Opening Paths In The Woods
September 10, 2019
From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change
How geotagging keeps some people in and other people out.
Meghan O’Dea | @live.true.stories
“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar. (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)” - Gloria Anzaldúa
That’s a line from the groundbreaking, multilingual work “Borderlands // La Frontera,” a reflection on Anzaldúa’s queer Chicana feminism, as well as the poetics and politics of living in the liminal space between countries, cultures, and intersectional identities. It predates social media and the trend of geotagging the location of your latest summit selfies and lakeside hangouts by almost twenty years. Yet she manages in that one line to capture the complexities of how we navigate the intersection of identity and geography that now come with sharing location data online—especially when you aren’t white, straight, or cis-gendered.
The debate around geotagging has exploded along with increased participation in outdoor recreation and travel worldwide. Even as the National Parks Service faces funding cuts in the same ballpark as the annual GDPs of Sweden, Austria, and Hong Kong, outdoor recreation has never been more popular. American outdoor enthusiasts went on 10.9 billion adventures in 2017 alone, and for 13.6 million people, those excursions were their very first forays into the wilderness.
Of those newcomers to the outdoors, vast numbers are minorities who are embracing hiking, camping, and RVing in a way previous generations of Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans did not. A smaller, but a not-insignificant fraction, are coming out of the closet as queer or trans people who happen to love rock climbing, rafting, surfing, and mountain biking as much as anyone else. That’s not to leave out, of course, the significant number of disabled outdoor enthusiasts whose identities overlap with a variety of races, genders, and sexualities.
For all of those people, as well as their white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied neighbors, sharing location data is one way that anyone new to outdoor recreation can find out where to go and how to get involved. If you don’t grow up hiking, camping, and trekking to swimming holes, not knowing where to have a safe, fun, scenic experience can be a deterrent. Location data shared readily online can feel like an inclusive invitation, whether you’re hoping to “travel like a local” while you’re far from home, or find a corner of the stomping grounds you haven’t seen before. That becomes even truer when you see familiar faces in a post about a place.
“Exposure to the outdoors occurs through parents or family members. If one has parents who had never thought of the outdoors as recreational or had the time or money to recreate outdoors due to immigration, socioeconomic status, culture, etc., then the next most accessible place for exposure is social media,” Kiona, the editor and mastermind behind the intersectional travel site How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch, explained. “Role modeling, having representation, and giving tips on where to go and how to do it” is key to getting more People of Color outside, she said.
Simply by being visible outdoors, People of Color are building bridges as they walk. That’s even truer when they’re tagging the places where they’re going outside, anchoring those bridges in real-world places where other people might see their adventures and be inspired to join in on the fun. That fresh surge in outdoor participation has, however, led to various crackdowns on the practice of including location data in social media posts, a habit that can help popularize places to degrees that become problematic.
After all, of those nearly 14 million people heading outside for the first time, and even more who are repeat recreationists, a vast number aren’t well-versed in the essential tenets of sustainable travel, regardless of their identities. They might not know why you shouldn’t step off-trail in fragile ecosystems or why stacking rocks for the ‘gram isn’t a good idea. And even more haven’t given much thought to the potential impact of geotagging, whether for good or ill. That’s not only led to a controversial debate about the role of location data in enjoying and preserving online spaces but crackdowns and consequences, too.
Accounts like Public Lands Hate You deride the impact that Instagram-driven tourism has on destinations like the super-bloom in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where photo-hungry visitors trample the same flowers they’re ostensibly there to appreciate. That’s led to the application of call-out culture to the geotagging debate, including threats made even to fairly privileged influencers like the white, straight-presenting Brianna Madia. She took a brief social media sabbatical earlier this year after followers of Public Lands Hate You began targeting her for a years-old photo of one of her dogs standing off-leash in Arches National Park, and a more recent shot in which she was casually bathing in a mud hole in the remote desert where she and her husband live in an iconic orange van.
It’s not just a few online activists pushing back against location data, either. Last winter, even the tourism board overseeing the perennially popular Jackson Hole area of Wyoming took an unusual tack when their latest ad campaign recommended visitors “Post the photo. Trash the tag.” That’s a recent trend in wokevertising in which big companies follow in the footsteps of digital sustainability activists working to align geotagging with the erosion of fragile ecosystems and in opposition to the principles of Leave No Trace, the organization most associated with sustainability in the outdoors.
The intensity of the reaction that a seemingly harmless geotag can garner online these days has an outsized impact. That response scares off newcomers to the outdoor community who might be unfamiliar with sustainability guidelines. That’s especially true for minority communities who haven’t traditionally had much presence in the outdoor space and are at an informational disadvantage. In an industry that’s long been associated with white middle-class males and their athletic prowess, it can be intimidating, threatening, or otherwise marginalizing to try to navigate the complex conversations around the pros and cons of geotagging.
On the flip side, however, location data can not only present a threat to fragile ecosystems easily stomped by errant hiking boots but also to vulnerable populations taking a risk by venturing into spaces where they might stand out even more than usual. After all, when you geotag in the moment, you aren’t just sharing a beautiful destination, but also your whereabouts—a direct contradiction to the stranger danger lessons many of us were taught as kids.
“It’s one thing for a dude to post his ‘I go to this hot springs way out in the woods and here’s the GPS coordinates’ photo,” Quince Mountain said. He’s a Beargrease and Kobuck 440 competitor, one half of the international Bravermountain mushing team with his wife Blair Braverman, and has the distinction of being the first openly transgender survivalist to appear on the show “Naked and Afraid.“
“It does put him at certain risk for someone with cruel intentions to come find him there,” Mountain said of his hypothetical male hot springs visitor. “But for a woman to do the same thing, she may feel an additional level of risk because the very act of being a woman on social media, unafraid to share images of her enjoying herself outside in a swimsuit or whatever... seems to bring out resentful, angry people who see her not as a person but as a symbol. I don’t think anyone has a responsibility to advertise their location publicly, ever.”
But the pressure to share location data isn’t always rooted in the majesty of a beautiful sunset or even the desire to increase visibility for minorities in the outdoors. It also comes directly from how social media platforms are structured—with algorithms giving preference to popular destinations, place-based hashtags, and the high levels of post engagement that come with sharing content from buzz-worthy destinations.
I’ve experienced this personally from years of sharing my own adventures online—a picture snapped in Los Angeles’ freshly trendy and gentrifying DTLA neighborhood gets a lot more likes from strangers than one taken in under-the-radar, less populous Bloomington, Indiana. Articles I pitch on destinations with low search volume from fellow Google querants are less likely to get picked up by editors than articles on destinations currently in favor with adventure travelers.
The internet, for better or worse, isn’t structured in a way that gives preferential treatment to places no one has heard of. You’re almost certainly more likely to see articles about destinations like Lake Havasu and the Grand Canyon than, say, my personal favorites like the Ocoee River in Tennessee and Letchworth State Park in western New York. In the end, that means there may be little difference between my comparatively unsung choice to geotag my favorite swimming hole in North Georgia and a far more influential online personality like Brianna Madia refusing to share the location of her favorite campsites off remote forest roads in the Utah desert.
The other side of this coin is that not everyone has the same name for the same place—or the same relationship with them. Jaylyn Gough, a Navajo woman who attempted to thru-hike the Nüümü Poyo Trail last year in affiliation with Native Women’s Wilderness and Indigenous Women Hike, finished the trail this year in honor of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. If you don’t recognize the name of the 100+ mile trail through the High Sierras that Gough tackled, that’s because it’s better known by the name it was given in 1914 as the John Muir Trail.
Sharing Gough’s GoFundMe to raise funds for her hike and cause, Indigenous Women Hike (IWH) wrote on Facebook, The Nüümü Poyo trail comprises “ancestral trade routes and homelands for hundreds of tribes... but was colonized and given the name of John Muir. Tribes like the [Paiute], Yokut, Miwuk, Kudzidika, Mono, and many more...will have their own names (in their language) for the trail and specific areas.”
The post featured an image of a sign on the trail carved with the words “John Muir Wilderness,” crossed out in a graphics program with a red X and text reading “Nüümü Land.” This original form of geotagging—in which a member of IWH was asked to snap of a photo of a visiting family with the sign for their vacation album—came with an impromptu history lesson. The poster told the passing group the indigenous name of the trail and its history. The latter was made all the more poignant by the acknowledgment that many of John Muir’s beliefs were, in retrospect, quite racist, and certainly contributed to the removal of indigenous people from what became public lands in California.
When the hashtag #JohnMuirTrail has 64,000 posts on Instagram but #Nüümü Poyo has just 41, it’s a stark acknowledgment of how the name on the map, or the online location tag, can impact the narrative people associate with a place, as well as the sense of who it belongs to and who and what it’s for. Just look at the largely successful campaign to restore the name originally given Mt. McKinley by the indigenous Koyukon people. Today, we simply say that we have visited Denali.
Or, perhaps, consider lingering divisions hinted at by the separate names given two adjacent state parks in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both were built at the same time by separate Civilian Conservation Corps teams, one white and one predominantly African American. Yet even today, Harrison Bay is more upscale—focused on boating, with amenities like a marina and nice restaurants— while Booker T. Washington features a community pool and more of a community recreation center feel. Even in an era of integration, there remains a whiff of the separate-but-equal lingering around the two parks rubbing shoulders off the Tennessee River.
You can see first hand the subtle demographic divide that lingers when you scroll through the geotags and hashtags for each respective park. Part of that self-segregation comes down to parents and grandparents bringing the next generations to the same parks where they played as a kid. Yet it’s a poignant reminder that it wasn’t so long ago when whites wouldn’t share the same swimming pool with people of color, nevermind admits they were cooling off in the same man-made reservoir behind Chickamauga Dam as their Black neighbors. These real-life splits between communities translate to online spaces, too, and affect the way we navigate digital geography.
In an era when social media increasingly dictates where we feel compelled to go and when, and when we have more diversity than ever in the selection of influencers we can look to for travel inspiration, it’s no wonder that geotagging has become such a hot issue. To some, location data is just another way to keep followers flowing into their feeds, ensuring they stay on the crest of the digital media wave that funds their recreational travels and professional careers.
That can be a huge opportunity for minority influencers who have found digital spaces give them a little extra elbow room to cultivate an online voice, share what the outdoors means to them, and help show other people of similar identities that travel doesn’t always have to look like a thin slice of luxurious global privilege.
“There is this whole world of people of color who love adventure and nature. It’s a small world, and we’ve started to collectively try to influence and grow awareness around diversity in the outdoor space,” Lauren G., the writer and adventure blogger behind The Outdoorsy Diva, said.
I met Lauren, of all places, while covering a NASCAR glamping experience in Sparta, Kentucky. It was my first time at an auto race, but not Lauren’s. When she was invited to attend her first NASCAR event a few years ago, she could tell people were surprised, and even a little worried. That’s when she knew she had to go as a kind of ambassador, proving that not only can Black women attend a NASCAR race, they can have fun and even turn the event into a professional opportunity.
“I will never keep a location secret or not disclose where I am because my whole mission is to encourage other people who look like me to try new things and get outside, to travel, to do those out-of-the-box type of activities that they ordinarily would never have done or even known about without seeing someone like me,” she said. In fact, Lauren invited a fellow woman of color, her best friend and former college roommate, to the NASCAR race where I met her. Ostensibly they were celebrating a decade of friendship, but in the process, they were also fearlessly spreading joy.
Lauren isn’t alone in her desire to represent women of color in the travel space, whether at an in-field glamping experience on the speedway or deep in the backcountry. “We absolutely love geotagging,” Tinelle “Tin” Lewis, one of the co-founders of Black Girls Hike Global, said. “Our planet has so many amazing outdoor spaces to visit. Geotagging is a great way to expose more women of color to the great outdoors. Matter of fact, if the place is beautiful and close enough you might just see us next weekend with our backpacks and boots on ready to explore!”
For the privileged who have always been able to take time outdoors for granted, it might seem curious or even antagonistic to hear something as seemingly inconsequential as a geotag broken down in these terms. Yet there’s more at stake than simply going to see the geysers of Yellowstone or spending a pleasant afternoon biking your local rail-to-trail conversion when you’re a minority wanting to enjoy the great outdoors.
Scientific studies increasingly show huge health benefits to time spent “forest bathing” in nature. There are, to Lauren’s point, professional opportunities to be found outdoors, from travel writing to guiding to owning campgrounds, lodges, and outfitters. And then there are simple pleasures to be had from spending lingering afternoons by the river, forging friendships at the crag, and finding out what unexpectedly delightful and surprising things your own body can accomplish after a few, or a few hundred, miles on the trail.
Regardless of intent, geotagging is a tool like any other—one that can be used as a cudgel, or as a constructive instrument. Location data can be used to build gates to be carefully kept by a privileged, often self-ordained few. Or that information can be used to craft bridges between one destination, identity, and experience, and the next. The first step is simply to start walking. To draw on Anzaldúa’s insight once again, look to her words: “A no dejar que el peligro del viaje y la inmensidad del territorio nos asuste— a mirar hacia adelante y a abrir paso en el monte. (Let’s not let the danger of the journey and the vastness of the territory scare us—let’s look forward and open paths in these woods.)”