Stereotypes abound about black people avoiding outdoor activities, partly fueled by myth and partially confirmed by a lack of access and resources. Many outdoor pursuits are expensive, require training, or largely inaccessible.
But in spite of these barriers, black people have always broken boundaries and set new limits in the outdoors. From the Buffalo Soldiers (who constructed the 14,500 foot hiking trail up Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the United States) to black cowboys, we are trailblazers. In that tradition, Toyota Rav4 Adventure Grade and I teamed up to confront stereotypes about black people: I undertook their challenge to try a new outdoor adventure and write about my experience.
I was born and raised in Utah, a mecca of outdoor recreation. While I grew up canoeing, swimming in lakes, fishing, and trying to pretend rocks are comfortable to sleep on while camping, I had never tested my limits with more adrenaline pumping sports (I don’t like playing with my life more than necessary).
To commemorate my 30th birthday, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and book a trip to Costa Rica with my boyfriend and three friends. I was ready to experience the ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle that the lush and biodiverse country has to offer, with its 800 miles of coastline and swaths of protected land. From hiking and ATVing to volcano treks and cloud forest climbs, the country has no shortage of oh-no-what-am-I-doing-but-wait-this-is-fun activities. I convinced my travel group to zipline, among other adventurous activities, with surprisingly little resistance.
Our adventure started with peeling ourselves out of our cozy beds at 6:30 AM sharp to make the trek to our zipline. I quickly stuffed myself with toast, eggs, and bacon, because you can’t fly through the jungle on an empty stomach. At first, I was strangely calm about the possibility of dangling from a razor-thin suspension wire 100 feet from the ground, but as soon as our group van climbed the steep dirt road into the jungle, I began to sweat.
At the entrance of the ziplining canopy, the guides gave light instructions and handed us waivers (where we signed any liability to them away), before we shimmied our bodies, afros, and locs into harnesses and helmets. The helmets truly weren’t designed for big hair. I opted for their largest one, smashing my curls down, but the strap was still strangling me as if I owed it money. I was playfully given the nickname “big head” by the local guides, which evolved into “big brain” by the end of the day.
We single-filed up a small dirt road to a demonstration zipline at ground height, which stretched tautly between two trees. One of our seven guides showed us how they hooked the silver trolley hanging from our harnesses to the wire, and warned that grabbing the wire to slow down or stop is not an option, unless we want to go home with fewer fingers than we started with.
The course consisted of ten ziplines sprawled across hundreds of meters of treetops, including the longest and fastest zipline in Costa Rica. Each line was secured to a tree trunk and accessed by a tiny metal platform that wrapped around that trunk. Our group climbed stairs, walked extremely narrow suspension bridges high in the air, and hiked steep paths between each zipline. I couldn’t tell if the plate-sized sweat stains under my long sleeve shirt were from fear, or the unexpected workout we were getting in the heavy jungle humidity.
At our first stop, our guide asked me to place my feet on a small stump to gain some height, so he could clip my trolley to the wire. I rested my weight into the harness, letting my legs hang. I then crossed my ankles, and before I could say “‘ey let’s do this!” I was flying at 50 mph, 100 feet above the ground, towards the next tree. It was exhilarating. I felt like one of the howler monkeys that dotted the treetops, soaring from branch to branch. The fear turned to weightless freedom.
Halfway through the course, we had the opportunity to test our skills by ziplining upside down. The catch: We would have to let our hands dangle above our heads and trust the wires, leaving our harnesses to literally do the heavy lifting. “Why would anyone want to fly through the jungle with the blood rushing to their head?” I thought immediately.
Nonetheless, I knew I had to try it, or else I would regret it. Perched on the edge of the green platform, I sat into my harness, hoisted my knees above my head as instructed, released my hands to the floor, and began flying. Not only was I upside down, but I was backwards, with my hair streaming towards the ground. The harness gripped my thighs, keeping me from plummeting downward.
The final test was a rappel rope with a 50-foot drop to the ground. Everyone in our group was scared — even the burly dude from Connecticut. We were expected to saunter up to the edge and step off, letting the ropes catch our weight as we glided down to the ground; sometimes the guides would even mess with us and let the rope slip really fast so we’d feel that achy, stomach-drop feeling.
I watched three people go before me, each with terror in their eyes. As I stepped off myself, our guides shouted “look up!” so the photographer could snap whatever contorted face I made while dropping to the ground. Instead, I flashed a smile and held my composure: I was the champ. I had conquered a fear of heights, speed, and sinister jungle animals to zipline through Costa Rica’s amazing foliage. No one could tell me anything.
After hundreds of meters, at least one gallon of sweat secreted, and lots of laughs, I realized that doing what scares you will free you. I was inspired to continue to trailblaze like the buffalo soldiers and black cowboys — and I was reminded that we all have the ability to go beyond our comfort zones and experience the wonder of the outdoors.
Christina Blacken is a fan of afros, writer, and founder of TheNewQuo.com, where she shares diverse inspiration + resources for unleashing the creative possibilities in work and life.