On Nov. 2, Daniel White posted a selfie on Instagram. The scene behind him — a gray sky, a parking garage, and a flagpole — was dismal and mundane. But at the bottom of the frame, White’s triumphant smile flashed his shiny gold teeth. His neon green bike helmet crooked over the dreadlocks that frame his face, his eyes looked tired and hopeful.
The post was a highly anticipated dispatch for his thousands of followers who watched his 2,000-mile, 49-day bike trek from Mobile, Alabama to Ontario, Canada along the Underground Railroad Trail, a network of paths traversed by African Americans fleeing slavery in the South before and during the Civil War. A 33-year old black man and native of North Carolina, White saw journey as an opportunity to retrace the ghosts of his past.
In Alabama, he pulled off a country road to look out over a sea of cotton. “Think how much blood cotton has on it,” he said. “It’s overwhelming to think about.” When he leaned over the Ohio River in Kentucky and saw how rough the water was, he said he imagined former slaves swimming across it, in hopes they could find freedom.
The main reason White took on the ride, which he documented on social media, was to reflect on the nation’s racial history and shed light on a glaring problem: the lack of people of color represented in the country’s outdoor scene — from the National Park Service, to’ summer camps in North Carolina, to recreational cycling and hiking — and the importance of making the country’s public lands, monuments and natural wonders more accessible and comfortable for them.
The bike journey wasn’t his first attempt to highlight the issue. White first attracted a following in 2017, when he hiked the Appalachian Trail carrying little more than a fishing pole and a frying pan. He documented that journey on YouTube and chose the trail name “The Blackalachian.” During his 190-day hike on the trail, he said he was often shoved into the awkward role of “spokesperson for black people.” Sometimes passers-by flashed looks of apprehension, which he said made him feel obligated to respond with a disarming smile and warm greeting.
He only passed one other black hiker on the 2,200 mile journey from Georgia to Maine. “I felt I had to explain my presence to the other hikers and explain why I was the only black guy out there,” White said. When he finished the trek, he knew he wanted to help change that.
White spent most of his childhood and early adult life in Asheville, North Carolina, where contours of the Blue Ridge Mountains lace the city’s skyline. His mother, Jocelyn Muckelvene, said he always had a love for nature. She used to take him fishing for bass and bream in surrounding mountain towns, like Black Mountain and Swannanoa, and taught her kids how to cook their catch — always dredged in cornmeal, fried in hot oil, and often served up with grits.
As he reached his teenage years, White stopped spending so much time outdoors. Muckelvene said it would have been “instrumental” if there were a hiking or camping program offered to him. But before his acclaim as “The Blackalachian,” he had never set foot on a hiking trail.
“He grew up [in Asheville] but had never been camping. No one had reached out to him,” said Angela Shepherd, a spokesperson for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, who White now works with to educate youth about the outdoors. “It made me stop and think, ‘are there others who feel these aren’t their public lands?’”
The conservancy is one of about 20 regional and national environmental organizations taking a hard look at the nature scene’s diversity problem, an effort that launched in 2014 after a national survey showed minorities are vastly underrepresented on staffs and boards among the nation’s environmental non-profits and government agencies. Despite a growing minority population nationwide, the number of people of color in these jobs has stagnated anywhere from 12 to 16 percent.
“It was a catalyst,” Shepherd said.“It made us look at ourselves and say ‘okay, we really have a problem.’”
About 83 percent of National Park Service employees are white. In 2017, only 6 percent of Park Service employees were African American and 5 percent were Hispanic, even though census data shows these groups represent 13 and 18 percent of the U.S. population, respectively. The Park Service said it doesn’t track park visitor demographics, but a decade-old study showed low numbers as well. Minorities made up only about 20 percent of visitors to national parks and historic sites. Park Service spokesperson Stephanie Loeb said the agency is working on an updated survey “that may be used to effectively reach populations in new ways.”
To improve these numbers, the National Park Service has developed a few outreach programs and designated more monuments related to African American and Hispanic history in recent years. Grassroot efforts have also cropped up. Groups like Outdoor Afro, Brown Girls Climb, LatinXhikers and Melanin Base Camp, work on improving visibility and representation of people of color in the outdoors.
The problem is forcing outdoor companies and agencies to consider systemic barriers. One problem White often mentions is that expensive equipment like tents and packs, as well as entrance fees to parks, can be prohibitive to low-income people.
“It’s a challenge, and I don’t really have a clear answer,” said Will Wood, a spokesperson for ZPacks, a camping gear company that sponsored White on his bike journey. “I think that a lot of change can happen through sharing stories, and that’s what ‘The Blackalachian’ is all about.”
White said that on his trips, he’s dealt with racial tension and worried about his safety because of his skin color. He’s passed too many Confederate flags and black-faced yard figurines to count. But he said for the most part, people he encountered were kind. One day that sticks out in his memory is a stop in rural Marion, Kentucky, about three weeks into his ride, when a woman driving a pick-up truck slowed down next to him and said he was heading for a dead end. She carried his bike in the rear, drove him back to the route, and prayed for his safety before he got back on the saddle.
“People get a big misconception about the South,” White said. “All the division that’s going in our country, that’s what made me seek out this ride.”
Almost daily during his ride over the summer and fall, White posted selfies and videos. He talked to followers about his precarious sleeping situations — sometimes sprawled out in cemeteries or churches where slaves stopped on the journey north — and took time to teach them about the racial history of the cities he found himself in. In Louisville, Kentucky, White propped up his bicycle against a giant bronze statue of York, a slave who played an integral role in Lewis and Clark’s expedition out West.
“It’s about time we pay homage to those who were forgotten and left out of the history books,” White posted on his account after sharing the piece of history he learned. He said he often considers people who have been marginalized or forgotten because he was one of them. Eight years ago, he was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison on drug charges. He spent his 25th birthday behind bars.
“Prison doesn’t set you up for success,” White said. “Nobody’s going to give it to you, especially getting out and being a felon. When you get out, everything is stacked up against you for you to go right back. You have to keep your head down and grind.”
After serving his sentence, he went to trade school and now works as an electrician and builds furniture when he’s not on the trail or the road. “I think Daniel has found his calling,” Muckelvene said. “He’s reaching more people than he would have if he went and got a bachelor’s degree in whatever.”
Since White returned from the Appalachian Trail last year, he’s also been working with local environmental groups to take students and youth on hikes, and has spoken publicly to nonprofits in Western North Carolina. Now that he’s returned to his job as an electrician in Charlotte, sometimes working 10 hour days, his brushes with nature are less frequent, but he plans to build a career that involves the outdoors.
Eventually, White said he wants to start a farm that works with some kind of prison reentry program to help former inmates cultivate new skills and a purpose like he’s found. In the meantime, he’s saving up money and planning the next adventure. He wants to buy a van to travel, expand his brand, and potentially land more sponsorships so youth of color can see it’s possible to make a career in the outdoor industry.
His big dream, though, is developing a line of dehydrated meals. White wants to have some of his favorite Southern comfort food that his mom used to make, like corned beef and cabbage, or oxtails with peas and rice, handy wherever he explores next.