Los Angeles, California
Trail name: Mountain Mic
Founder of TrapHike, DestinationHL and Occupy: Hike
The first time that Chris Grays hit the trail to begin shedding the 60 pounds he had packed on while at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he brought a lifetime of loss and trauma along for the hike. Chris was only two years old when his father was murdered, and as a teenager—while navigating a growing attraction to both boys and girls—he was repeatedly sexually abused by a trusted church choir director. Believing that his emotional maturity and early physical development during puberty were responsible for the abuse, Chris turned to overeating at UCLA as a way to make himself as unattractive and undesirable as possible. Now he was on a mission to not only get fit and get back at those who bullied him about his weight, but to create a new life in the outdoors that would awaken what he called his “new superpower”—the power of vulnerability.
The great outdoors was not part of Chris’ upbringing in Sacramento, California, even though the city was surrounded by some of the most iconic destinations in the world, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park to Lake Tahoe and Muir Woods. Yosemite’s legendary Black park ranger Shelton Johnson continues to promote trail diversity and the story of segregated Army regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled and protected the park at the turn of the 20th century, even as Jim Crow laws confined many Black Americans to segregated facilities on public lands or kept them out altogether. “National parks were created for white people to be able to escape the city and enjoy nature,” Chris explained to me. “That same opportunity was not afforded to my ancestors, as many parks were either segregated or you didn’t go out for fear of racial violence. Most BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) live in major metropolitan areas where access to nature isn’t easily accessible. You can’t take the subway to a national park.”
After heading off to college and eventually relocating to Los Angeles, Chris discovered both the physical and mental benefits of getting out into nature. It was a necessary tonic considering he was about to take on one of the biggest challenges of his life: helping to prosecute the man who molested him a decade earlier. “Around the time of the criminal trial in 2015 was when I started leveraging my hiking for my mental health,” Chris recalled. “First, hiking served as an instant getaway from the city and my troubles. You have no idea the amount of stress that is involved with taking on a predator and the institution that protected this predator for decades. Having the ability to drive a half an hour from LA to get to the wilderness was a luxury I didn’t even realize at the time.” Chris also sought professional help that year; being able to take his conversations from therapy to the hiking trail was a “game changer.”
Despite legal advice that he erase his social media presence during the court proceedings, Chris instead leaned into the sizable online following he had amassed as “that hiker guy” and created his alter ego, Mountain Mic, inspired by the Mountain Mike’s pizza chain but changed to “Mic” (short for “microphone”) as a way of celebrating the finding of his voice and overcoming insurmountable odds. Several years later he would take two leaves of absence from work—one to be in court for a civil lawsuit connected to the abuse he endured and another to check himself into an intensive outpatient mental health program to address his past and present trauma. Chris put his struggles and triumphs out there for all to see. “I was inspired to tell my story,” he said. “By me being open and honest about my experiences, it then empowered the listener to start disclosing their own traumas which I would have never expected. In retrospect it all makes sense, but back then it used to trip me out.”
Not lost on Chris is the reality that being a Black, queer man on the trails still invites microagressions that, while not inherently ill-intentioned, can be frustrating. “If I’m on a hiking trail and I make eye contact with fellow hikers, I will usually greet them with a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning,’ stated Chris. “Usually in return, I get greeted with some variation of ‘what’s up, bro?’ which is irritating because a simple ‘hello’ back would have sufficed.” And then there is the “what brings you out here?” question, which Chris revealed can often feel like an insulting way of implying he is lost, unprepared or not in his element, especially since “in most cases, I’m usually the more experienced hiker.” Chris admits that he has become more cognizant of his wardrobe in relationship to the diverse communities he meets on the trail. He describes his aesthetic as “street spiritual wear,” which usually features a lot of color and non-traditional hiking attire.
The work Chris has been doing around the outdoors for the last decade has taken on new meaning with the focus on systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. “It’s been an interesting and pivotal time for me. Because I live in downtown Los Angeles, I was right in the heart of all of the protests and social unrest,” said Chris. “Unfortunately, my body reacted negatively to all of the demonstrations and I couldn’t stand up straight for a week.” Undaunted, he decided to use his voice on social media and form Occupy: Hike (“filling white spaces with Black faces” and promoting the healing powers of nature). He has been lifted by his followers’ vocal support of the Black Lives Matter movement and inspired by new connections to the greater hiking community.
Moving forward, Chris hopes that efforts to address these issues and diversify the outdoors don’t become a passing fad. “I think it always goes back to representation,” he stated. “If you don’t see yourself or someone that looks like you in a space, what motivates you to try it? I think more outdoor brands and companies need to do a better job with representation. Put us on your traveling shows, feature us in your marketing campaigns. Hell, create nonprofits to bring more BIPOC youth into the space. It’s as simple as that!” Chris has contributed to the movement by creating Occupy: Hike and two other brands: TrapHike (“the most lit group hike ever”) and DestinationHL (“the ultimate luxury hiking travel experience” centered around self-realization). Through his ventures, Chris continues to model the positive attributes that transformed a life of trauma into one of endless possibilities.
“I think there’s something powerful about a Black man being vulnerable that just inspires the vulnerability of others.”
Follow the adventures of Mountain Mic on Instagram (@mountain_mic), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and his website.