This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York island, From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters; This land was made for you and me. Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back This land was made for you and me. -Woody Guthrie
For the better part of four years, I have waited patiently for my son, JD, to become consistently enthusiastic about a hobby or an activity. For a time, at least, he seems to have settled on "the outside."
It started with a simple hike - a generous term for the rambling walk we took at the Mountain Farm Museum on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just a few minutes from our home. From there, his enthusiasm grew, and he was asking to go hiking every day after daycare. Our hikes, our conversations while hiking, and my own rekindled love of outdoor recreation led me to a place of critical analysis of the types of public spaces that are available to us, and the ways we limit access to those spaces for people like me who do not fit the typical physically fit form.
While I am generally able-bodied, I am substantially overweight, which means that there are challenges for me when I want to access outdoor recreation. I have to think about stamina, the effect high-impact exercise will have on my joints in the days following a strenuous adventure, and whether or not my body is physically able to safely navigate the recreational spaces I want to enjoy. It sometimes means that I am unable to access certain places because those who control public policy have decided that increasing accessibility will somehow diminish the value of the recreational opportunities afforded to those who do not need accommodations. This is a reality I face every day as I think about how I can enjoy public spaces with JD.
Body image remains one of the ways even the most woke of liberals still exercise bias against people for things they often cannot control. During debates about access to public lands, I have heard people so far left they identify as socialist say that people who are not fit enough to access special public places like wilderness areas should not be allowed to access them if they can't do so on their own feet without assistance. These folks argue that some outdoor spaces are so sacred that the use of any sort of assistive technology will ruin them. They speak from a place of privilege whether they realize it or not.
Considerations about how and when folks can access public land bring me back to my conversations with JD. One of the first places we went to hike was the Cades Cove area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He fell in love with the cabins and the old farmstead, and asked a lot of great questions about who lived there and why they moved. We had a conversation about eminent domain that was more nuanced than you might expect given his age, and he left the conversation with a great deal of skepticism about whether or not it was appropriate for the US government to displace residents for the purpose of converting their land to public use. I reminded him, however, that he and I were enjoying one of the most visited national parks in the US, and that we got to enjoy the land because it was public. Now, even at four, he understands that there's room to enjoy the public lands available to us while still critiquing unjust processes and systems that displaced the original inhabitants of the land, then displaced the first generation of colonizers. I suppose that's the sort of thing you'd expect from the kid of an historian (I should note, I suppose, that my undergraduate degree and my MA are in history, and I spent the first several years of my academic career as a history professor, and my research focuses on economic history in Appalachia).
One of the reasons we chose Cades Cove as our destination of choice for exploring hiking is that it is so accessible. At Cades Cove, there are few difficult climbs, and the trails in most places are wide, level, and easily accessible. It has been the perfect place for JD and me to learn the basics of hiking while soaking up all the history. We enjoy the trails for the sake of the environment, but also because so many of them end at cabins or churches where we can rest and have conversations about how folks survived in Appalachia in the 19th Century.
As spring turned to summer, and my work obligations slowed from a fire hose to a damp trickle, JD and I set out for greater adventures. He asked a lot about camping when we circled campgrounds during our national park and forest adventures, and he began asking to go camp. I put together an assortment of good gear, and we have been enjoying camping this summer. As I write this, we are about to embark on a three-night adventure at the Chilhowee Recreation Area in the Cherokee National Forest.
In addition to thinking through the physical opportunities and limitations when I plan an outdoor adventure, I am also faced with unpleasant considerations about whether or not gear will work for me. I exceed the weight limit of many pieces of camping furniture, and few quality outdoor brands make clothing in my size. However, I have found great gear for my body, and workarounds for the things I can't find. I know I am not the only overweight person to yearn for the outdoors, and especially for sharing outdoor recreation with my kid. One of the reasons I chose to write this essay is to introduce myself with the hope of sharing my experiences as a fat person who loves outdoor recreation. My hope is to write about how fatphobia limits access to many recreational opportunities with hopes that are twofold: I want recreational manufacturers to understand that many overweight people want to engage in outdoor recreation and need quality gear, and I want other people who look like me to know that they can safely enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, and most other forms of outdoor recreation.
More than anything, I want to clear up the misconception that the outdoors is not for fat folk. While you aren't going to see me climbing Mt. Everest, I can still hike technical trails on which people are sometimes surprised to find someone who looks like me. I have to take my time, make a plan, use the correct equipment, and hydrate and fuel my body. I climb slow, and I huff and puff, and my knees sometimes hurt afterward, but I love hiking every bit as much as someone a third my weight. More than that, I cherish moments outdoors with JD, even when he can hike circles around me and wants to run ahead on trails. Just because you can't imagine someone who looks like me out there in the back of beyond doesn't mean you won't find me there, especially on public lands.
As I think through the summer that lays ahead for me and JD (and Betsy, my wife and JD's mama, when she is able to take time from work to join), I find myself humming Woody Guthrie's song. This land is your land, this land is my land. And I'm going to do everything I can to use my voice and my platform to ensure that it remains accessible to those who look like me. More than once, I found myself answering JD's questions about ownership of public land by quoting Guthrie. This land is your land, buddy. Let's go live in it.