Last Thursday, GMC was honored and excited to welcome Black ultramarathoner, hiker, author, speaker, and Vermonter Mirna Valerio to the Green Mountain Club’s virtual speaker series. Her session, titled “Awe, Community, & the Outdoors: A Perfect Trifecta,” brought attendees together in honor of our shared love for the outdoors and the power of nature to increase our joy, resiliency, and sense of community.
Her presentation came a day after the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and Mirna opened her speaker session with a direct response to those events. “None of what we do in the outdoors exists apart from what is happening in our country,” said Mirna to nearly 250 guests via Zoom. “I would be remiss and it would be a disservice to the communities that I serve to dismiss and ignore” the events that took place at the Capitol. “The outdoors does not exist apart from anything we witnessed yesterday, and it is in fact very, very much intertwined.”
GMC is grateful to Mirna for opening last week’s James P. Taylor Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series with truth and bravery. Her message set the tone for an interactive and engaging session that focused on memories and experiences of the outdoors, how they shape us, and how we can use and share the transformative power of nature to make the outdoors a more inclusive and welcoming space for all those who wish to experience it.
We invite you to watch Mirna’s message or read it below — reprinted with permission — or view the full YouTube recording of her program.
Alrighty, everyone, good evening. Hi, everybody. And, and many, many thanks to the Green Mountain Club and Lorne Currier and Erica Harris for inviting me to speak tonight. The Green Mountain Club is an organization that has been looming very largely in my mind and heart for years as I have considered on and off doing the AT [Appalachian Trail] and the Long Trail. [I’m] still in the process of considering so please don’t “at me” with your peer pressure (that happens all the time on social media these days, [I] end up doing crazy things).
And I’m so happy to have a chance to be in community with you, especially in light of yesterday’s/[Wednesday’s] events at our capitol. If you’ve come here to this talk of mine thinking and hoping that I won’t address the events that happened in our country, I invite you to stay and to be here with an open heart, strong legs and the desire to listen with a goal of honoring and acknowledging a different perspective. Also, I would be remiss and it would be a disservice to the communities that I serve to dismiss and ignore the big “Catamount” in the room — does that work? — So, I hope you’ll stay.
None of what we do in the outdoors exists apart from what is happening in our country. None of how we recreate amongst the trees or in lakes and ponds or on top of mountains or on our back porches or on our stoops on a beautiful summer day in the city is separate from the daily reality of our country. The outdoors does not exist apart from anything we witnessed yesterday and it is in fact very, very much intertwined. When a Black body enters a space, it is often questioned and many times perceived as a nuisance. When even a known group of white supremacist agitators, gains access to a public space with ease, it makes you question how this is replicated in other areas of our society.
As a Black person who frequents outdoor spaces for my personal enjoyment, for work for my physical and mental health and well-being, I’m very keenly aware of my existence in my body in spaces that are often seen as White spaces. The Great Outdoors and the American imagination does not exist apart from the erasure of indigenous communities and the theft of their homesteads, the forbidding of Black folk from certain outdoor spaces both de jure and de facto, the continued media representation of one kind of body, one kind of experience, one kind of outdoors.
So that said, I’m honored to be the person speaking tonight, I’m honored to have this opportunity tonight to share what has been a crucial aspect of my own mental and physical health and wellness. I hope that by being here, we’re open to creating more opportunities for all people, but specifically for people of color and others who are from disenfranchised communities, to experience the extraordinary benefits of time spent outside, of exploring our natural world, of doing the things all humans are meant to do. I hope that we’re committed to disrupting the common narrative that people of color just don’t “do” the outdoors. I hope that we’re committed to examining why there isn’t a greater diversity of folks out there on the trails. And trust me, it isn’t because we don’t want to. Questions like, Will I be safe? Will I be stared at? Will folks question my existence? Will someone chase me and kill me while I’m out running? loom largely in our hearts and in our minds, and are all real concerns. And we have seen these realities playing out in real time over the past 10 months and frankly, over the history of our country.
On a personal note, I’ve had the police called on me while I was running and training on my own street when I lived in Georgia. And every time I ride my bike on a particular street and this town of Montpelier, Vermont, I wonder if today will be the day that that truck with the flags will knock me over. Some of you may be thinking that I’m being hyperbolic. But this is my reality. And the reality of being in this black body recreating outside, these things are constantly on my mind. And in my heart, even as I recreate in spaces many people think are apolitical. Everything is political. Everything is connected. And the more we acknowledge these experiences and fears of others in this great space we call the outdoors, the more we will examine what it is we can do as folks who love the outdoors, and all it gives us, to make spaces more equitable and less scary.
Being in community with each other tonight is a step in the right direction. So I hope that as you listen to my presentation, your mind takes you back to the spaces and times that filled you full of awe and wonder. And I hope that you will use these good memories to extend these opportunities to others, perhaps outside your circle, and enhance someone else’s relationship to our natural world. As someone who benefits from the freedom to roam and joy, and as someone who benefits from the opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors on trails and this beautiful state of Vermont, I am deeply feeling the necessity of our time together today. And I appreciate you for staying.