By Audrey Peterman

Naturally Inspired: The Great Outdoors Experience is for Everyone

February 10, 2023

What inspired human rights and environmental justice advocate Audri Scott-Williams to walk across every continent except Antarctica to promote peace?

The Appalachian Trail.

What excited health, wellness, and aging coach Carolyn Hartfield so much that after her first-ever hike at fifty-six years old, she formed a hiking group and has led thousands of people on hikes across the U.S. and multiple other countries?

The Appalachian Trail.

What empowered long-distance hiker and outdoor diversity champion Daniel “the Blackalachian” White to decide to live off the grid and devote his life to educating the public about how to live more sustainably?

The Appalachian Trail.

What made local, state, and national park advocates/supporters Tanya and Larry Pender decide to form “Pathways to Parks” and attract Black and Brown Americans to the A.T. and other trails?

The Appalachian Trail. This was also because they were inspired by the vision and mission my husband, Frank and I shared at a 2018 Earth Day event at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, co-sponsored by Everybody’s Environment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. That mission: to demystify the environmental sector through sharing our life experience, and inspiring others to live joyfully while making a positive difference in our world.

As I’m deeply involved in the movement to engage more Americans of color with the enjoyment and protection of the great outdoors, it was natural for me to be connected with these varied adventures. I’ve written before about the wondrous experience of setting foot on the A.T. for the first time outside Atlanta, as part of the group Keeping It Wild (KIW). As southeastern regional director of the Wilderness Society (of which forester Benton MacKaye was a founding member), my husband Frank had helped initiate KIW, reasoning that connecting urban-based people to the beauty of the forests and the source of their water supply would be a sure way to inspire them to care.

Audrey Peterman near the A.T. at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Audrey Peterman near the A.T. at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina.

When Audri Scott-Williams shared her A.T. experience with me and Frank to publish in our environmental/travel newsletter Pickup & GO!, it was already six years since she and the Trail of Dreams Team had hiked the Trail. Leaving from Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, the party of six — including one wheelchair bound person — walked for sixty-four days to Dillard, Georgia. They conceptualized the hike as a pilgrimage in honor of enslaved forbearers who pursued freedom via the Underground Railroad.

They reasoned that they had little to fear, and when the going got tough, they would stay motivated by contemplating the trials the ancestors had met and overcome. So it was a deep shock, when Audri found herself handcuffed and detained in the dark of night by a local police officer who had entered their camp earlier shining bright lights and inquiring what they were doing on the Trail. Yet, that experience was countered by the “Trail angels” they met soon after, who convinced them that the ancestors were looking out for them. It strengthened their resolve and led them to undertake a “Walk for Peace” that took them across six continents.

On her birthday this September, my friend Carolyn Hartfield in Atlanta reminded me that it was exactly eighteen years ago, at the age of fifty-six that she decided to join a hike on the A.T. It was part of her plan to celebrate every birthday with a new experience. The hike ended up being the single most transformative thing she had ever done — hiking the Blood Mountain Trail made her want to be out in nature forever. Today, she wants to share that experience with other people from urban areas who, like her, may have never set foot on a trail before. Since then, Hartfield’s Hikers has led thousands of people on hikes, with a monthly hike every first Saturday rain or shine.Similarly, the experiences that Daniel White, Trail name “the Blackalachian,” had thru-hiking the A.T. led a young man who had never previously thought about hiking until then, to become an international backpacker. He completed the Scottish Outdoors Challenge, hiking coast to coast across Scotland. He then hiked the Camino del Norte Trail in Spain, completing the route trod by pilgrims since the Ninth Century. Today the Blackalachian is contentedly homesteading in Maine, in a house and amenities he built with his own hands, while sustaining himself with food he grows in his own backyard.

When the group Everybody’s Environment, along with the ATC, invited me and Frank to speak at an Earth Day event in 2018, I could see the excitement shining in Tanya Marie’s face as she listened carefully to what we had to say. A few months later, she and her fiancé (now husband) Larry Pender formed “Pathways to Parks,” providing opportunities for ethnically diverse Americans to explore where they had never gone before: to resource-rich wonderlands including the A.T. Today, Tanya serves on the boards of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation; Conserving Carolina and Mountain True, while Larry serves on the board of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

Audrey basks in the atmosphere at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Audrey basks in the atmosphere at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.


A Source of Healing

When author Cindy Ross sent me a draft of her 2021 book Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails, I learned the stories of wounded warriors who hiked the A.T. and found their lives transformed. The book is a poignant example of the nurturing capabilities of the A.T. The experiences that the former servicemen and women shared are a testament to the healing power of nature. Oh, if only Benton MacKaye, who conceptualized the A.T. in 1921 and helped create it as “a moral equivalent to war,” could know what he has wrought.

Audrey with her husband, Frank, at Rocky Mountain National Park in Aspen, Colorado

Audrey with her husband, Frank, at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

These transformative experiences on the A.T. reinforce my belief in the metaphysical teachings that we are “spirit having a human experience” with the goal of feeling like one with spirit. The A.T. facilitates that transcendent feeling of “oneness” with all creation. I know this because I’ve felt it myself many times.

My greatest chagrin comes from knowing that there are millions of people, particularly Americans of color, who know nothing of these opportunities or may fear that they would not be welcome. I’m grateful that even today there are people striving, much like Benton MacKaye did, to blaze new trails and protect new acreage for posterity. And I’m grateful for organizations like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that are working to conserve and expand the benefits of our great outdoors to everyone.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of A.T. Journeys magazine. Become a member today to help fund great storytelling about the Appalachian Trail and the community of doers and dreamers that ensure the Trail is protected forever, for all.