Growing up in Baltimore, Justin Tucker’s indoctrination into outdoor recreation amounted to playing in a travel baseball league and skiing in the Poconos one weekend every other year. Not exactly the foundations to become the next John Muir, but in hindsight he knows that he was more fortunate than many in his hometown.
“I don’t recall things like ice skating rinks, climbing gyms or specialized gear suppliers being offered to my community,” Justin told me. “If you wanted to ice skate, you’d have to make your way down to the inner harbor, or as I like to call it, Baltimore’s main tourist attraction, during the winter season. I’m sure other sports complexes existed elsewhere in the greater Baltimore region, but there was little to no information being circulated about where to find this stuff.”
Justin added that centuries of history has taught Black families not to stray too far from their own communities, out of fears they might not return. He recalled his mother’s concerns about him traveling hours from home to play ball—often in predominantly white communities. “She simply did not want me to be in unfamiliar areas after dark and would grow increasingly anxious toward the end of every game. I didn’t understand her concerns at the time, but I get it now. She was taught to have that fear while she was growing up and she was unknowingly passing it along to me.”
It wasn’t until Justin moved to the New York City area that he strapped on a backpack and committed himself to hiking. Reaction from his friends and family was supportive, although there were some who felt he was unprepared and had no business “playing in the woods.” “Having those encounters is a little disappointing at times,” said Justin. “I’m not one to limit myself, so when others try to do that, it rubs me the wrong way. I also hate having to explain why I’ve fallen in love with something to people who have already made up their minds that they aren’t going to try to understand it.”
Justin admits that, as a Black person, his guard is always up when it comes to traveling to new places, as he never truly knows how he’ll be received. He has experienced that apprehension when visiting other countries like Iceland and France or researching destinations he wants to explore in certain regions of the United States, such as the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama. Thankfully, his actual experiences on the trail have been positive. In fact, some fellow hikers have gone out of their way to express how happy they were to see the diversity he brings to the outdoors. Yes, he may have occasional feelings of uneasiness while on a new trail, but Justin gets back from the hiking community what he gives to it.
“I respect not only the trail, but also the people around me, and I think that goes a long way,” Justin explained. “I make every effort to smile and speak when I come across other people, and I’m not opposed to making conversation. Of course, I recognize the likelihood of certain individuals not being exactly thrilled to run into someone like me, but I’d like to think that they are the minority as far as the outdoor community is concerned. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s been my experience.”
Recent national upheaval following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others initially left Justin feeling angry and exhausted, but the events have only emboldened his optimism. “Something about this latest movement gives me hope,” Justin revealed. “Black people aren’t the only ones who are tired anymore. The entire world recognizes that what we’ve been doing just isn’t working. Changes are coming.”
Justin hopes those changes include more people of color feeling at home in the great outdoors. But first, he believes that we need to better promote those opportunities, provide outdoor and environmental education, make gear more accessible and affordable, and find ways for people without transportation to get to the trail. As a gay man, Justin also encourages embracing all communities on the trail, and asks that non-hikers of color support anyone who takes an interest in the outdoors—an environment that allows us to see one another for who we are, without the external indicators that typically create false assumptions. And for Black men living with trauma or mental health challenges, the solace of hiking can bring peace of mind.
“Being out on the trail has taught me the art of stillness—as demonstrated by the trees—which enables me to appropriately feel and process my emotions,” said Justin, who aspires to hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails in the coming years. “It’s taught me the power of thought, and how what I think on a consistent basis can either hold me back or propel me forward. And it’s taught me that everything I need to experience—joy, success and peace in life—already exists within me. My goal going forward is to take the lessons I learn through hiking and pass them onto others. I want to see more Black and Brown individuals tap into the true source of their power, which, whether they are aware of it or not, they already possess.”
Read Justin Tucker’s blog at www.signedjustin.com and follow him on Instagram (@signedjustin) and Facebook (@signedjustin and @signedjustinblog).
Photos: Carey Wagner