If “they” can do it, I can do it.
That was the sentiment Bianca Gomez and Jessica Williams took with them on their first backpacking trip into the Appalachian Mountains.
“They” are their black ancestors who fled into the mountains to escape slavery and who survived on so little.
Williams and Gomez hiked a rugged 10.6-mile section of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia on May 26-28. Williams is a gender justice advocate and Gomez is a gender justice coordinator for Freedom Inc. M. Adams, the co-executive director of Freedom Inc., spearheaded the trip, but was unable to hike.
The trip, called “Following the Drinking Gourd: Blacksploration of the Appalachian Trail,” was coordinated by Black Freedom Outfitters and was designed to reconnect participants to their black outdoor roots. By hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail, hikers were walking in the footsteps of runaway slaves.
All the hikers — four women and two leaders — were very in touch with this, Williams explained. “We talked about how we were here enjoying ourselves but that our ancestors were here with nothing,” said Williams. “Just being in Georgia, like deep slave country, I just wondered about people who were here enslaved.”
Prior to the trip, Gomez had never camped, while Williams had trekked across Southeast Asia and grew up camping in Arizona.
Gomez learned that she’s more capable than she thought.
“I really like the outdoors. There’s definitely a peaceful element and I felt really in touch with the outdoors in general. For me the most important thing is that our ancestors had to do this and they literally had no resources — and they were running — and I have everything I need to survive so I can do it,” said Gomez.
The hikers covered 10.6 miles over 3 days and two nights — originally 4 days and 3 nights but the trip was cut short due to weather. They carried packs weighing 20-30 pounds that included a tent, food, clothes, cooking gear and stove. With their own money and donations they received, they were able to purchase, borrow or rent everything they needed. BFO provided all of the food and training.
They spent the first day getting ready at the black-owned Urban Conservation Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, about 2 hours from the trail head.
Gomez explained, “We did a gear shuffle, where we set out all of our gear and got rid of stuff to lighten our load. Then we practiced packing our bag, tested our stoves and learned about bear bags and safety. Mainly we got rid of clothes that we didn’t need. I brought way too many clothes. We also did an icebreaker to get to know others in the group.”
The second day the group drove to the trail head at Woody Gap in the Chattahoochee National Forest. They hiked in 3 miles to their first campsite at Miller Gap.
“It was pretty easy so I’m like, I can do this,” Williams said. “We camped in a clearing by a stream and we saw lots of stars that night. We had a fire. It was really wet, so it took a while to get the fire going.”
“The food was excellent. I think because this was so new to people, they brought us really good food,” she added. “We had avocado and kale salad and lemons with salmon and Zatarain’s rice. They kept saying, ‘y’all this is like gourmet camping. This is not what people are usually eating … most people are eating saltine crackers to get through.”
“Our first night was the romanticized version of camping like you see on TV,” Gomez chimed in.
Unfortunately, that weather wouldn’t last.
The next day they got up, had breakfast and headed out toward Slaughter Creek campsite some 4 miles away. They were thrilled to see other black and brown hikers on the trail, including a couple of people from India.
“Georgia has a denser population of black people so you do see more black people,” said Williams.
“Everybody overall was really friendly,” said Gomez.
This surprised her. We didn’t run into one person that was like, “Er, move out of my way.’ I’m like, ‘ooh, I’m gonna have to keep my pocket knife on me.’ But I didn’t. I had questions about entitlement. Would people think we didn’t belong? That wasn’t true. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming. That doesn’t change my views on America, it was just nice to be in that environment for once,” Gomez added.
The second day was tougher because the trail started to go up in elevation. Gomez felt tired and lightheaded the entire time. It was hard work, plus they had to keep stopping and evaluating because of a looming thunderstorm.
“We knew it was going to storm, but we didn’t know when or what the situation would be like,” said Gomez.
“That night, there was so much rain, so much thunder, so much lightening,” said Williams.
“Rain got in the tent,” said Gomez. “I slept wet. It was very uncomfortable. Even though I was sharing a tent with Jessica, I was the only one that got wet. Clothes, sleeping bag, everything was wet.
“Of course, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, I’m just saying,” she added with a smile.
The next day was scheduled to be a rest day, but that changed because of the weather. Instead, Williams and Gomez hunkered down in their tent all morning waiting for the rain to stop. They cooked oatmeal just outside their tent door on backpacking stoves and ate inside. When the rain stopped, the group decided to finish the trip by hiking the last 3.7 miles up Blood Mountain, the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Topping out at 4,549 feet, it was a big accomplishment to reach the top.
“It was so nice,” said Williams. “Reaching the top of Blood Mountain was exhilarating. It was the apex of our hike. It was also the place where our support personnel was able to join us again. It was great to have the whole group together. Our energies were running high; it was a special experience.”
In retrospect, Gomez is glad that she didn’t know the elevation or about the threat and severity of the storms. She audibly gasped when she learned the height of the mountain they climbed. And, it turns out, the storms were really bad and the trip leader was getting worried texts from her family members.
“I’m glad that I just signed up. Normally, I’m a timid person and I don’t do a lot of adventurous things. The fact that I just signed up, speaks to the trust that I have of black women,” she said.
After all that, would they do it again?
“Absolutely, even though I got soaked,” Gomez said. “I’ll sign up next year if everything works out. And I’m supposed to go camping at Devil’s Lake State Park in a few weeks. I should probably just practice more before the next trip to Georgia.”
Williams is planning a solo camping trip this year. I’ve been trying to reserve a campsite, but it was like $60 just to reserve a site. Why can’t I just go get a spot? I was wanting to book a few times. It gets pricey. I’d still like to go,” she said.
They also want to encourage others at Freedom Inc. to engage in the outdoors and acknowledged the need to find outdoor spaces and opportunities. Outdoor adventures are not cheap, but they were able to raise funds to make it possible.
“We had to look for opportunities. That’s why BTO was so great. They provide the training and helped us,” said Gomez. “I felt supported the entire time. Like I didn’t have to worry if I was slowing the group down. Like everyone was moving really fast and I’m going really slow.
“Jessica carried so much of my pack when I couldn’t. So there was a lot of support. I would encourage people to go on a trip with them. They are very knowledgeable and very supportive,” she added.
“I remember on that last day — going up Blood Mountain — when we were praying and calling on our ancestors to give us strength and guidance. Our last day was really hard, yet it felt somehow magically manageable,” Gomez continued. “Oh, my gosh, I’m doing this! I don’t have the same stress. I really do think that the ancestors were looking out for us and giving us support. The trip was hard, but I want to tell my children that black people can do anything.”