By Shilletha Curtis
Preparing for the Trail
March 4, 2021
The article below was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of A.T. Journeys magazine. We are broadly sharing this and other select articles from this issue due to their important discussions on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, both in our work and throughout the greater Appalachian Trail community.
While the ATC continues to urge long-distance hikers to cancel or postpone their journeys until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines the COVID-19 pandemic to be “under control,” we felt Shilletha’s story was important to share. Her experience reveals another, centuries-long pandemic faced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), and LGBTQ+ hikers: racism and other forms of hate or discrimination. While some may have seamless journeys to and on the Trail, many hikers continue to feel unwelcome and unsafe. We hope this piece spurs dialogue and, ultimately, compels action to address this.
March 2020 creeped in like a frail fawn and roared out like a boisterous lion. COVID-19 snatched up my job as it did many others and left me tattered and torn. My worth dipped to an all-time low, leaving me with crippling anxiety and living on edge. But then nature called out to me in a calm and welcoming voice and she invited me into her marvelous wonders. Here is where my journey began.
In the silence of the unknown, my memory recalled the time that my girlfriend and I had found a trail alongside the road at Harriman State Park in New York last April. We eagerly jumped out of my old silver Nissan Sentra and headed into the shelter of the trees. As we trekked along, we were approached by an older man who greeted us promptly and proceeded to tell us, “You know right behind me is the Appalachian Trail. It runs all the way from Georgia to Maine and if you continue up the hill you can get to it. Have you ever been out here before?”
“No, we haven’t,” I responded with wide puppy eyes and a giddy smile. “But that’s cool about the Appalachian Trail, I’ll make certain to check it out!” “Well, I hope y’all have a good hike! You two seem like sweet girls and you will both find nice husbands,” he said. Bewildered, we turned to each other and snickered. “Yeah, good husbands — we’re lesbians,” we said to each other. We found it hilarious when men, especially older men, assumed we were straight women. We were far from it, but we never tried to correct them out of concern for our own safety.
A year later, his words about the A.T. rang loud in my ears and I am glad they did. Something hit me like a bolt of lightning from an overcast sky. I had to hike the entire Appalachian Trail; it was that simple. Or was it? Adrenaline and excitement raced from the top of my head down to the soles of my feet and I immediately checked Facebook to see if I could find others embarking on this journey. Indeed I did, and I joined a few of the Appalachian Trail groups that had anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 followers. I welcomed myself and immediately became engaged until I couldn’t anymore. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery — a Black man, was shot while jogging by two racist White men in his south Georgia neighborhood. I felt sick to my stomach and started to wonder about my own safety hiking on the A.T. in the South especially. Frightened, I checked the online Appalachian Trail groups and frantically asked about my safety as a Black woman hiking the A.T. in the South. Almost immediately, I was met with hostility and racism. The comments just would not stop flowing. Comments like: “We don’t see color on the Trail,” “There’s no racism on the A.T.; I haven’t experienced any,” “The root cause of poverty is crime and if you had fathers you wouldn’t be this way, and yeah some cops are bad,” and “You’re not special, you’re not the first Black person to hike the A.T.” And I certainly won’t be the last.
All these comments came from White hikers who denied racism and refused to listen to my concerns. Instead, I was ridiculed, humiliated, and eventually banned for standing up against the admins and moderators in the group. Distraught, I put all my frustration, pain, and sadness into writing a piece titled “Not Just Another Hiker” and I swore on my life that I would send it to the Huffington Post, The New York Times, even Oprah if I had to. But then the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) heard about my struggle before I had contacted them. I sent them the piece and spoke with them about it; and everything in my life changed. My article was published as a blog post by the ATC and by The Trek, and it went viral. Love, support, and blessings started pouring in from around the world and I never saw it coming. As a Black woman, I never thought that my voice would matter. But here I am. As I write this it is November, and I have come a long way from the caterpillar that I was. I have formed a chrysalis and have emerged as a beautiful monarch butterfly — spreading inspiration, love, and truth to all those who will listen.
Looking at this journey is surreal at best and the past few months have been hard to absorb. I am in a state of shock as I continue to acquire my gear, write more articles, and do shakedown hikes. In May, I purchased my first piece of gear, which was my Big Agnes Copper Spur UV UL2 tent and now I have my “big four.” Every piece of gear I receive sends a gentle reminder that I am about to embark on a life-changing journey.
Diving into the hiking world has been a little scary as this is something that is very new to me. I had never known about base weight, base layers, sleeping bags, and tents. With so many brands and companies to choose from, I found myself stuck in a whirlwind of decisions that could very well make or break my hike. Obtaining gear came as both a sticker and mental shock to me. Fortunately, help was on the way. I received a Diversity Grant from Backpacking Light to help out with gear, became a writer for Garage Grown Gear, have obtained a few product donations from small companies, and I have become a brand ambassador for a few smaller companies. My gear journey is an ongoing process as I look to obtain the last few items for my wintry thru-hike. Speaking of a wintry hike, I am going against the status quo and trekking in the heart of winter as I am looking for a less crowded and more solitary hike. Many have tried to convince me otherwise, but I have been getting out and putting my trail-runners to work.
The best way that I prepare for the A.T. is exposure to my fears, challenging myself on versatile and foot-aching terrain, and strengthening my mental health through therapy and meditation.
Learning the ropes is still a constant struggle but I am quickly catching on. Living in New Jersey has given me opportunities to test out all my gear in four seasons and I have been out on the A.T. for section hikes since March. Camping has come with a learning curve but I feel like I am finally getting into a routine at camp, learning to become more independent and to trust my skills. Over the summer, I conquered my fear of bears and now welcome spotting them with an open heart. I have seen my fair share of copperheads and have been at war with black flies and sweltering humidity. The best way that I prepare for the A.T. is exposure to my fears, challenging myself on versatile and foot-aching terrain, and strengthening my mental health through therapy and meditation. Shakedowns are vital to success and most of my shakedowns have happened in the heart of the Catskills, and the A.T. in New York, and New Jersey. And when I am really looking for a mental challenge, I take on the infamous A.T. in Pennsylvania (also known as “Rocksylvania”).
Hiking has opened a door, and being out on the trails three to four times a week has inspired me to tackle the “Triple Crown.” In this pursuit, I will strive to be the second Black woman who obtains the “Triple Crown.” Every day I am getting stronger as I use my blue aluminum trekking poles to traverse the hard soil of the earth, summiting mountains. I have hiked at Arches and Yellowstone national parks, across deserts, balds, rocks, and ridges that would make anyone awestruck. And I know that I am ready.
Nature herself heals and gives me clarity to answers I have spent my life searching for. The Appalachian Trail has a seductive nature and sucks you into its grasp like a black hole. Magic and lessons can happen when you least expect them; and as true as the sky is blue, the Trail always provides. As I prepare to book my plane ticket to Georgia, the words of a friend that I met through the A.T. ring loudly in my ears: “You only have three options: cry, quit, or continue. You will certainly cry; I did, and I am in the military. It’s okay to cry but you have to continue. Quitting is not an option.”
I have never quit any dreams that I set my mind to. I may even sob. I will have days that I want to gather every rock in Pennsylvania and throw it over the cliffs. Blisters, ticks, and exhaustion come what may. But understand this: My name is Shilletha Curtis, my Trail name is “Dragonsky,” and I am stronger than anyone could imagine. I move mountains, they do not move me. Katahdin, I am coming for you.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of Shilletha’s Trail adventure.
Shilletha Curtis was born in Newark, New Jersey and spent much of her time growing up in Morristown and down by the shore. She received her Bachelor’s in Social Work from Rutgers University in 2014. Before that, she spent a summer in China honing her Mandarin skills followed by an internship at an orphanage in Romania. Helping people has always been her passion but she found that she had a profound love for animals and eventually the outdoors. She trained and then worked as a veterinary technician in Austin, Texas and practiced for two years; but she realized that there was more to life than working a nine-to-five when she lost her job due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Shilletha discovered the Trail last year while hiking with her girlfriend and caught the A.T. bug since then. With a new outlook on life, she has been preparing for an A.T. thru-hike. “I want to make the A.T. more accessible to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community and address inequalities and racism within the hiking community,” she says. After the A.T., Shilletha will tackle the second leg of her plan to hike the “Triple Crown” on the Pacific Crest Trail and see where her hiking career takes her.