From 'Inherited Fear' to Real Life Confrontation: Vanessa Blais Opens Up About Hiking While Black

Pang Wangle Director of Business Development Vanessa Blais in Death Valley, California.

 

Equipped with camping supplies, pandemic essentials, and a dozen boiled eggs, Vanessa Blais headed out with her husband for a long 4th of July weekend in the great outdoors.

“That’s a lotta eggs,” Jason observed. Anyone who knows Vanessa would never question her methods, though. She is always the most prepared.

A few important items from Vanessa's packing list.

“Spending time outdoors makes me happy and rejuvenated,” Vanessa explains. “It’s like my reset button.”

 

Growing up in Los Angeles, California, she didn’t spend much time in nature. Though she recalls vivid dreams about open fields, animals, and forests. 

Vanessa camping in California.

“I used to be almost mad at my father,” says Vanessa. Why didn't he ever take them hiking or camping? It took her a while before she pieced together the reasons.

“When my parents were young and living in the south, parks and beaches were segregated. And even after segregation, the idea of a public national or state park - it was not safe. That’s where bad things happened to Black people. That’s where lynchings happened.”

“There is this generational inherited fear, for just cause, that bad things can happen out there,” says Vanessa.

Vanessa and daughter Norah at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The city girl went off to college to St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota. “And there was something really magical about this place with 10,000 lakes and lots of cows and lots of pastures.”

She signed up for a Beginner Orienteering class.

“It was my first time in a canoe, it was my first time really on any type of boat, probably, and I learned how to portage and all that stuff and I was fascinated. I was like, this is what I’ve been wanting to do! Then I hit the next obstacle, well how do I do that more?”

Vanessa moved around for internships and jobs and tried to get outdoors as much as possible, usually close to town and on a smaller scale. Once she was married with a daughter in pre-school, she seized another opportunity for school sponsored camping and hiking trips where she could learn how to explore safely.

“So it wouldn’t be this lonely effort. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want it to be an awful experience. I leaned in more, I found more people to do this with.”

Vanessa biking on Carriage Roads in Acadia National Park in Maine. 

Every January for 10 years now, Vanessa takes her daughter camping with another family north of Santa Barbara, California at El Capitan Canyon.  With her husband and various friends, she has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, Death Valley, Acadia National Park, Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. A few years ago, Vanessa drove an RV from L.A. to the Canadian Rockies in Jasper, Alberta with friends and her daughter.

Vanessa and friends rafting in Kicking Horse River in Banff, Alberta.

“You’ll see Amish people, you’ll see Native Americans. Those are those great moments when it’s like, yes, we’re all out here in nature together! But usually you are really on your own.  I don’t think we saw any people of color on my entire RV trip. It's like, you hope that people who are out in nature are going to be kind and nice, but there is a fear.”

Eventually Vanessa confronted her fear. He was a middle-aged white man in a pick-up truck who pulled along side her on a lonely stretch of road outside the Pinnacle Peak trailhead in northern Scottsdale, Arizona.

He said, "Hey, are you lost?"

I said, "No, I’m not lost.”

“Well then what are you doing here?”

And I froze and I said, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I know where I’m going, I’m fine.”

And he said, “No, you must be lost.”

I kept walking and he followed me for a little while. I had my phone and I pre-dialed 911 and finally he drove off.  I was so scared. I never did that walk again.

That happened two years ago.

Vanessa kayaking in the Channel Islands archipelago off the coast of California

Vanessa carries bear spray or mace, plus her phone, and never hikes alone now unless she’s on a busy path in Los Angeles. She goes sea kayaking with her husband. She’s planning to hike the Grand Canyon. And her love of the outdoors continues to grow.

“I can vividly remember all the times I’ve seen stars. Not city stars, but real stars. If any of my friends calls up to see if I want to go camping, if I can get it on the calendar, I’m gonna go.”

Sam Trice and his catch in Yakutat, Alaska

Vanessa’s dad Sam Trice is now 80 years-old and for more than 20 years he has gone on an annual deep sea fishing trip with friends off the coast of Alaska. The call to nature found him, too, later in life. 

Vanessa's Top 6 Adventure Spots 

White Water Rafting at the Kicking Horse River in Banff, Alberta, Canada
Activities: White Water Rafting, Hiking, Horseback Riding
Tip: Opt for the layers and wetsuits they offer. The river is glacier fed...meaning it’s COLD!

El Capitan Canyon, CA
Activity: Cabin Camping, Hiking, Surfing
Tip: Be sure to walk to El Capitan State Beach.

Yellowstone National Park, WY
Activities: Hiking, Exploring
Tip: Take time to visit the hydrothermal features like Old Faithful in the south and bison in the north. 

Acadia National Park, ME
Activities: Hiking, Biking
Tip: Rent bikes in Bar Harbor and explore the Carriage Roads.

Channel Islands National Park (near Ventura, CA)
Activities: Hiking, Kayaking, Camping, Bird Watching, Scuba Diving
Tip: Kayak through the sea caves 

Death Valley, CA
Activities: Hiking, Exploring
Tip: Explore the sand dune scenes from Star Wars (Tatooine) and hike around Zabriskie Point.

***Cover Photo by Rhoi Carpena

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