Robert Taylor doesn't consider himself a pioneer. He's simply a guy who's always gone his own way. But according to trail watchers he's met during his nearly 5,000 miles of hiking during the past 6 years, Taylor is the first African-American to thru-hike both the Appalachian (AT) and Pacific Crest Trails (PCT).
Backpacker: How did a city kid like you get into this?
Taylor: I used to haul a Boy Scout rucksack all over my neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), with a lunch my mom packed. Then one day when I was 6, I saw a TV program about hiking the AT. Later on, I saw an article in Backpacker that outlined the routes of the AT, PCT, and Continental Divide Trail. I started reading everything I could find on the subject.
Backpacker: What were your biggest challenges on the PCT?
Taylor: I had to face down a cougar and a bear, I had shin splints, and there were plenty of snowy passes where I had to use my ice axe to keep from sliding over cliffs. But the thing that really scared me was crossing streams, because they can move swiftly; they were so cold that my legs went numb.
Backpacker: How about on the AT?
Taylor: My problems were mainly with people. In towns, people yelled racist threats at me in just about every state I went through. They'd say, "We don't like you," and "You're a nigger." Once when I stopped at a mail drop, the postmaster said, "Boy, get out of here. We got no mail drop for you." Even on the trail itself, other AT thru-hikers acted like I was going to steal their gear. I remember thinking, "I'm not going to steal any of your stuff. I'm having a hard enough time carrying mine."
Backpacker: What can we do to break down barriers for hikers of color?
Taylor: On the PCT, people were excited to see a black person carrying a backpack. It was always, "Who are you? What have you been doing? Where are you from?" I just hope the hiking community will keep reaching out to people of color they meet in the wilds. Be friendly, be natural, ask questions.
Backpacker: How would you encourage inner-city dwellers to do what you've done?
Taylor: People who've never spent a night outdoors-even the tough guys from my old neighborhood-look at me like I'm crazy. They think there are too many dangers, it's too far from home, too many things can go wrong. It's no different than suburban people being scared to visit the inner city. But I just tell them, "There's something great out there that you don't know anything about. Why not give it a chance?"