CDTC Pledge to Protect – Akuna and the Importance of Trail Community

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s (CDTC) Pledge to Protect started this week. Throughout the month of August, CDTC and its sponsors are asking the Continental Divide Trail community to join the Pledge to conserve and protect the CDT. This initiative includes committing to support a trail community that honors, welcomes, and reflects both the faces of our country and the many different historical, cultural, and spiritual stories that have shaped the landscapes of the CDT.

The CDT is a living museum of the American West where people of all walks of life unite to connect with nature. Each year, the trail serves thousands of day and overnight visitors, thru-hikers, horseback riders, recreationists, and communities along the trail corridor.

Though many of us go outdoors for personal growth and to enjoy natural spaces, the people sharing those spaces significantly impact our experience. We all play a part in making the CDT and the trail community more welcoming to all people. It’s also our responsibility to share the CDT with others and to expand the network of individuals who identify and connect with the CDT community.

Akuna after completing the CDT, his final thru-hike of the Triple Crown. Photo courtesy of Akuna.

We spoke to Merrell Ambassador Will “Akuna” Robinson about creating a more welcoming trail community for all visitors to the CDT. When talking about the value of community Akuna emphasized how important the trail community is to his experience. “The trail community is one of my favorite parts of long distance hiking. You meet people on trails who will do more for you than people you’ve known your whole life. I’ve had people invite me into their homes, I’ve had people wash my dirty, smelly clothes, I’ve had people give me rides, and so much more. It’s so strong, it’s so powerful and it just renews your faith in humanity that these people out here will do all of this stuff to support you and don’t expect anything in return. It really lets you know there are still good people out there in the world,” he explains.

Akuna is a veteran, a long distance hiker, and the first Black man to complete the Triple Crown of Hiking (completing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, the Appalachian Trail in 2018, and the Continental Divide Trail in 2019). He began his thru-hiking journey as a way to cope with PTSD from his time in the military and now devotes himself to inspiring and helping others, especially those from underrepresented communities, to explore the outdoors.

While Akuna admits that he may never get used to being in the spotlight, he realizes that his visibility as a hiker of color is an important part of being an ambassador for trails and encouraging others from underrepresented communities to access the benefits that nature can offer.

By chronicling his adventures on social media, he can show kids (and adults) who are interested that they too are welcome in the outdoors. Akuna explains, “I started sharing more and more on social media and eventually started doing podcasts and things like that to show people how much healing they can find in nature…and to affirm that what they might want to do is achievable.”

Though it can be hard to explain, Akuna says the caring and generosity he receives from so many strangers often blows him away, and that this sense of community is an important part of his experience on the trail. “Most people aren’t used to someone who you don’t know offering you help or offering to do something for you just because without expecting anything in return,” he says.

Akuna arrives in Leadville. Photo courtesy of Akuna.

During his CDT thru-hike, Akuna and part of his trail family were in Leadville on a day off, recharging following a week of high snow hiking. They were sitting outside of the grocery store when a couple who they had talked to a few minutes earlier returned and said, “We can give you a ride to the trail if you want, but we would rather you come and stay the night with us.”

“We did need an extra day of recovery. So they brought us back to their home, they fed us, they took us anywhere we needed to go in town, they showed us around. I mean, where does that happen elsewhere in the world? Complete strangers saw that we needed something and were willing to help us out with it. It was just a beautiful thing,” he explains. These experiences of kindness restore Akuna’s faith in humanity and remind him that a hiker’s role is to “enjoy their journey, respect nature, Leave No Trace, and just grow.” Given that he has felt included in many places along the trail, Akuna reminds us that for all people to be able to take on the role of a hiker as he has and feel comfortable to grow, the trail and spaces it passes through have to feel welcoming.

Even if we’re not thru-hikers or members of a trail town, as individuals we can improve trail communities and the experiences of others in the outdoors by being inclusive and welcoming, and by inviting new people to join us. Akuna suggests inviting your friends to go hiking with you, even if they’ve never had a chance to recreate in the outdoors. “You can suggest it, you can bring it up, but don’t try to force it because the outdoors isn’t for everyone; not everyone is going to enjoy that time,” Akuna reminds us. While it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone wants to recreate outdoors, it can be helpful to provide resources that counter stereotypes, to listen to and learn from the stories and voices of people from underrepresented groups who are already doing this work, and to share those stories and resources with others.

“The outdoors, nature, the trail – it truly is for all of us who are willing to come out there, [it’s important] that we understand we are guests. We need to respect it and leave it in the same condition or better than when we got there. We won’t be judged by the outdoors itself, judgment comes from people. We’re the ones making the outdoor spaces less inclusive, but the outdoors itself welcomes all who are willing to respect it and put in the work,” Akuna says.

CDTC is working to create a more welcoming trail community through our Gateway Community program and Gateway Community Ambassador program that aim to increase local use and access to the trail. We also continue to expand our educational outreach and resources for people of all ages across the landscapes of the CDT and host events (both virtually and in-person, when safe) to engage broader communities.

Join us in creating a welcoming trail environment for all people and Pledge to support a CDT community that is genuine; open and welcoming; and brings people together around a shared love for the outdoors, the trail, and the lands and people around it. From offering support to thru-hikers on and off the trail, to including beginners in your next trip, to listening and amplifying the stories of folks who are not often heard, each of us can take action to make all people, regardless of experience or identity, feel more welcome in the outdoors, on the trail, and in the CDT community.