Introducing The Pathways Project

Introducing The Pathways Project

Even the best laid plan can go horribly awry. On this particular occasion a day-hike to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River was unceremoniously canceled due to a torrential rainstorm that was further exacerbated by a tornado warning. But undeterred by the inclemate weather on an otherwise lovely Sunday morning in late April our small group gathered nonetheless to drown our sorrows at a Midtown Atlanta establishment called Tacos & Tequilas. As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going…to brunch.

After 11AM on the weekend can hardly be considered day drinking, so a round of margaritas was definitely in order. Paired with rice, beans and a three-flight of tacos -one carne asada, two carnitas- I reveled in the delicious food and wonderful company. Meeting in real life for the first, I made in the acquaintance of Judy Toppins, the public relations officer for the Chattahoochee National Forest, Michela Williams, Partnership Coordinator for the Georgia Mountains Children’s Forest Network and Luz Lituma, the founder of LatinxHikers. We had connected in recent weeks via phone, email, Facebook and Instagram to explore the prospects of working together to share a comprehensive story about the people of Atlanta, Georgia who live within the watershed of the Chattahoochee River and the places where they experience the natural world.

In our own way each of us work to create recreation opportunities for those less likely to spend time outside. Through LatinX Hikers, Luz organizes group hikes and special events for the Latino community in Atlanta and several other cities across the U.S. With co-creator Adriana Garcia this social media platform is “dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors through digital story-telling and community outreach.” I’ve been following her work for the last several months and it was wonderful to finally meet in person.

At Chattahoochee National Forest Judy works at engaging the general public in the hopes of raising awareness for the natural resources in her district. Across more 866,000 acres of wooded land, the forest offers a series of hiking trails, camp grounds, picnic areas and other amenities for anyone to enjoy. But with limited exposure to information and too few knowledgeable ambassadors to share their enthusiasm for the forest not many people from the urban center of Atlanta are likely to visit. Judy wants to change that. “I really want everyone to know about and understand all there is to do there,” she told me. With a special interest in connecting with communities of color Judy is leading the forest’s DEI efforts.

After graduating from college Michela earned a paid internship with the U.S. Forest Service. Placed by the Greening Youth Foundation, a non profit that connects young people of color with career opportunities in the field of public land management, she received the training necessary to become a field trip leader. Not what you would call “outdoorsy” her prior experiences in nature were quite limited. But under the mentorship of Judy and other Forest Service staff Michela quickly gained an abiding appreciation for the natural world.

“That’s what did it for me,” she said. “Now it’s my passion. I want to see people have that some look on their face as I did when I went outdoors for the first time. I want to see young people grow up and know that they can have this wild dream and have it manifest into something beautiful.”

Despite the confines of a bustling metropolis built of concrete, asphalt, glass and steel, Atlanta, like most cities in America, has a thriving ecosystem. With tracts of green space scattered here and there the city teams with towering trees, succulent plants, wild animals and a free flowing body of fresh water. It’s that amazing river that directly connects the city of Atlanta and its people with the Chattahoochee National Forest just over 120 miles due north. As the river winds its way downstate through the forests and farm fields of Georgia, it delivers both hydration and nutrients for the production of food. It flows across rural communities and urban enclaves alike to forge a link between every person within its reach, not only to one another but the natural environment to which they all belong. Trees of the forest and the river that runs through it provide air, water and food to the people of the city. And though many may not consider themselves to be “outdoorsy”, the reality is that nature is all around them.

The relationship between people and nature is too often defined by the narrow lens of outdoor recreation. An appreciation for the natural world should never be restricted exclusively to overnight backpacking trips, white water rafting adventures and vertical ascents of high mountains. Instead you can find the wonders of nature in clean air free of pollution, clear drinking water straight from the tap of your kitchen sink or fresh produce grown in a community garden walking distance from your home. In a world where everyone has access to air, water and food nature itself draws nearer, where the great outdoors is as close as your own backyard or a city park.

Over tacos and tequila Michela, Luz, Judy and I committed ourselves to a loose partnership within the scope of our respective roles in the outdoor space within the Chattahoochee River watershed. From its source at a tiny spring just off the Appalachian Trail to points south almost to the boarder of Florida I imagined the many points of access along the way where folks from every walk of might find a place where they might enter the natural world. Like an on-ramp to a four-lane highway I could see clear routes or pathways from corner grocery stores, to soul food cafés, community centers, school play grounds, and houses of worship where people, especially families with children, can find themselves outside.

So here begins a concerted effort to tell the stories of people and the path they take to get outside. These pathways form the bonds of relationships from which can be shared a common spirit of stewardship and environmental protection. In its most initial stages this Pathways Project aims to tell the story of specific regions of North America. For proof of concept the first two locations, funded by small grants from the nonprofit American Rivers and the National Forest Foundation, will be the Chattahoochee National Forest near Atlanta Georgia and the Willamette National Forest near Portland, Oregon. At these two sites I’ll look to find the various organizations, institutions and individuals who not only look to nature for their own enjoyment, but for the benefit of others. These remarkable people define by their words and actions a compelling new narrative of natural access, not of conquest or colonization, but rather of social and environmental justice. Creative men and women take their passion for the world around them to assure that everyone has access to fresh air, clean water, nutritious food and open space to roam freely. Today along the course of America’s rivers from primeval forests, through remote rural enclaves to the core of our urban cities there are ordinary heroes, dynamic characters who are leading the way toward a brighter tomorrow. This is the Pathways Project.