"I opened my mouth and my life fell out."
That's how Rue Mapp felt in 2009 when she first shared the idea for Outdoor Afro, a blog to reconnect African-American people with the outdoors.
"And that was a surprising moment, one of those moments where all those things that you just take for granted about who you are come into really sharp focus."
Before she founded Outdoor Afro, Rue Mapp came of age in the great outdoors.
She grew up in Oakland, but her family had a ranch 100 miles north of the city. Mapp grew up hunting, stargazing, fishing, and participating in Girl Scouts. Her parents raised animals, preserved food, and made wine. Her family often hosted large gatherings of friends and people from church.
"So having this thread of nature and hospitality instilled in me at a very young age has become the centerpiece of Outdoor Afro today."
In 2009, she started Outdoor Afro, a blog that soon became much more.
At first, she shared her own stories of growing up in the fresh air and how her experiences as a child and young woman shaped her in the best ways. Before long, other African-American outdoor enthusiasts started following her and chatting online. Mapp was pleasantly surprised to learn she wasn't alone.
Since then, the program has moved beyond the web to local meetups.
There are now Outdoor Afro chapters in 30 states. Each group holds open events and programs, including hikes and walks, camping trips, rock climbing, local farm tours, river rafting, and more. If it's outside, someone in the group is probably willing to give it a try.
The programs and trips are led by volunteer Outdoor Afro leaders.
They're not professional mountain climbers or adventure athletes; they're often professionals with a fondness for the outdoors: more community organizer than wilderness expert.
"Outdoor Afro leaders don't need to be the one that has all the gear and expertise," Mapp says. "We want people who can connect-in with other people."
Brittany Leavitt, an early education teacher, discovered Outdoor Afro on a blog and decided to give the group a shot and is now their D.C. leader. Stefan Moss, an environmental science professor and leader of Outdoor Afro-Atlanta joined the group to find more outdoor activities for his young family. Plus, getting outside helps him feel more connected with the world.
"Through outdoor activities I find a deeper understanding of meaning and purpose as I observe the natural order and the way in which things interact with each other," he writes in an email.
That's what's so powerful about Outdoor Afro. It's not just about getting outside, it's about getting outside with black people.
While everyone is welcome at Outdoor Afro events, the meetups and programs are designed by African-American people to encourage African-American people to explore together.
"In the outdoors we can celebrate our humanity and our melanin, without intimidation or judgment," Moss says.
Members can also celebrate the unique and often forgotten relationships black people have to outdoors. From the Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West to the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, there's world of history to take in. Leavitt planned a four-day backpacking trip through the Appalachian Trail, mirroring part of Harriet Tubman's route to freedom.
"It was really fun," Leavitt says. "We had seven outdoor leaders total, and two people who were brand new to backpacking."
Communing with each other became especially important in the wake of violent and hurtful attacks against African-American people.
After Ferguson, Mapp braced for a long night of protests and demonstrations in her hometown of Oakland. Like many people, she felt heartbroken and wondered what she could do to "show up" for the movement. She reached out to partner organizations and launched the first of many Healing Hikes, a chance for Outdoor Afro participants to collect their thoughts, share, and reflect together in natural spaces.
"The following weekend we had ... about 30 people show up in the Oakland Hills, and we started off with some yoga and some intention-setting, and we worked our way down into the Redwood Forest."
Soon the group found themselves hiking along a beautiful stream and the weight of history and purpose immediately struck Mapp.
"It was this clear epiphany that we were doing what African-Americans have always known we could do, and that's to lay down our burdens down by the riverside," Mapp says. "We were doing something that was in our DNA to do."
It's easy to feel intimidated by the great outdoors, but it's important to get out anyway.
You don't have to have all the gear or all of the answers, just a willingness to follow through on your curiosity. You may already be more outdoorsy than you realize. If you grill out, garden, or walk your neighborhood, you're farther along than you think.
"If you like to walk, consider a hike at a national park. If you like to swim find the most scenic lake or beach in your area and swim there," Moss says. "Have fun, take lots of pictures and celebrate your own connection to the outdoors!"
In other words: Get outside and let your life fall out.