Asheville, North Carolina
Trail Name: Mr. Fabulous
2012 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker
Derick Lugo was in New Hampshire, only a few hundred miles short of completing his 2012 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), when a hiker he had never met shouted through the downpour of rain, “Are you Mr. Fabulous?” Derick affirmed the trail name bestowed by his fellow hikers and asked curiously, “How did you know?” The man yelled matter-of-factly, “Because you’re the only Black guy on the trail.”
Derick recounted similar interactions in his memoir “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker”—from a veteran backpacker who stated he had seen only six other Black thru-hikers on the AT to a Black woman known on the trail as Steps who was appreciative there was someone else who looked like her on the journey. “I’d thought surely there are other persons of color who have the wild notion of living in the woods for months,” wrote Derick. “Turns out I was wrong.”
Born in Brooklyn, this New Yorker didn’t know a switchback from a trekking pole. Like so many fellow city dwellers—particularly those of color—he was never exposed to the wonders of the great outdoors. “I can’t speak for the entire community,” Derick told me, “but from my experience it comes down to three basic reasons: lack of knowledge and Black outdoor educators; financial limitations and gear not being inherited from father to son or from one family member to another; and lore—the woods is a dangerous place for people of color. Isn’t that where Jason Voorhees [the masked killer in the “Friday the 13th” film series] resides?”
After Derick was introduced to Bill Bryson’s classic novel “A Walk in the Woods,” it inspired him to begin planning his own hike of the AT. Those closest to Derick were incredulous, to say the least. His Hispanic mother yelled at him in Spanish and called him “loco” (“crazy”). A close friend reminded him, “Listen, pretty boy, I know you. You are the most well-groomed, metrosexual Black man in New York City. You, in the woods, without your mirror, your beauty products, or your designer clothes? Please!” Despite the misgivings and never having hiked a day in his life, Derick soon found himself at the beginning of the AT in Georgia with a 42-pound pack strapped to his back. Six months later, he would climb to the top of Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine and the terminus of the AT for northbound hikers.
Within a few months of the release of “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker,” the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many trails, and the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others led to nationwide unrest and a spotlight on the ways racism permeates every facet of our society—even the outdoors. When hiking retailers and publications used social media to show support for protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement, some commenters responded with “all lives matter” and criticized efforts to bring politics to the trail. For Derick, the intersectionality of these issues never goes away.
“It’s been really hard on me,” Derick revealed. “I’m the angriest I have ever been, and I decided that now that I have a platform where many people are listening to my words, I feel a strong need and a responsibility to speak out and try to help bring awareness to the struggles of being Black. I have a friend that didn’t believe racism was still a thing. I wish it was not an issue, but it is, and I want to make that fact clear by sharing that now needs to be the time for change.”
Derick’s message to the hiking community—especially people with a platform who are already sharing about the outdoors—is to interact and communicate with more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) hikers and help put them in front of an audience that is ready to learn about their story. As for his story, Derick feels fortunate that his encounters with hikers have been good-willed curiosity rather than malicious intent. “I am who I am. I try to be as genuine as possible and people seem to respond in a positive manner around me. I dig them, and they dig me.”
He is aware, however, that not every person who hits the trail has that same experience. Until the day comes when all “unlikely” hikers become “likely” hikers, Derick continues to provide the education, expertise, inspiration and mentoring he never had.
“Many readers of ‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker’ have reached out to me and said that they were not sure if they would relate to my story because they are not outdoorsy. But when they were done reading, they were inspired to do a hike or some outdoor activity. I’m grateful that my story has inspired those to consider stepping out of their comfort zone, to do something extraordinary.”
Follow Derick Lugo on Instagram and Facebook (@dericklugo). “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey” is available at dericklugo.com and through online book retailers.