Where to Find Healing Hikes and Pastel Pink Snowstorms
Some people say that nature is the best medicine. If your body is hurting in the vitamin D department, embrace sunny skies. If you’re feeling sluggish, boost your energy with a walk outside. If you’re bored with your daily routine, spice up your life by exploring a local park.
Beyond the health benefits of admiring brilliant wildflowers and stretching one’s legs on beautifully brown paths, Brittany Leavitt invites us to imagine the people who stepped foot in the same exact place. She’ll connect your life to the history of the grounds you’re walking upon. She helps people reclaim their sense of wonder, break down stereotypes, and feel comfortable being themselves in outdoor spaces.
Recently, we spoke with Brittany to learn more and share some of her wisdom with you.
How do you find your park?
I grew up right outside of Washington, D.C. My family and I would spend every weekend exploring different parks, from our local parks in Greenbelt, MD, to the National Arboretum, to the National Mall. My favorite time of the year is the springtime, due to the cherry blossom season. To me, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom that means it’s officially springtime in D.C. As a kid, I would call them cotton candy because they look so fluffy in the distance. I love when the wind comes and blows the petals off the trees. It’s like you are standing in a pastel pink snowstorm. Great places to view the trees include the Tidal Basin, where you can do a nice 3-mile loop stopping at the Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, George Mason Memorial, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. The Tidal Basin isn’t the only spot to view the beautiful trees, you can also view them at East Potomac Park, which is a runner/cyclist park. And, the National Arboretum is a great place to check them out.
What are some of your special park experiences?
Oh! I have a couple. One of my favorite memories as a kid was visiting Shenandoah National Park. My dad loved to take the family on “Mystery Rides.” He surprised us with a drive through parts of Skyline Drive during the fall one year. I remember looking out from one of the overlook points and seeing the beauty of the mountains that were painted the colors of red, yellow, orange, and green. In general, I love spending time hiking and backpacking in this area.
Another favorite place is Assateague Island National Seashore. I was lucky enough to live on the Eastern Shore for about eight years. During that time, I lived about 25 mins from the beach which was wonderful because during the off-seasons my friends and I would go on night swims and hang out on the beach. It's also fascinating history about how the horses made the park their home.
My most recent fond memory of visiting a national park was just last year when I got to experience a little bit of the west coast. We had our Outdoor Afro Leadership training in Yosemite and we hiked some of the Mist Trail and saw the Nevada Falls. We also explored a Sequoia Grove. To me, the most memorable moment was the first time entering into the park, seeing the mountains and feeling like I was home. There is a beautiful overlook where you can see the valley from a distance.
What’s a unique way that you express yourself in a park?
A unique way I express myself in parks is by connecting. I love digging into the importance of why this area has become protected. History and nature go side by side. I try to look for African American and Native American connections to whatever park I am in. For example, Shenandoah National Park wasn't fully desegregated until 1955. In the southern portion of the park was a colored-only campground called Lewis Mountain Picnic Ground.
Another way I like to express myself in a park is by taking nature photographs. I love capturing a different perspective of nature. As much as I love hiking and backpacking in the mountains, exploring oceans, and climbing walls, I tend to also use parks as a way to put myself in shutdown mode for bit. Sometimes I will go to a park and just sit and take in my surroundings for myself. In the recent years, I have been using the great outdoors as a way to process grief.
What is your favorite part about being an Outdoor Afro leader?
My favorite part about being an Outdoor Afro leader is getting to engage people and help the black community come together and enjoy or learn a new activity outside. Our philosophy is to “celebrate and inspire black leadership in nature.”
We have always loved recreating in the outdoors. The Outdoor Afro community also helps people get rid of the fear of the “unknown” by breaking down stereotypes.
A major way we connect with our community is by creating activities and events that have a significant importance to our local black history. For example, Matthew Henson, who was the first explorer to reach the North Pole, was born and raised in Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area. We have a hiker/biker park and trail that is dedicated in honor of him.
Another example of a local historic connection would be Benjamin Banneker, who was an astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor. Benjamin was the first African American scientist. You can visit his museum in Catonsville, MD, where you’ll see a replica of his cabin and can take a nice 3-mile hike around the area.
Despite living so close to the mountains, sometimes bringing a group together in a local park can be just as impactful and healing. I live in Baltimore City and I am surrounded by 18 local parks that all have a special uniqueness to them.
As an Outdoor Afro leader, we are showing others how to use nature as healing space through our healing hikes. These hikes give our participants a space to feel comfortable to express their emotions, thoughts, and concerns, without feeling judged.
What is #UndergroundTrailMode and what was it like to lead one of the backpacking trips?
Each year, Outdoor Afro leaders embark on a special blackpacking trip. In 2015, a group of leaders backpacked through Mt. Whitney. They retraced the steps of the Buffalo Soldiers, who were considered the first park rangers.
Last year, I was lucky enough to lead the #UndergroundTrailMode backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. We traced the steps of Harriet Tubman through the Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail, for a total of 41 miles.
Harriet Tubman, who is a Maryland local hero, was born on the Eastern Shore and escaped to freedom using the Delaware state. When she came back to help other slaves escape to freedom, she used the Appalachian Mountains. We had seven Outdoor Afro leaders come on the trip, people from many different backpacking backgrounds, from first-timers to seasoned vets. What I love about backpacking is that everyone has their own take on it. One person slept in a hammock. I had one leader who freeze-dried soul food. It was a fantastic experience. What helped bring the group together was that everyone was willing to help each other out, and we also sang a lot on the trail.
If you had two sentences to entice somebody who’s never been to a national park to visit, what would you say?
It is never too early. It is never too late. The national parks are America’s beauty and wonder. The parks are a great tool to learn, connect, and grow. The national parks are for EVERYONE!
Brittany Leavitt is currently a preschool teacher at the Smithsonian. She is also the Northeast Regional Leader for Outdoor Afro and an outdoor instructor for REI. When she is not working, you can find her outside backpacking, climbing, or kayaking. You can follow her on Instagram at @bleavitt8. You can learn more about Outdoor Afro’s work here.