Crystal Gail Welcome will tangle with rocks and roots, tough climbs and relentless bugs on her thru-hike attempt on the North Shore. Yet overcoming racial injustice toward Black Americans, such as herself, and other people of color — that, she says, is the real work.
The Atlanta woman is more than a third of the way through the 310 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail. Far from the urban backdrop of so many uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, northern Minnesota is an ideal landscape for her message of social change, she said. Maybe more receptive, too.
Welcome said some media, across platforms, highlight “the worst” of the protests and responses to them to the detriment of peaceful, positive demonstrations of all manner.
“I know there are people standing up for justice in other ways. And I am, like, ‘Wait, I can do that. This is what I do: I hike,’ ” said Welcome, 39. “This is one way I can stand up for justice and know that it is meaningful.”
Minnesota’s most popular long-distance trail is an apropos spot, she said. Floyd died in the custody of police just a few hours away. On July 4, Welcome’s march began. She was joined by several others who’d heard about her hike and her cause. Day 1 began at 8:46 a.m. at the trail’s southern terminus on the Wisconsin border near Carlton, Minn. She hiked for 8.46 miles.
The trail’s iconic blue blazes — markers that tell hikers they are on the right path — also drew in Welcome. Blue is associated with police — “boys in blue,” she said — but in this context, blue amounts to a bridge, not a wedge.
“Hiking this blue blaze is a way of saying, ‘Look, nature hasn’t let us down.’ Hiking this blue blaze is a reminder that not everything that’s blue is bad,” said Welcome while camping Tuesday morning between Castle Danger and Gooseberry Falls.
Finding her place
While standing for change, Welcome is Up North for personal healing, too.
In remission from a rare brain disease called intracranial hypertension, Welcome attempted a thru-hike in 2016 of the Pacific Crest Trail. She had to drop out for health reasons after 600 miles, leaving her depressed, inactive and seeking some light. Her next steps were the fuel for the moment she’s in.
Welcome heard about a nonprofit in California called People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature, and the Environment (PGM ONE). She’d found her people — and her voice — and was given a scholarship to attend a summit that steered her toward adventure therapy and the healing power of nature.
She recently graduated from Prescott College in Arizona with a master’s of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies, in adventure therapy and education. Because of the pandemic, she finished her last semester online and has spent the last year in Minnesota with her partner, Demi Kapler, in Longville, Minn. Kapler is interim camp director at the YMCA’s Camp Olson in Longville. The two met at Prescott. Kapler said she plans to thru-hike the trail in support after Welcome finishes.
On the trail (and off), Welcome said the kindnesses by hikers and others have eased her concerns as a person of color moving through northern Minnesota. She has issues of trust around white people — endemic, she said, to the Black experience — that extend beyond social justice to environmental equity, too. She cited the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Mich., where residents were exposed to high levels of lead and other contaminants.
“There are just so many ways we’ve been failed. So in order for us to find a place in nature that feels safe and healing, we have to have that outside of nature, too. The two just go hand in hand,” she said.
In posts about her hike on a site called The Trek, Welcome said strangers haven’t failed her thus far. “I have met many SHT trail angels who have helped me in various ways: meeting me on the trail, taking me to the store, and dropping me off at the same trail. A group showing up in solidarity to ensure safe passage through a non-friendly private section of the trail.”
One of those strangers was Jane Kaiser of Duluth, who invited Welcome to camp in her yard and checked in on her well-being down the path. The two connected for ice cream.
Another woman, named Lil, was unaware of Welcome’s purpose for hiking, but asked if she could join. They stuck together for two days. Lil gave her extra socks.
“People are actually caring about me as an individual and what I am doing,” said Welcome, with a hint of relief and acceptance.
A Duluth welcome
Tom O’Rourke had read about Welcome’s hike. The trail passes through Hartley Nature Center in Duluth, where he is executive director. He was prepared to meet her and welcome her. They hiked the section through the center, and Welcome used O’Rourke’s nearby “Thoreauvian” cabin overnight to get out of stormy weather.
More than anything, O’Rourke said, he looked forward to listening to Welcome. He said the two bonded over their shared love of wild places and books.
“It was interesting to hear her perspective as a person of color, engaging in these activities that are sort of white-dominated spaces,” he added. “It was great to listen to her and to learn from her.”
O’Rourke said they also connected over similar past outdoors roles, with different experiences. Both worked at summer camps. “Hearing how her experience was different working camps in a given summer as the only person of color on the entire staff. I think she is bringing voice to important conversations that the outdoors community has to have and should have,” he said.
Welcome came upon a lady’s slipper on her first day. Seeing the orchid open to summer was symbolic, she wrote in an update July 8:
“Like flowers such as the Lady Slipper, social justice movements sometimes need time to bloom. And like the beauty of the flowers, these movements can bring about deep and lasting change.”