This will never stop me from hiking. Out of all of those things, though, being female is the one I encounter resistance on the most. Not just from myself, but from other people. I have had several variations of this conversation, surprisingly all with female employees, while trying to pay for campsites at state parks:

Them: How many people?

Me: One.

Them: So, two, including yourself. Anyone under 13?

Me: No, no. One, including me. Just me.

Them: Just you?

Me: Just me. Nobody else.

Them: Oh, wow. Okay, just you.

Me: *sigh* Yes. Just me.

And that’s just a weekend at a state park. That’s not even the conversations I have about hiking the entire A.T. alone. Those conversations are longer. For the most part, everyone has been AMAZING. I’m lucky. Nobody has told me that I shouldn’t or can’t do it. A few people have voiced mild concerns but they should’ve, also, been concerned when I was parking two blocks away from work every morning and walking by myself in the dark. That was scarier but nobody batted an eyelash. It’s discouraging to be assumed weak and incompetent but it’s so much worse when the negativity comes from people who should be supporting you: your family, your friends, other women, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy…

Bless the ATC and everything they do but their list of crime prevention tips includes:

Dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention.

While no pronouns are used, I feel safe in assuming this is directed towards women. This makes me sick. I’m pretty good at trying to see things from other people’s perspectives but I’m having a hard time with this one. In a perfect world it wouldn’t matter what a woman is wearing, but it’s not a perfect world, and they’re just trying to be realistic. I’ll give them that. Okay, fine, BUT, if you’re going to address women in this sexist blame-the-victim manner, then you should also immediately address the people responsible for these crimes. “Dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention” should IMMEDIATELY be followed by:

Do NOT give unwanted attention.

But you won’t find it there.

Because the reality of our society is thinking we’re great for teaching our daughters to defend themselves, while ignoring our failure to teach our sons not to be misogynistic little dicks in the first place.

Update 03/03/15: After exchanging emails with an ATC staff member, that sentence has been removed and there are plans to replace it with something more constructive. *selfhighfive* To read about it and to find out some interesting statistics on the diversity of 2,000-milers on the A.T. click here

Anyway, these are the things I think about when I’m trapped under cats on Friday nights. How many of my observations are just coincidences? How much does gender, race, economic status, and access to trails actually play a role in who stands with me in my future Katahdin sign photo? Turns out I’m not the only one to wonder about these things. Thank you, Google Scholar! Here are just a few of the PDFs I found interesting, if you’re feeling nerdy today. :)

National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008–2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors by Taylor, Patricia A., Burke D. Grandjean, and James H. Gramann (2011)

An Investigation of Hiker Diversity and Inclusivity on the Appalachian Trail by Williams, Greg (2014)

Outdoor Recreation Constraints: An Examination of Race, Gender, and Rural Dwelling by the Southern Rural Sociological Assocation (2001)

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3 thoughts on “Cats and the Sociology of Outdoor Recreation

  1. Pingback: One Small Step For Cats (Hiker Diversity Update!) | cats.don't.camp

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