Growing up, I always wanted to be “outdoorsy”. I longed to climb towering peaks, wander through expansive forests, and swim in deep lakes. All those dreams are difficult to achieve growing up in an area dominated by flat cornfields, so naturally I jumped at the chance to spend a summer in Seattle, one of the most outdoorsy cities in the United States.
Seattle immediately lived up to my expectations. As soon as arrived, my co-workers began giving me recommendations for weekend hiking excursions. I kept a running list in my journal, eager to explore the places I grew up dreaming about. When a free weekend popped up on my calendar, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend it. I gathered up my fellow DukeEngagers and set out for North Cascades National Park.
After much deliberation, we decided to hike Thunder Creek Trail, a forested hike that winds through the southwestern tip of the park. Armed with a plan, we set out from University of Washington early Saturday morning, arriving in the park by lunchtime. We scoped out a spot and settled down to eat our picnic lunches on the dock at Lake Diablo. The effect on our mood was immediate. Our work week stress began to evaporate as we stared admired the lake’s gorgeous water, tinted turquoise by the glacial rock flour floating in it.
As we munched on our lunches, we discussed how lucky we were to be here. Inspired by our recent group reflection on environmental privilege, we began a discussion about the inequity people face in obtaining access to the outdoors. Although Seattle might be nestled between some of the most stunning forests and mountain ranges in the entire world, significant barriers exist that can prevent Seattleites on lower incomes from accessing these wild places. Not owning a car, for example, prevents people from enjoying nature outside the city. If we didn’t have the financial means to rent a car, making it to the Cascades, or any other national park for that matter, would have been impossible. Another barrier that can also prevent people from affordably enjoying the outdoors is lack of access to appropriate gear. Although camping is considered by many to be a cheap hobby, the start up costs for building a stock of reliable gear can be intimidating and inaccessible.
Luckily, all hope is not lost for those on a budget hoping to make it out to the trails. Last summer, King County Metro Transit, Seattle Department of Transportation, and King County Parks teamed up with REI and Clif Bar to fund a pilot program called Trailhead Direct. For only the cost of a regular bus fare, this program allows riders to use public transit to gain access to trailheads near Seattle. The program was a resounding success and expanded service for this current summer. Other nonprofits such as the Washington Trails Association maintain gear libraries that help offset the of camping gear. Innovative programs like these are one way to reduce economic barriers that prevent people from accessing the wilderness.
Ultimately, America’s wild places should equitable for all people. We all should have the right to enjoy the natural wonders that make our country beautiful, regardless of economic status, race, gender, or sexual orientation. As environmentalist Edward Abbey says, “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” Working towards making this necessity accessible for all is a lofty goal, but one that we should strive for all the same.