On August 3, 2019, Jonny Altrogge found himself hiding behind the counter of a sandwich shop in El Paso, Texas. Half a mile down the road, a man had just walked into a Walmart and murdered 23 people in an act of racial violence, spurred by a belief that white Americans were being “replaced” by immigrants and people of color.
Just two days earlier, Altrogge had completed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a 2,700-mile journey, over the course of 41 days through some of North America’s most challenging backcountry, cycling from Banff National Park in Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. He had come to El Paso to meet his partner before departing on a road trip back to their home in New York City, but suddenly, he found himself fearing for his life. “It was this really terrifying reminder that, as a person of color, there’s nowhere in this country where you’re safe,” Altrogge said. “Violence can find you anywhere.”
Altrogge’s decision to cycle the Great Divide Route had roots in a yearslong desire for an experience that would push his limits, but it also had a larger purpose: to challenge perceptions about outdoor recreation, and to show his students of color back in New York City that they had every right to enjoy their time in nature just as much as anyone else. For seven years, Altrogge had worked for Outward Bound in New York’s public schools, using adventure and outdoor programs to teach students leadership and communication skills. The work was fulfilling, but it also confirmed what Altrogge already knew: access to the outdoors and the culture of outdoor sports were stratified by race.
“Students of color see activities like cycling and backpacking as white-people sports. There’s this perception that they’re exclusive and require a lot of money,” Altrogge said. “That exists for a lot of reasons—lack of representation, who outdoor sports are marketed to, but also historical connotations between the woods and violent acts against people of color that still linger. I hoped that my ride would encourage them to get out there, show that you don’t need tons of expensive gear to do a trip like this, and show that you don’t have to accept that these are sports for white people. If you want to do a trip like this, don’t let those perceptions hold you back.”
On June 22, he clicked in his cycling shoes and began to pedal. While Altrogge was a regular cyclist before the trip, he had only one 160-mile tour under his belt, and it was his first time using clip-in shoes. Over and over he fell into the dirt as he struggled to get the hang of them. And when the song “Byegone” by Volcano Choir came on in his headphones, he started to cry. They were tears of apprehension but also joy. “It hit me that I was really out there doing it,” he said. “It’s difficult to describe, but I think it’s a feeling that anyone who has done a bicycle tour will understand.”
Altrogge’s journey would include many of the experiences of bicycle touring that make it such a cherished activity among its adherents. Strangers opened their homes and offered help during moments of crisis, and he felt an incredible sense of fulfillment upon the trip’s completion. “It had some off-putting moments, but on the whole, it was a really positive experience,” Altrogge said. “There is a kernel of truth to the kind of rose-tinted view of bicycle touring as restoring your faith in humanity. One day I was riding in a hail storm, and I’d started to lose feeling in my hands. A family stopped on the road and just gave me their pair of thermal gloves.”
But the trip also highlighted the divisions and discomfort that people of color face in the world of outdoor sports. Altrogge said that many people, even well-meaning ones, made crude remarks about his skin color. A scene in a short film Altrogge put together about the trip highlights this dynamic: a car pulls over, and the driver offers him a beer, then spontaneously asks: “So, brown skin. What’s your nationality?” In the video, Altrogge responds casually, but that doesn’t mean such interactions aren’t upsetting. “These experiences are pretty routine for people of color, so you learn how to deal with them. But it doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable,” he said.
What would be routine interactions for white cyclists required careful calculation to minimize vulnerability. On one occasion in Montana, Altrogge was told to “keep riding” when he pulled into an area clearly designated for camping. “Always in the back of your head is this feeling of constant vulnerability,” he said. “And even when I would have these really positive experiences, I never felt like I could let my guard down.”
For Altrogge, the trip didn’t fall neatly into any one category or offer any specific conclusion: he had many uplifting moments that exemplified much of what makes bicycle touring such a beautiful form of travel, but he also experienced discomforting cases of ignorance and racism. “It definitely affirmed that people of color still face a lot of obstacles in these spaces,” Altrogge said. “But it was also an incredible trip, and I hope other people will see my experience and think about those issues but also make the choice, or at least feel like it’s possible, to get out there themselves.”
If the first day of his trip represented the universal experiences of bicycle touring, the massacre in El Paso brutally underscored the reality for people of color that nowhere is truly safe. How would this square with the message he was trying to deliver to his students, that they shouldn’t be afraid to get out into the world and explore outdoor spaces? “I’m still grappling with what happened in El Paso. But what I do know is that I felt safer in bear-infested, middle-of-Montana wilderness than I did that day in El Paso, locked in a sandwich shop crouched behind the employee counter,” Altrogge said. He noted, however, that several students have expressed interest in taking on big trips of their own. “One kid said they wanted to unicycle across the country. Another told me that they wanted to do a long walking trip,” he said. “I think the interest in these kinds of big trips does exist, a lot of kids just don’t feel like it’s socially normal to express that interest.”
In a lot of ways, he remarked, what happened in Texas validated the point of his journey. “When you’re Black in America, violence can find you anywhere, in a Walmart in a liberal city or during a routine traffic stop,” Altrogge said. “My message is that, as a person of color, it takes tenacity to get through any facet of life, and my hope is that others will see that those fears are worth challenging.”
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Lead Photo: Jonny Altrogge