Made By Mountains Story
Earl B. Hunter, Jr.
The Western North Carolina outdoor community has a real opportunity to do something extraordinary. To be on the frontend of amazing change, not just conversation.
Who, really, gets to safely escape into the outdoors? For Earl B. Hunter Jr., Founder of Black Folks Camp Too, the COVID-19 pandemic only amplified this question, and others he’d posed for years, like why are over 95% of national park visitors white? Why is the outdoor industry leaving money on the table, ignoring Black experience-seekers, gear-wearers, and trail-finders as prospective customers? Launched from his homebase of Brevard, North Carolina, just months before our worlds went haywire, Hunter’s company aimed to draw attention to a great cultural divide that stirred a fear of the outdoors in the hearts of generations upon generations of Black Americans.
Earl B. Hunter, Jr. is the founder and president of
Black Folks Camp Too
Hunter suggests that though the issue might seem overwhelming, the solution is actually very simple. Listen and seek to understand these real and pervasive issues. Find a Black friend. Invite them outside. Invite them again. Keep inviting them, until we are able to lessen and eradicate the fear that’s long prevented millions of Americans from enjoying their public lands, national parks, and even neighborhood sidewalks.
Pisgah National Forest alone has over 250 waterfalls, but I only really started to experience them last year. I found myself actually chasing waterfalls—on top of mountains, in valleys—in search of these amazing, breathtaking things, knowing I’ll never see that same flowing water, ever again.
If I hadn’t moved to this area, I wouldn’t have been able to watch that cold water flowing, or feel the wind snapping, or see those glowing stars. I never would have known the sense of accomplishment that comes after climbing Black Balsam Knob or Devil’s Courthouse. Looking over the city below, you’re actually able to see what you conquered. This area has allowed me to experience things I never thought I would. I’ve been all around the world, but here at home, it’s clean, it’s beautiful, it’s special.
Why Black Folks Camp Too
Black folks have not experienced America the way that I envision us to experience it. They haven’t seen some of the most beautiful areas of the country. They don’t really come into the outdoors, because they either don’t have an invitation and they don’t know what’s here, or they do know what’s here, and they’re afraid of it.
I’d say that 90% of Black folks haven’t taken in those natural waterfalls, or followed a stream, or listened to the sounds. Even if it’s just sitting on a bench, hearing the birds chirping. They haven’t watched the sun set and woke up outside the next morning to the sunrise. They haven’t really felt like they’re part of the natural world, because they fear it.
The problem is, that fear, it’s so deeply-rooted. It’s passed down through generations, because so many of those stereotypes and stories about what happens in the woods are real. So many Black folks have died without experiencing this beauty, this nature, this calm. This is their land. They pay for it all their lives. They own 640 million acres of public land, and are entitled to go. They just never see it, and neither have their children, and their children’s-children, all because of the things they’ve been told.
This fear, it impacts lives—lives that could be enhanced by the outdoors. But what I have seen and what I believe, is that once more Black folks are invited, and get out here, they’ll feel the excitement and understand the draw.
On Raising Kids Outdoors
My son and I took a camping trip out west, and I continue to see its impacts on him as he matures. There’s going to be places we saw and things we did that will stay with him forever. And I’ll remember hearing him say, “Wow!” with miles and miles of mountains in the distance, and camping at the base of Mount Rushmore, and thinking I’m seeing buffalo out there, but my son telling me, “No, Dad, those are bison.” He needed me, I needed him. We weren’t going to leave one another. I felt a sense of closeness to him at every step of the way. We were at 49 campgrounds, and sometimes the only Black folk there, but I told my son, “The experience you’re having right now? Every kid should have this experience.”
My daughter has really taken to the outdoors. When she came to me, asking to take a camping trip, I thought she mostly wanted to because her brother and I went. Once we got on the trip, though, I realized that she wanted her own outdoor experience. We drove from Chicago to Hershey, Pennsylvania in search of chocolate, and camped the entire way. With her, I learned something a little bit different than my son.
When young folks are in the outdoors, they become more well-rounded, and they learn what it means to have tranquility.
Why Representation Matters
My first time backpacking, I remember being afraid to go outside of my tent, even though there was a beautiful moon shining on the stream in front of me. It actually took me hours to do a quick in and out. Two hours! My second time backpacking, I cowboy camped and slept right by the fire. I went from one extreme to the next and quickly adapted. There is still some fear I experience, like just two weeks ago, on my first nine-mile trail by myself. I remember feeling very alone at my fifth or sixth mile. But soon, I felt some harmony within, and a real sense of pride as I tried to navigate back to the trailhead. I feel more empowered now, not afraid.
I’m not a formally-trained guide. I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, in the projects, with no woods around. An outdoors lifestyle wasn’t even in my mind. When people see my content, they see me, my family, my friends, and they start to want to try it, too. Black people need to see more Black families in the outdoors, because when they do, it starts to ring bells for a lot of folks—especially in the South. It’s so important for my children and their friends and parents to see this so they’ll want to join in.
If we’re going to introduce Black folks to Western North Carolina, or anywhere in the outdoors, we’ve got to meet people where they are. And that’s particularly true when they’re afraid. You want the reason they ran out of the forest to be because they want to tell people what they accomplished—not because they’re scared. It’s about understanding that we’re all going to have to go through something to get to something. To get to the top of the mountain, we have to build up first.
Why Western North Carolina
I’ve always been a person to take things head-on. It would have been easy for us to have this company in any bigger city, like Atlanta where there are a ton of Black folks. But that would mean taking Black Folks Camp Too into a place I don’t know as well. The company wouldn’t be as far along its path if we weren’t driving it here. I know the great places to go, the places that make me feel welcome, and where I’m meant to feel unwelcome. Our message, that not everyone feels safe outdoors, that’s a new concept to some. If something’s going to be solved, we need to change the narrative.
We want to encourage unity. We say to white folk—understand the reasons we’ve not been outdoors, and then open your arms and welcome us. Black folks don’t need permission to go out and enjoy, but it sure feels good to be invited.
We realized our vision during our first year in business, proving that “Black folks camp too” was more than just a phrase. And that “too” was intentional. We weren’t here to divide, but unite. In our second year, we brought meaning to the campfire in our logo. The campfire is the oldest, most dependable form of light and heat. It illuminates us, it brings folks together. We want everyone around our campfire.
This business needed to come to fruition, long before all of last year’s events. And maybe without COVID, without Mr. Floyd being killed, without folks storming the Capital, people might still be walking out of DE&I meetings, feeling sad, like they’re not able to do anything. We were able to turn these situations into something good. The Western North Carolina outdoor community has a real opportunity to do something extraordinary. To be on the frontend of amazing change, not just conversation. Let’s use all these beautiful mountains, streams, and conserved land. Let’s take the time to educate folks and get excited. If we’re not taking advantage of this time to create solidarity, what are we doing?