Choosing to Celebrate Outside

It all started with a walk in the woods back in November 2014.  I told my friend Jenny that I wanted to hike a section of the AT (Appalachian Trail) from the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) to Springer Mtn, GA (South Terminus).  At that point, I had never set foot on the trail until that day but this adventure was now on my list. I figured if I could run 100 miles through the woods, surely I could walk 137 miles in 10 days or so.

AT at the NOC.

AT at the NOC.

 

Almost a year later (December 2015), we took a day trip up to Springer Mtn, GA to scope out the end of the trail using a backroad less traveled which allowed us to avoid the 8 mile approach trail to the AT from Amicalola.  The dream was now set into motion and in July 2016, I completed my first ever backpacking trip covering 88 miles in 8 days with Jessa, Mary, Callie, and Kathy.  It was also the beginning of my trail fever.

Jessa, Mary, me, Callie, and  Kathy - 5 Dirty BUTS

Jessa, Mary, me, Callie, and  Kathy - 5 Dirty BUTS

Have bunny, will hike. Wayah Bald to the NOC

Have bunny, will hike. Wayah Bald to the NOC

Jenny - Always ready for adventure!  

Jenny - Always ready for adventure!  

At the Springer Mtn Southern Terminus

At the Springer Mtn Southern Terminus

Trail fever is a real thing.  Just ask anyone who has ever gone backpacking on the AT for at least a couple of days.  It was so real that prior to my birthday trip, I hiked ~18 miles in one day because I was in the area and wanted to fit in another section (Wayah Bald to the NOC).  This time bunny came along for the ride and we made it back before dark when the bears come out for dinner.  ;-)  

AT on bridge across the Nantahala River at the NOC

AT on bridge across the Nantahala River at the NOC

Of course, the day hike was not enough to cure the trail fever and plans were hatched immediately to come back to the AT for the section from Neels Gap to Springer Mtn (~32 miles) just prior to my actual birthday.  The goal would be complete - 137 miles from Springer Mtn to the NOC. 

#BlogLikeCrazy while Hiking.

11/16/16  - Made it to Neels Gap at 9 ish.  Met Gumby Bear and 4 other thru-hikers staying at the hostel.  They had to be shuttled to safety because of the wildfires but still managed to hike more than 2,000 miles this season.  I am cold and tired so I am about to hit the sack.

11/17/16 - Crazy long day - 15 hilly miles (in my tent by 7:40 pm).  We got started at 9:30 am then spent a fair amount of time on Blood Mountain looking at the incredible views and eating a snack after the tough climb.  It was crazy hot but the smoke (from arson) stayed away until late afternoon.  We met up with a bunch of SOBO's (southbound thru-hikers -  Everest, Walker, Baby Bear, Thumper, Beast, Ash, TBD, and friends) who are going to be finishing up on Saturday.  Of course, there was a wild party at the Gooch Gap shelter where everyone bombed a beer to celebrate my birthday.  I feel like hiker trash even if only for a section.  I hope my hiking partner makes it tomorrow.

11/18/16 - I didn't miss social media for a second while hiking the AT.  It was an amazing journey that got started today at 6:30 am.  I slept ok last night except for the intermittent coughing and sliding around in my sleeping bag.  I was also amazed to see how bright it was outside because of the supermoon.  But away from the moon, I could see the beautiful stars only visible in darkness minus artificial light.  Well, we got underway hiking at 8:00am struggling up 4 plus mountains before noon with more than 20lbs on our backs .  Then it was downhill for 3 plus miles and we needed the reprieve from the heat.  The last 4 miles were the longest ever but I was determined to make it to the southernmost terminus of the AT.  Good thing we dropped our bags at the jeep so that the last 2 miles of our 17-mile journey were bearable.  

Headed to hike with Ynot

Headed to hike with Ynot

View from Blood Mtn 

View from Blood Mtn 

Springer Mtn.

Springer Mtn.

The view from the Terminus was extra special at the end of a couple of days of strenuous hiking.  The entire trip was filled with beautiful overlooks, a wide array of changing leaves, conifer trees, flowing creeks, birds, chipmunks, squirrels, butterflies, sunrises and sunsets, and best of all cool people.  I loved every minute of the trip even when I was suffering.  At least I knew that I was still alive.  This is truly why I chose to celebrate my birthday outside.  To feel alive.

Gumby Bear, Creature, and Me

Gumby Bear, Creature, and Me

Start of climb to Blood Mountain summit

Start of climb to Blood Mountain summit

Blood Mtn Summit

Blood Mtn Summit

Near Three Forks - US60

Near Three Forks - US60

Introduction to Athletics

Yearbook Photo 1984 - Orangeburg-Wilkinson Tennis Team

Yearbook Photo 1984 - Orangeburg-Wilkinson Tennis Team

Watching tennis greats like Martina Navratilova, Billy Jean King, and Chris Evert in the 70's and early 80's made me want to play tennis.  My parents were happy to support this interest but only if I promised to stick with it.  I had to prove that I really wanted to play especially since I was only 8 years old when I asked for my first tennis racket.  My dad finally went to Kmart and got me a wooden Chris Evert racket after seeing me glued to the TV week after week and hitting a tennis ball against our house with my hand.  From that point on, I remember hitting a tennis ball almost every day for years and played on a team from 7th grade through high school. I also learned about Althea Gibson who the first African American to win the French Open in 1956. If she could compete, I thought so could I.  Although I was never a star tennis player, I did develop a mean backhand and a consistent serve through lots of practice.  After high school, tennis remained in my life but only as a social outlet.  Except for that one time during my postdoc when I was asked to teach beginning tennis at the University of Miami.  It was either tennis or anatomy and physiology.  I opted to be outside with no regrets.  It was actually fun to be back on the courts again showing others how to play.  

Practicing with my Prince tennis racket - New Hillcrest Courts

Practicing with my Prince tennis racket - New Hillcrest Courts

My first coach, Mr. Carl Williams, also taught me about responsibility.  I heard him say many times, "excuses only satisfies the man who makes them."  That has stuck with me all of my life and it helps me to stay focused on my commitments.  I truly believe that my playing tennis taught me many invaluable life lessons and I am grateful that my parents supported my participation in this fine sport.  As for now, I occasionally catch one of the major tournaments on TV and have fond memories of this sport that taught me the importance of dedication, endurance, and persistence. 

Relaxation, Rejuvenation, and Resilience

Rituals have always been a part of my life.  From hot baths to slow walks in nature, finding ways to relax and recharge has been my strategy for coping with stress.  Today has been unsettling particularly as I think about my personal safety as well as the well-being of those around me who may be targeted for being different.  So, I reflect on the times that I spent in rural South Carolina wandering through the pastures and woods near my Aunt Yvonne's childhood home.  The pace was slow there. The grass seemed just a little bit greener and the bugs screeched just a little bit louder there. We were in the middle of nowhere (country road ~5 miles from the main town of less than 3,000 people). So why would I willingly go visit this place?  I was drawn to the slow pace and relaxing environment.  There was time to lie around reading books or to go exploring in nature.  It was the perfect  place for an introverted person like me as there were not other kids besides my little cousin to disturb my peace.  The ritual of eating, wandering and sleeping was a great counterbalance to the hectic schedule of a child athlete and AP student.  I still use rituals to get me through tough times.  Right now, aromatherapy, massages, writing, and bubble baths are bolstering my resilience.  But my true strength comes from the knowledge that my ancestors survived the unimaginable to produce me so I will not be moved.  I hope that you will stand strong and find activities that feed your soul during these uncertain times.  ~Namaste

Photo Bug

As a kid, we never want to believe that we are like our parents in any way.  Call it nature or nurture, but I have to admit that I see so many ways that I am like both of my parents.  I definitely have my mom's travel bug but my dad definitely exposed me to the photo bug.  Although he was an amateur photographer, he shot weddings, social events, church functions and even some forensics pictures (image discovering some of those as a kid -- yikes).  I can only image the kind of pictures he would be taking now with all of the new technology we have.  But he took some pretty cool shots with old 120 film cameras, 35 mm,  and the polaroid One Step 600.  He even shot movies with his Super 8mm video camera. My dad had talent. Heaven only knows how he got into the picture taking business but his photo bug has been passed down to me.  I actually learned a lot about composition and lighting from my dad and I use these skills to compete with my husband who thinks he is the master of everything photography.  Ermanno may have more technical knowledge than me but I have old school experience.  Let's see what you think.  Below are the last pictures I took with my dad before he passed away and the last picture he took of me.  As they say, the apple does not fall too far from the tree.  Here's to you, dad.

Baits and Crickets

Fishing was a major leisure time activity for my family.  When I was growing up, my dad would take us fishing many places around the state.  We would sometimes go deep sea fishing on his boat but mostly we took our little bamboo poles to Mr. McClain's pond just down the street from our house.  But first, we needed to get some lures to make our hooks a bit more appetizing for the freshwater bream, catfish, or bass.  Although my dad used plastic flies for catching the big guys, my mom mostly used live earthworms (aka baits) or crickets. Sometimes we would go digging for our own earthworms or catch crickets from our yard. The trick was then to scoop out just one, grabbing it strategically to get it on the hook so that it was not too easy for the fish to get it off without getting caught. On a good day when the fish were "jumping" we would catch enough for everyone to have 2 whole fried fish with a side of rice and tomatoes and cucumbers.  I think these meals were more delicious that usual since we worked for our meal.

To keep the family tradition of regular fishing trips,  my dad built a fresh water pond on our land near my mom's current home.  A short walk down the trail behind her house is an amazing outdoor oasis.   Last time I was there, I saw many small bream and my mom caught a huge catfish.  It still amazes me how small things that we take for granted can bring so much pleasure and relaxation.  This pond is a part of our family legacy of outdoor connectedness that I hope will provide rejuvenation to my family and friends for years to come.

 

 

Northern Exposure

Almost everyone I know from South Carolina has relatives up north.  Many were a part of The Great Migration of more than 6 million African Americans from the South between 1915-1970.  As a matter of fact, all of my dad's siblings and his mother moved to NY/NJ while my immediate family stayed in South Carolina. My grandfather had died tragically in a truck accident which may have precipitated the move up north for the others. Why my dad didn't leave with the rest of the family is unknown at least for now.

At any rate, the separation of the family created the perfect opportunity for travel and exploration as I was growing up.  I looked forward to the long car ride from South Carolina through North Carolina, Virginia, DC, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  It was amazing to see all of the cities along I-95 but it was quite interesting to see fields of grazing cattle so near the city.  A lot of the area looked just like the countryside where we lived in South Carolina.  But don't tell my cousins that.  I did notice, even as a kid, that after a few days in the city there was a strong pull to be in nature.  Luckily there was a huge park just down the street from my grandma's house.  Weequahic Park (wee-kwah-ic) has 311 acres with a lake and lots of green space, basketball courts, trails, and a playground. 

Fishing at the Lake - 80 acres

Fishing at the Lake - 80 acres

 

 

 

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From grandma's house to the park

From grandma's house to the park

When my brother and I would go to visit my grandmother for the entire summer, we spent most of our time at this park.  We would ride our skateboards down to the park and just hang out all day exploring the park with our city cousins and friends.  I am grateful for my time in the city because of the exposure to a different way of life including opportunities that lie in big cities but I will always have a need to connect with nature even if it is a park nestle between tall buildings.  

Blackberries, plums, cherries and peaches

Growing  up in the country has its advantages.  We had wild fruit all over my neighborhood and my mom would make desserts for us if we made it back home before eating them all.  My favorite homemade dessert was peach cobbler but my favorite fruit to eat while picking was blackberries.  Not too tart and not too sweet, I could eat  them until I was sick.  Of course, my mom loved for us to pick blackberries so that she could make a blackberry dumpling but she was not too happy to see our shirts forever stained from our berry picking adventures.

It was amazing to have the freedom to roam around the neighborhood picking berries, cherries, plums and peaches but real dangers were a part of our reality as well.   Where there is food, there is wildlife trying to get their share.  Luckily, my dad had taught us about snakes (poisonous vs. nonpoisonous ones).  And yes,  I saw many snakes during my childhood including that one faithful day when I was about 10 years old.   I was picking blackberries near our garden at the end of a very large backyard when I stuck my hand deep into the berry patch to get the biggest blackberry I had ever seen.  And as my had got close to it, I froze.  There was a giant rattlesnake curled up asleep within inches of my purple little fingers.  I knew it was poisonous from the diamond pattern and the triangular shaped head and I was terrified.  While holding my breath, I quickly eased my hand to safety and ran to tell my dad about the big snake that almost got me.  Of course, in one fell swoop my dad chopped off the head of the snake and saved his little explorer.  And I went back to berry picking but making sure to look before I reach after my near run in with mr. rattler.  Blackberries are still one of my favorite fruit and I still think about that snake encounter everytime I go wild berry picking.  Most of all, I think about my dad and how he was there to save the day.  

 

 

For the Love of Nature

It's amazing how seemingly chance encounters can change the course of  your life.  Well, last week something like that happened to me and the idea of Black on the Outside was born. In my job as an academic researcher, I am often asked my opinion on topics in the area of physical activity or obesity but an email from the National Park Service really got my attention. Some of you know how much I love being outside running and hiking through the woods but I had not linked this passion to my day job.  At least I had not thought of a way to integrate the two just yet.

Anyway, one of the national parks wanted my opinion on setting up a panel of scholars to talk about what they could do to get more African Americans to visit their park.  Since this was outside of my area of expertise, I referred her to other African Americans doing this work, The African American Nature & Parks Experience (Teresa Baker) and Outdoor Afro (Rue Mapp).  And for my part, I told her stories of my childhood experiences that led me to my passion for the outdoors.  It was during this conversation that I felt a shift in my being as I recalled memories of my dad hunting, fishing, horseback riding and a bunch of other outdoor activities. My dad had all kinds of guns for hunting wild game (deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and possums -- yes, he ate this stuff)  and he showed me how to shoot all of them. I was always eager to try new things and to prove to my dad that I could do anything even though girls were not always encouraged to participate in adventurous activities.  But my dad let me tag along with him whenever he was doing stuff outside.  I guess you could say I am a little country girl who fell in love with nature through exposure and encouragement from her dad.  

My dad.

My dad.

In the end,  I suggested that the park representative go talk to the African American people in her community to find out their stories and why they use or do not the park.  I think a lot has to do with experience and a feeling of support and being welcomed.  So in addition to including pictures of a diverse cross-section of people of color on park advertisements, it is important to include our stories of convening with nature.  

Black on the Outside is a collection of stories from childhood up to now that shows the value of early experiences on future behaviors.  Some of these accounts are scary and some are hysterical.  Hopefully, some of my stories will resonate with you and move you to get outside! 

~~~Olivia