The Trail Hikers Guide to Going to Bat for Immigrants
Get in your car and drive. Drive for hours. Drive down the loneliest bi-way and the darkest backway. Drive so deep into the American back country that you’re sure the only non-native creatures around are you and the feral pigs.
If there’s a good hiking trail where you stop, I assure you there will be someone else: foreigners.
No matter where I’ve hiked in the United States, I’m always amazed by the number of foreign languages and accents I hear on the trail, offering friendly “hellos” in passing.
In the past few months, I’ve hiked Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob near Roanoke, Va.; Old Rag Mountain and White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run near Sperryville, Va.; and Humpback Rock near Afton, Va; among others.
The thing that’s consistently amazed me on these very popular hikes, save Humpback Rock (the shortest hike and easiest to access), is that a clear majority of the people hiking them were not from the United States.
Today, I walked the 8-mile White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run loop on a beautiful 60-degree February day and I’d conservatively estimate that at least 75% were foreign-born hikers. And we’re talking Madison County, Va., here folks. There ain’t much more than white folk and flags preferred by certain types of white folk in those parts. So any non-‘Merican hiker there is probably driving at least an hour from Charlottesville or the Washington, D.C., area.
I’ve witnessed hundreds of foreign hikers on these walks, and their groups tend to fall into a few stereotypes that I always find entertaining:
- The Chinese hiker: Travels in large groups of married couples; flashy, bright, shining new hiking gear and walking sticks.
- The European hiker: Travels in small groups — couples or 2-3 women; high-quality, well worn gear. Often German, Northern European / Scandinavian or Eastern European. Usually, full metal hiking badasses. Occasionally, Gucci sunglasses-wearing glam Eastern European women.
- The Indian/Pakistani/Middle Eastern hiker: Travels in family groups of mom, dad and kids. Often look totally out of place in “city clothes.” Travel without food, water or good hiking shoes.
The characteristics of these groups always give me a smile and spur my curiosity. But, look, the point here is not to point out stereotypes. It’s not even to wonder why, in a sea of white Americans in central Virginia, more aren’t out enjoying nature. Though I suspect there is something wrong with our cultural priorities when more of the few million Americans within an hour of the Skyline Drive aren’t out enjoying the bounty of natural splendor the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer.
The point is to applaud the fact that, despite their incredible differences and diverse cultural backgrounds, all of those foreign-born groups are out enjoying nature in numbers that vastly over-represent their populations in the area.
And when we’re talking about hikes near Roanoke and Madison County, I think we can safely assume these people are, by and large, not tourists. They are green card holders and visa holders. They are students and professors and engineers and custodians. They are immigrants and refugees.
And they are lovers of nature.
Above all, the most important thing I need to know about them is that on an abnormally warm February day, they chose to spend their time driving for an hour or more just to spend their day walking in the woods.
Politically left or right, friend or family, the best people I know all share an appreciation, if not love, for nature.
Americans are engaged in a heated debate over who should be allowed into this country (and kicked out). The winds are blowing toward a nation isolated behind walls and locked doors. Beyond the studies that already prove how essential immigrants are to the U.S. economy, I wonder how much American culture would suffer without people who so clearly understand the value of a hallowed American tradition — love of the great outdoors.