New York City
Trail Name: School
Elected to the Explorers Club in 1993
The day after graduating from college in 1966, James Robert “J.R.” Harris loaded up his secondhand VW Beetle and headed 4,400 miles toward Circle, Alaska, at the time the northernmost point to which you could drive in the Western Hemisphere. The 22-year-old had roughly $150 he had saved, a “care package” prepared by his mother and what he recalled as a “sudden, urgent need to get away for a while, to do something different, something adventurous.” It was the beginning of more than a half-century of expeditions to the farthest reaches of the planet that have earned him admiration as one of the planet’s foremost African American explorers.
This lifelong New Yorker’s indoctrination into the world of the great outdoors began a decade earlier when he reluctantly became a scout. “When I was growing up, kids my age played urban sports like basketball and stickball and that was fine with us,” J.R. told me. “Even when my parents enrolled me in the Boy Scouts and sent me to camp in the mountains, it wasn’t specifically to learn hiking or camping—they simply wanted to get me off the streets during the summer. Fortunately for me, I embraced the outdoors lifestyle but in reality, it happened just by chance.” When J.R. was elected into the Boy Scouts’ prestigious Order of the Arrow, he had to spend an isolated night with no shelter, scant food and a vow of silence. Spending time in the wilderness alone is something he would embrace and prefers to this day.
After returning home from his Alaskan expedition with just a quarter and a dime left in his pocket, J.R. was eager to do more. Since then, he has set foot on every continent except Antarctica with destinations that have included Peru, Greenland, the Amazon, Patagonia, Baffin Island, Tasmania, the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, the Haute Route between France and Switzerland, the Australian Outback and the Northwest Territories of Canada. It was there in 1997 that J.R. trekked alone through the remote wilderness, following the route of an abandoned oil pipeline that had been constructed across the Mackenzie Mountains during World War II. Much of the labor was performed in the harshest of conditions by the 388th Engineer Battalion and its more than 1,200 enlisted Black men, and J.R. wanted to bring awareness to their efforts. In his travelogue “Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker,” he wrote, “And what about the African American soldiers? They served a country that did not care about them, and their efforts were almost totally ignored.”
As for his own experiences, J.R.’s book lightheartedly recalled an Inuit (Eskimo) boy who assumed he personally knew Black basketball legend Magic Johnson, and a Montana bartender who had never met a Black “Deadhead” (J.R. is an unabashed fan of the band Grateful Dead). “I’ve been kicking trail dirt for well over half a century and in all that time I have never had a negative incident involving race. In fact, people I’ve met on the trail have consistently been kind and friendly toward me. I know there are others who have not been so fortunate, and that is something that has to be dealt with.” J.R. added that he has made lasting friendships with many of the races and cultures he encountered, including people who were Inuit, Native American, Inca descendants, Aboriginal, and native to Greenland, Lapland, New Zealand, rainforests and deserts.
J.R. has seen his fair share of changes since his days with Boy Scout Troop 318, particularly advancements in GPS technology, digital cameras, the ultralight movement and Leave No Trace. Attitudes toward race have similarly come a long way, although recent unrest following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor reminded all of us that the more things change the more they stay the same. “This is a very emotional time. Like so many people around the world, I’m feeling sadness, anger, grief, frustration, uncertainty, anguish and even a dose of fear,” J.R. said. “At the same time, I’m optimistic that lessons will be learned, changes will be made, and that those who were victims will not have died in vain. It may not happen tomorrow, but I believe it will happen.”
Making the outdoors more diverse, J.R. contends, is part of that process. He points out that social media has made people more aware of the benefits of recreation, and praises organizations with a focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) that are actively teaching people how to do it safely, ethically and enjoyably. That means recognizing the fragility of our environment and the need for good stewardship. J.R. also believes that young people are the key to our future, and hopes we make the investments that will allow more youth, regardless of race or background, to experience nature and find out what they like—before they are taught how to hate.
“Mother Nature doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, Black or white, young or old, gay or straight, male or female, liberal or conservative. When you spend time in nature you begin to realize how insignificant you are. Being out there can teach you humility, and with humility comes mutual respect and tolerance. You become less self-absorbed, less confrontational, and this in turn makes it easier to respect others and to work together for a common good.”
Follow J.R. Harris at www.jrinthewilderness.com or on Facebook and Instagram (@jrinthewilderness). His book, “Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker,” is published by Mountaineers Books and is available from Amazon and all major booksellers.