Jonny Moses Soto-Altrogge told his story to producer Sarah Fuss Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Here in the city, I was working with students of color and all kinds of backgrounds, who were often experiencing being outdoors for like the first time. And often I would hear the students, whether it was climbing or backpacking, say, “This isn’t for us.” Like, “We Black people don’t climb, Black people, blah, blah, blah.”
I live in the heart of Brooklyn. If you know anything about Brooklyn, it’s very loud, so you might hear some noise in the background.
I have worked for Outward Bound for almost a decade now—I think I’m on year nine—leading all kinds of outdoor programming for young people all with the intention of building resilience, and teaching students about responsibility and communication and leadership.
I think there was a particular time during a five-night backpacking trip where we had a group of students from the city. There was this weird period of YouTube that there were clowns in the woods pranks that were happening. I remember students being like, “Yo, there’s no clowns out here in these woods, right?” And then another student was like, “That’s why we Black people don’t come to the woods. Like, we gonna get killed out here.” They were doing it humorously, but there was some actual fear embedded in that, you know?
The history of the fear that Black and brown folks feel and express about being in the woods or wilderness is as long as the history of this country is. First of all, Black and brown folks literally toiled the lands, created the foundation for our industries. But then there’s also this connotation of being slaves, being killed in the woods, being tracked in the woods, being lynched on trees. Of rural people, or the folks who have the shotguns, don’t want you here, don’t go near them.
At the end of the trip, one of the students who I really connected with a lot told me that for his career, he wanted to be a wilderness first responder. He wanted to go out and train to help save people in the wilderness. And this is a kid from Harlem.
That kind of keyed me in. How can we make that happen more often? How can we eliminate some of that fear? That fear is real. I felt that fear. But, how do we claim the space? Because they deserve it, too.
I was like, I want to do a big trip. I don’t know what that means or what that looks like yet, but I want to do a trip. At some point I identified that I wanted to bike the Continental Divide, so that young students of mine, or like mine, could see people like me doing this big outdoor trip and be like, “Oh, you know what? That’s kind of cool. And maybe these things are for me. Maybe Black people do do these things.”
Plus I just wanted to kind of kick my own ass for a while.
So the Great Divide mountain bike route originally stemmed from Banff to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, which is right on the border of Mexico in the United States. It runs 2,700 miles approximately. Something like 200,000 feet of elevation gain overall.
I started the ride on June 22nd, 2019. I think I was shooting for six weeks.
I remember those first few pedals, my body and inside was screaming like, Ahhhhhhh, we’re doing it! It’s going down, it’s legit.
The vastness of Banff. Banff feels like it’s fake. It’s so beautiful, it’s so massive. And so to be in this massive, incredible place, starting this massive, incredible ride. At one point on my bike, it was just a little too much. I just started to cry. Not out of fear or nervousness, just at the gravity and grandeur of it all. It just really sunk in. Then the reality of a big bike tour also sunk in, of the pain and the hunger and all those things.
As a Black mountain biker and bikepacker, I had some incredible experiences with other people. And there were experiences that made me feel unsafe.
There was a campground in Montana, that was a state campground. Although there was no one in the campground, there was a family who managed it. I rode up and was like, “Hey, I’m gonna camp here if that’s cool. It’s state ground.” They sent me on my way pretty quickly. Most Black and brown people know that kind of situation. When you’re not wanted in a spot, I’m not gonna push that agenda.
Or there is an experience in Idaho. Just super long, flat, trail through the woods, kind of like a dirt bike trail. I could see in the distance a handful of four-wheelers with shotguns. And the anticipation of that interaction lasted a long time because they were pretty far away.
So eventually I reached them. I just rolled past them and gave them a little wave, and they didn’t say a damn word. And I just kept biking. I turned down my camera, pointed it behind me so I could see if they decided to come after me, but they didn’t follow, thankfully. But the fear that I experienced was real.
I have the potential to go do this amazing trip in the outdoors. I don’t want the power of fear of the folks who might be there and who might wish me harm or who might not love my presence there. I don’t want to give them the power of that fear.
This is my space, this is your space, this is our space.
Because really people show up for you in so many different ways. This guy coming up past me in the opposite direction saw me, turned around, came back, and gave me his gloves. And I had gloves, but these were wool, workmen, outdoor gloves. He’s like, “Hey man, saw you’re cold,” and takes these gloves off of his own hands. That helped keep my hands warm enough to finish the thing I needed to finish, but then also warmed my soul. It was an incredible moment of human connection. That was a huge moment for me.
As I was doing the trip, I was posting about it intentionally to get folks to see it. So throughout the course, as the miles grew, the amount of people following my experience and trip grew as well.
My little documentary that I made about the trip, which is on YouTube. There were students who I would show the video, or pictures, or tell stories to, who had that kind of classic young person reaction of, “Oh man, that’s cool.” Sparking that kind of excitement or imagination for a young person…to me, that was the win.
It was like, Hell yeah. That’s why I did this.
Johnny Moses Soto Altru is a social and emotional coach for New York City Outward Bound schools, and a racial equity consultant for True North education. He’s also the captain of Team Onyx, the first all Black adventure racing team. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, their son, and their pets.