Lake Tahoe, California
Trail Name: Chardonnay
First African American Woman to Complete Hiking’s Triple Crown
Elsye Walker had completed more than two-thirds of the Appalachian Trail when she decided that making it all the way from Georgia to Massachusetts would have to be enough. She wasn’t having fun and lacked the determination that drove her to conquer the even longer Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada a year earlier. Elsye wasn’t the only African American on the AT in 2016. Writer Rahawa Haile finished and became one of the few Black women to cover the entire 2,190 miles. Despite her setback, Elsye’s place in history would not be denied. After hiking the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, she returned to the AT the following year to take on the remaining trek from Massachusetts to Maine. When Elsye, dressed in a pink tutu, reached the Mount Katahdin summit and completed all three major long-distance trails, she became the first African American woman to capture hiking’s Triple Crown.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Elsye was raised being taught that she could do anything she put her mind to. But statistics show that for communities of color, “anything” less frequently includes outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, swimming and ice skating. Other hikers I have interviewed for this series attribute that history to everything from limited or no recreational opportunities to concerns about safety—particularly in regions that are predominately white. Changing those perceptions is part of the process to make outdoor spaces more diverse. “These attitudes, I believe, come from a lack of awareness and knowledge,” Elsye told me. “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Sure, the numbers may be small, but ‘doesn’t do’ suggests we are not capable, which is so not true.”
Elsye began proving just how capable she was in the outdoors when she took up cycling (it was during this time in Iowa that she acquired her nickname of Chardonnay because of her love of wine) and eventually backpacking in her mid-40s. After taking a basic wilderness course, she became hooked on the idea of long-distance hiking even though those closest to her didn’t completely share her enthusiasm. “My family was supportive but also had concerns for my safety,” Elsye revealed. “That being said, they are used to me doing things that they don’t quite understand, so it was not a surprise. I consider myself very lucky to have friends and family that were extremely supportive. Although I was a solo hiker I never walked alone. They were all there for me financially and emotionally every step of the way encouraging me. Without them it would not have been possible.”
During her Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2015, Elsye sprained an ankle but otherwise found the journey through California, Oregon and Washington a positive and life-changing experience. It also disproved many of the notions about how the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community is received on the trail. “When I was hiking the PCT, I had stopped at a store in a small town for supplies,” Elsye recalled. “As I packed up, a white lady in a van rolled into the space next to me. She invited me to hop in. She took me to her house and let me shower. Then when her husband and daughter got home, she had me join them for lunch before taking me all the way back to the trail. Even in places where I was told to watch my back, I experienced kindness and I hope that others that get into hiking go with an open mind.”
Since American Long Distance Hiking Association-West began awarding the Triple Crown in 1994, nearly 450 hikers have completed the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Because the organization relies on the honor system in accepting whether a hiker actually covers each trail end to end, and doesn’t break down honorees by age, race, gender or other identities, you will often see qualifying phrases such as “first recorded” or “believed to be” when describing the accomplishments of the Triple Crown’s “firsts.” This is especially relevant to BIPOC hikers like Elsye and Will “Akuna” Robinson, who became the first Black man to achieve the Triple Crown in 2019. “As the first African American woman to complete the Triple Crown, many people have chosen to attach ‘possibly’ to that title,” Elsye stated. “Even with the perception that there are not many, they want to imply that there are ‘possibly’ others that have accomplished this and just not said a word.”
Semantics aside, there is no argument that Elsye’s history-making treks have promoted open spaces to a wider audience and opened the door for future generations of adventurers. She believes it’s all about awareness and looking outside the box for non-traditional experiences and opportunities. In an April 2016 blog entry prior to tackling the AT, Elsye reminded herself of the reasons she hikes: to inspire others; to gain courage, perseverance and sweet hiker legs; to learn to be patient, flexible and less afraid of new things; and growing as a hiker but also as a person. On a larger scale, she believes time in the outdoors can change the world.
“Empathy and kindness are powerful tools that can help us bridge the divides in our country. We must recognize that we are all on the same trail in life, but our journeys will differ. As the saying goes, the trail unites us—it breaks us down to our most basic selves. Accepting each other for who we are and helping each other no matter our differences will go a long way to us moving forward together.”
Learn more about Elsye Walker at wanderingchardonnay.com and follow her on Instagram (@elsyew).