It was a Monday in early March 2021, I left my apartment near the city around 1:30pm. I figured the trail would be empty on my favorite local hike and warmest at mid-day. I arrived to the parking lot by 2pm. Usually this lot is full and you have to wait for a spot or chance parking on one of the two make-shift spots on the road-side near a sign that indicates no parking. I found a spot easily but there were only a few empty ones- the trails would not be abandoned. Still, I wanted Pickles to be an off-leash trail dog. He did so well on a much longer strenuous hike a few weeks prior. I started with the quick 0.3 mile loop to the left of the main trail. He was great. He stayed on the trail which is important on this hike. The land is eroding and the ecosystem is mass but fragile. He listened to my commands and so we went.
We took the shortest route up. This one is more difficult but rewarding. I prefer to go up the west trail and back down on the east. The way up includes a rock scramble. I noticed, before Pickles, a set of dogs coming down. We sat at a rocks edge canopied by a larger rock jutting out above us. It was a refreshing cool spot to the 70 degrees heat and exposed sun. This hike typically is cool and full of shade from the overgrown forest but since it is still winter- the leaves have been shed and the branches do not protect us from the harsh sun. Pickle lays down to enjoy the cool rock on his belly. He is patient as the women walking the two large dog struggles to keep them from pulling her on the dangerous rock. I have been in her shoes. We try not to distract them as they pass by. We are out of the way.
It doesn’t take long to reach summit. We are almost there. So far, the lady and her dogs are the only others we have passed. I assume there will be people on the top. It surprises me as we round the corner and find the place to ourselves. We have a great view of all of Knoxville from here. Once, a little girl told me she could even see the University and hospital from this rock. Without knowing how I’d decipher the specifics of either of those buildings from my standpoint I’ll just leave you with that image. It’s true, you feel like the view is endless. I can see the Smoky Mountains from here.
Pickles and I sit for a while. We take some selfies; this is only the second time I have been able to summit with Pickles in tow. The last time it was our first hike- 2 weeks following his adoption. When we got home that day- I found he had 2 ticks. Then we made another attempt but he was impossible on the leash and this is not a safe place for pulling. I catch my breath and as I do Pickles is fascinated by something… now he is licking the rock. As I take a closer look I can’t help but notice I have adopted a murderer. He is eating the lady bugs! The rock is full of these dotted miniature red turtles. I stop him immediately and watch the rest of them crawl around us. Then a man climbs up and behind him his partner. We leave to give them the space.
The most enjoyable part of this hike, for me, is walking the entire ridge. There are multiple coves with little lookouts. We pass a few more people on the ridge. People are heading to the West overlook from the East trail. No one in particular sticks out to me at this point- it has been almost a week and the only people I can recall from the hike are those that were solo and a pair of men. The couple before, while together were hiking separately. He arrived to summit at least 5 minutes before her. I know there were about 2 or 3 more dogs on the trail as we walked the ridge. I prefer to go to the far overlook on the East side- this is out of the way of the mountain loop. In total it takes you 1.4mi off the loop. As we approach the east trail we see 2 older white men. I feel uneasy.
I am not sure why I feel this way. Perhaps it is because one man is wearing a dark green sweatshirt and I think he works for the ‘park’. I think he might tell me Pickles has to be leashed. Perhaps it’s because I am a female alone with 2 larger white men. Perhaps it is because I might have to change my route since going the additional 1.4 miles could be a life changing decision should they follow. As the space between us shrinks, I see they are much older men. They ask me a few questions. They do not work for the land, in fact, I now worry about the one with the walking stick who is asking about the descent down on the west trail. I worry if he will be able to handle going down the slick rock and the rock scramble in general. Then I think I am making assumptions. I just inform him of the struggle I have on it myself and encourage at the least to continue on that route to check out the overlook.
Part of me tells them this to expand our space, to send them in the opposite direction than the one I am headed. Truth be told, the best view is the one I am walking toward. I do not want any company. They go west, I continue to head east. Pickles and I pass the east trail and have another 0.7 miles to go with my back turned to society… or ‘safety as we know it’. This part of the trail is where I feel most alive. Not because of the fears of those two men but because this is the wild of the hike. Sure enough, my feelings come to fruition. Pickles is ahead of me now about 10-15 feet. He is trotting along the trail with not a care in the world. He is happy. I love to see him this way. I am stopped suddenly in my tracks. He is out of sight and I hear something to my right, a close bunch of leaves rustling, secluded to one spot. The spot moves forward- another bunch of leaves rustling. There must be an animal. I tell myself it’s a squirrel but I know better.
Slowly, I begin walking again and P runs ahead. We continue in the direction of the east overlook. I think I hear the noises again. This time I know it’s bigger than a squirrel. I look ahead. Pickles hears it too, he has stopped and is standing alert. I cannot see what is to the right of him, the dense forest creates a blind spot. “Pickles, come!” I shout. He comes panting. I cannot hear anything over his breathing. My heart is racing. I try to focus my eyes on this vast overgrown, untamed, landscape. The entire forest floor is covered. An animal could blend in easily. I am looking for a mountain line or a black bear. I can’t see anything dark or out of the ordinary. We stand still for a while Pickles breath calming. I can hear again, it is silent. We continue walking, closer now. We make it to the overlook. I take very few photos as my phone is at 2%. Then Pickles runs into the underbrush. I freak out and make him come immediately and we leave.
We head back to the east trail to make our way back to the parking lot. It is about 5:30 pm now and I would like to be out by dark. I know the thing he went after at the overlook was small. It had to be a squirrel but I am worried he will get bitten by a snake. Typically, this is not something I am hyperaware of but I noticed one at the beginning of our hike. A harmless one, but we do have rattlers and copperheads and I cannot carry him down a mountain. We are back to ignorant bliss as we walk the crest back. I am playing with Pickles the whole way and don’t hear any more threatening sounds. We turn left and begin down.
As we head down Pickles runs ahead again but stops when I cannot see him. Being that we are traversing switchbacks he is able to go far. The hike down is a lot- especially with him and knowing this trail is more traversed than the other. I am constantly trying to be more aware than he. If a dog is approaching I want to get him on his leash and out of the way. I remember the streams crossing our path, Pickles stopping at each opportunity for a refreshing drink. The is even a beautiful nano-sized waterfall in a spongy moss to our left. That whole rock face had a small micro-ecosystem. I was fascinated by this. I want to come back and photograph this, I want to collect the water to test for minerals- tempted to drink it straight from the source.
The Black Man.
I look ahead and see a black man approaching. He is hiking alone. I am not intimidated by him. Instead, I wonder how can I make him feel more welcome. How do I include him in this landscape? I know this is not my mountain. I know he, too, is a part of nature. He is just as much a part of nature as I am. Humanity is nature- but the western world has divided us into nature and people… and has divided people even further. Still, I am in my head. Do I eagerly start a conversation? Do I put Pickles on a leash? Won’t he sense I am treating him differently? I decide to approach him like I do anyone else I pass on the trail. I call P back to me but keep him off leash and then I smile as we get closer. When I hike, I generally try not to engage in lots of conversations. This is because I have a fast resting heart rate and am usually just focused on breathing. Plus, with COVID- I think it is safest to just pass at a distance and limit the exposure to potential virus. Of course, while hiking I am kind to everyone I pass. If someone has a question, comments on the weather, etc. I will engage.
I decide that while I want to make this black man feel comfortable and encourage his decision to get outdoors, I want to treat him equally- genuinely. When he approaches he first says hi to Pickles, then to me. I smile and greet him as well. It is the quickest interaction ever- as most of my passes are and yet it lingers. I cannot help but think should I have done something different? Does he feel safe? Does he think I am racist? Was I too standoffish? I am hyper aware of racism and actively trying to be anti-racist ESPECIALLY as a white woman in the south. Where I live, it is still common to see a confederate flag flying. Unfortunately, it is more common to see them flying as we approach the rural communities closest to the recreational hiking.
The Grey Coyote.
I am stuck in my head. Continuously trying to think of what I could have done better. This is the first time, in all of my hiking that I have encountered a colored person hiking solo. It is much more typical that I see a POC hiking with a group of white people. I applaud him for doing it- I want more POC to normalize it. This is a human right- we all deserve the right to get outdoors and connect to nature. This might not always come in the form of hiking but the form it comes in should be a chose. Anyone should have the option to hike in public land freely without the threat of the white man, or white power in general. We have other threats to worry about in the Wild. And just like that my inner monologue is interrupted.
I hear leaves rustling to my right again. Where is Pickles? I notice he has run ahead again, quite far. I can see him still- he is about 40 feet beyond. The east trail is on a long stretch west at this point, it’s like a landing between the switchbacks. Then suddenly the rustling is a full on run. Something big, bigger than a squirrel, is running down the mountain side right toward us. I scream for Pickles to come. I am scared- not sure if Pickles can defend me, it’s my only hope. Typically, I hike with multiple weapons or things that I can use as weapons- a tripod, bear spray, and a knife. This was a light hike AND my phone was dead now. Pickles is coming back toward me, I hear him but I am staring off to the right trying to see where the sound is coming from. It’s still moving and so is Pickles and I am not sure who will get to me first. Then I see it, I see a flash of grey-ish color as it leaps over a downed tree. We are being stalked by a large, wolf-like, coyote. I recognize the animal as my eyes focus. And just like that it is out of my view again but I cannot hear it moving anymore.
Half a Mile.
We still have half a mile left to go. I know what I saw- I can no longer convince myself that mountain squirrels are jacked like the rabbits in Joshua tree. This is no longer mind over matter. I do all that I know to do in preparation to bears and mountain lions. I stand tall, I walk slowly (but quickly)- I do not run with my back turned and I keep Pickles from running ahead now, too. He is still off leash. I make him wait every time he is about 10 feet from me. This is the longest half mile I have every walked. By shouting for Pickles to wait, I am being loud- but there is an inner silent respect I hold for this coyote. I have no idea what to make of my thoughts. To remain calm, I tell myself a husky must be trailing behind us with another hiker and just ran off trail. This is a lie.
We make it to the parking lot unscathed. At the car I pour water for Pickles and have some myself. I am grateful. It is still light out. Now, I plug my phone into the charger and sit inside my car for about 20 mins. No one else makes their way to the parking lot. My inner-knowing has been confirmed. I remind myself that we are safe. Then I think about the black man. He was the closest thing to us- near the coyote. Is he in danger? Should I have mentioned something to him about the walk on the crest?
We are Nature
Every time I hike I make sure to ‘leave-no-trace’. I pick up other people’s trash, too. This is just one way I respect nature. I do this for the wild animals and I do this because as a human, even when it’s not “mine”, it is my responsibility to the World. I respect animals and all living things. When I camp for instance, I know I am putting myself in the wild; when I swim in the ocean/ when I SCUBA, I am visiting the wild. Essentially, the coyote was home and I was trespassing into his space. This is an innate understanding within me. It grows beyond my connection to nature. As again, we are nature… it connects me to my humanity. But then, why did the solo black man seem so out of place? Why was I so focused on making him feel comfortable as if I was a steward of the mountain? Why didn’t he belong there as much as the coyote? If we are all nature, if we are all human then don’t we have much more in common than we do different? We need to respect nature, which in turn means every human, too.
I don’t have all the answers to these questions yet. I am still making sense of it all. Still, I wanted to share this story with other hikers, especially white people. Are you aware of your privilege yet? When you drive through the south and see confederate flags, does it make you uncomfortable? Or does it not pertain to you? Are you flying the flag? I am not here to offer sympathy or even empathy to people of color… they deserve more than that. I am here to stand with them. Part of me can’t stop thinking that the man I passed had a similar dialogue in his head as he passed me; how do I appear to be friendly and non-threatening to this white woman? We are more alike than different. And despite all my efforts, I wonder if my awareness of that difference means I still have more conditioning to deconstruct within me… or if being unaware is even more dangerous to our futures.
I want to remind my readers, humanity is embedded within all of us;
individual stories and acts set the larger scene of society.
Another thought has crossed my mind. What if my assumptions about this black man trying to make me comfortable while passing on a trail was not his biggest priority at all in that moment? What if being seen as a man was his priority, what if he was transgender and black and in the wilderness alone? Humans are complex. On second thought, I think being aware of differences is worthwhile, differences are to be celebrated and respected. We need to remember how alike we really are, too, as a species. How similar am I as a white heterosexual female to a black transsexual fluid man (for example)? I’ll bet while very different we have much more in common as human, like: if our basic needs are being met, the need to be loved for being truly ourselves- acceptance, grievances from loss, a common goal regarding our planet, and so forth… Be compassionate. Always.