Portia Prescott and Jessica Newton were surrounded by breathtaking sights whenever they hiked Colorado’s picturesque trails, canyons and open spaces. What they rarely saw, though, was hikers who looked like them.
Certainly, they could have shrugged their shoulders and said, “Gosh, that’s really a shame.” Instead, they took action. They formed Black Girls Hike (Colorado).
The organization had its start in 2017 when Prescott and Newton, who’d become acquainted through membership in Colorado Black Women for Political Action, built a deeper friendship based on a mutual love of hiking.
“I kept seeing pictures that Jessica posted (on social media) from hikes she had taken,” Prescott recalls, “and since I was primarily hiking alone, the next time I saw her I said ‘Hey, maybe one day we can hike together.’ ”
Their conversations on and off the trail always seemed to come back to the same point: that not only was it a pity that more African-Americans, especially African-American women, weren’t enjoying the great outdoors, it was equally sad that they weren’t using hiking as a fun, inexpensive and easy way to exercise.
And then the proverbial light flashed.
Why don’t we, they mused, put a message out on social media that says anyone who’d like to come hike with us on such-and-such a date ....
As an actress, model, business owner and community activist, Prescott is well-versed on the power of social media. “It’s insane,” she says. Still, even she was surprised by the response generated by that initial query on a meetup.com site.
“We figured that maybe five or 10 (African-American) women would respond,” Prescott recalls. “We were totally caught off guard when 30 said they’d join us.”
And from there it snowballed.
“We went from 30 to 80 to over 1,000 participants in one year,” Prescott says. Black Girls Hike (Colorado) caught the attention of producers at the “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt. After a segment filmed during a hike in Conifer aired on Jan. 27, “Calls starting coming in from L.A., Buffalo and Atlanta—all over the U.S.—asking if we had a chapter in their city.”
In response to the growing interest, Newton and fellow hiker Tinelle Louis created Black Girls Hike Global, an umbrella organization whose 2,000 members belong to 16 chapters in 14 states. Black Girls Hike (Colorado) is one of the 16; a second Colorado chapter is being formed in Colorado Springs. “Destination hikes” to foreign countries are being planned.
Initially, Prescott says, “We were shocked at the number who had never hiked before, and who admitted they weren’t sure if it was the thing for them. But we made it clear that we welcomed all ages, shapes, genders, and fitness levels—and that hiking as a group would alleviate any fears associated with being in the outdoors.”
Weight is a touchy subject, she adds, “So we don’t promote hiking as a weight-loss tool; instead, we remind them that African-American women have the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and that hiking is one way to combat it.”
The social and spiritual aspects are also emphasized. Hiking, Prescott and Newton say, is “Good for the soul as it connects you to nature and that helps relieve stress.” They encourage hikers to keep a journal or blog about their outdoor adventures, to pause and absorb the beauty around them and to take plenty of pictures to share with family and friends.
Hikers range in age from 18 to the mid-70s and include doctors, engineers, students, housewives and college students who believe that “If you can walk you can hike.”
In the beginning, Prescott and Newton led Black Girls Hike (Colorado) participants to some of their favorite trails around St. Mary’s Glacier, Breckenridge and Eldorado Springs. Later, Winston Walker, who Prescott describes as “the Zen master of hiking who knows every trail in Colorado,” came aboard to share his extensive knowledge of the intricacies of high-altitude hikes and the history and other highlights of the trails they could visit. Walker now heads the Denver chapter, where recent outings have included snowshoeing at Brainard Lake and hiking at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, a 750-acre open space in El Paso County that contains stunning geological formations and evidence of human life dating back 9,000 years.
The Black Girls Hike Global website carries news of upcoming hikes; it also contains a hiking guide for beginners, answers to frequently asked questions, a pre-hike checklist (water, compass, sunscreen, attire, etc.), instructions on trail etiquette, pictures from previous hikes and a blog.
Newton scouts each trail before putting the word out for sign-ups so that participants will know the level of difficulty, the gradient of the hill and the type of terrain. Hikers are free to proceed at their own pace, hiking as far as they can, or care to. Some pause to write in their journals or absorb the beauty that surrounds them. Others walk briskly, using trekking poles to stabilize their balance and relieve stress on the knees and back.
“We’ve created a movement,” Prescott concludes. “A wonderful, positive and supportive community.”
Hikes are held on the first Saturday and third Sunday of each month, until it snows.
Participants must be at least 18 years old and sign a waiver relating to risk, fitness and personal liability. In addition, participants are encouraged to go on one or two hikes prior to committing to a full season’s membership.
Joanne Davidson isn’t insulted whenever anyone tells her to go take a hike. Instead, she laces up her faithful New Balance shoes and replies, “Sure! Where?” While she’s not about to set out on the grueling Colorado Trail, she does look forward to the summer months and enjoying both the beauty and solitude that can be found on any number of mountain trails.
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