ASHLAND — Crystal Gail Welcome steps out of the wilds of the Pacific Crest Trail near Ashland knowing all too well the obstacles of hiking through California on her trek to Canada, but also a lot more.
There’s the nonstop obsession with making miles, toughing out sore feet, the elements and living on freeze-dried food for fuel that all hikers face in this toughest hiking adventure the West has to offer.
But there are also the stares and sneers, even from other thru-hikers along the PCT. Some pull their equipment aside at rest stops, afraid she’s going to steal it, Welcome says. Even some day-hikers pull their families aside when she approaches.
“The obstacles I feel aren’t what other hikers experience,” Welcome says. “I’m seen as a transient, or that I’m here to steal from folks.
“It’s because I’m Black,” she says.
Welcome frankly doesn’t feel all that welcome among thru-hikers and those in some smaller trail communities as this year’s traditionally white wave of hikers make their way through Southern Oregon on their 2,640-mile quest to conquer the PCT.
As a rare long-distance hiker of color on the PCT, Welcome says she’s battling mental fatigue as she tries to show the long-distance hiking world that Black women belong in the woods and on its trails.
Welcome, whose trail name is The Giver, has taken to emailing police agencies in the communities along the trail, announcing her pending presence and declaring that, no, she’s not armed or dangerous.
And she’s been collecting trail cred from some fellow hikers along the trail as well as the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which is hailing Welcome as an ambassador
“I’m here to be visible, and hopefully not getting the cops called on me,” she says. “We hikers of color exist, too, you know.”
Welcome checks many rare boxes for those hardcore hikers who seek to traverse the PCT from Mexico to Canada each spring through fall.
As many as 8,000 people, known as “thru-hikers,” set out annually on that goal, and only 15% to 20% complete it, says Scott Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
An annual survey among PCT thru-hikers by the blog Halfway Anywhere shows that just 0.4% of those on the long walk identify themselves as Black or African-American.
More than 86% identify as White, according to the survey.
“We usually don’t know about more than a handful of people who identify as Black — maybe 10 or less a year,” Wilkinson says.
Welcome, a freelance writer from Minnesota, has been in touch with Wilkinson and others within the PCTA for the past year, and the association has taken notice.
They plucked her off the trail in June and flew her to the Outdoor Industry Association trade show as a trail liaison to retailers there. The PCTA even bestowed upon her its Luminary Award, citing her determination in connecting people with nature and adding a “powerful voice” for Blacks and other people of color in the outdoors.
Welcome also ticks off a few other hats she wears on the trail. She is a member of the LGBTQ community and suffers from a brain injury, for which she has internal pumps run by batteries that need recharging along the trail.
Oh, and she doesn’t hide from any conversation.
“She has no filter,” Wilkinson laughs. “She doesn’t sugar-coat anything. I like that, personally.”
Her brain injury, called cranial hypertension, left her a decade ago close to broken. Knowing she’d suffer pain, Welcome decided to live a full life despite it.
Besides, she needed some outlet living in the Minnesota town of Longville, known as the Turtle Racing Capital of the World.
“I wish I was lying to you, but I’m not,” Welcome says.
After a half-marathon in 2016, a friend took her on a hike in the Minnesota backwoods.
“It sounded dumb,” she says. “Why would I want to be around trees and bugs.”
But the day proved cathartic.
“I felt like I belonged in the outdoors,” Welcome says. “I became a hiker.”
Welcome’s been planning the PCT hike for well over a year, but she says she hit the trail March 1 at the Mexican border ill prepared for how others would treat her based on her skin.
Hikers in two California communities called law enforcement on her, believing she was a transient and a potential thief, Welcome says.
Others have pooh-poohed her potential for finishing the trail, Welcome believes, strictly because of her color. One guy called her fat, “but I took it as just being Black,” she says.
“The interactions I feel are not what other hikers experience,” Welcome says. “It’s not healthy, not conducive to a meaningful experience in the outdoors.
“I hug a lot of trees for support,” she says. “I’ve cried a lot lately.”
Welcome plans to spend a few days in Ashland to refuel for her quest on the Oregon portion of the PCT.
She will resupply her 35-pound pack and recharge the physical batteries that run her internal pumps, as well as the mental ones that dog PCT hikers entering Oregon — regardless of color.
“You’re on your feet every day,” Welcome says. “It’s exhausting. I need to take a nap. And I want pizza.”
Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.