Baratunde Thurston Reminds Black Families That the Great Outdoors Is for Everyone

Thurston's new PBS show, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, proves all families can benefit from the restoration and healing the outdoors offers.

Every Thanksgiving, Baratunde Thurston, his sister, and their dog Honeybear piled into the car with his mom en route from Washington D.C. to Maryland's eastern shore. The brisk fall temperatures and empty beaches did not stop his family from enjoying their own unique holiday tradition: escaping life's underwhelming hustle and bustle for nature.

For Thurston, communing with nature in this way was cleansing. "Yeah, of course, we had Thanksgiving dinner, but what do I remember most? I remember the saltwater in my face and feeling renewed," says Thurston.

The Chocolate City native credits his mother with fostering an early love for the outdoors. That love was generationally passed down to her through her grandparents. Thurston, a boy scout, met weekly with his local troupe, rode his bike daily, and his mother took his family and friends on some camping and nature trips throughout the year.

"When I was 12, we took an Amtrak across the country. And we even crossed over from El Paso into Ciudad Juárez," says Thurston. "I researched a place called Cooper Canyon at the Mount Pleasant Public Library, my home away from home, and my mom made it a mission to get me there. Cooper Canyon was vibrant, green, and majestic!"

Shortly after entering adulthood, like many aging Americans, jobs and other responsibilities kept Thurston increasingly tethered to computers indoors. But still, just like the relaxing breeze of the eastern shore oceans on Thanksgiving Day, Thurston found solace away from blue screens and in nature.

"I can remember my most stressful moments, getting on my bike and racing around the banks of the Charles River as fast as I could go," says Thurston. "And I would hit this pocket where I was moving at the same speed as the wind. So it suddenly went from extremely loud and windy to utter peace."

Thurston's new PBS show, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, explores this connection even further and within the context of being a Black man in the United States. Through adventure-packed journeys through a rich American landscape, Thurston learns that the tapestry of this land is just as diverse as its people. And because of our nuanced history with the outdoors, Thurston desires this connection for all Black people.

"There's no safe place for us. So, we can try to shield our loved ones from the environment, from random possibilities, and from systemic, designed, and structural risks like racism and white supremacy," he says. "But it can still find a way—There are no walls thick enough. There are no bunkers deep enough. And even if there were, we'd be cut off. We'd be robbed."

Thurston also wants Black families, in particular, to know that nature is a sanctuary all around us. Whether you live in a major city, in a suburban area, or off-grid, nature is accessible to everyone. And it doesn't have to break the bank, either.

"We did not have the most money, but my mother and my sister, with all of our adventures and excursions, helped to bring nature to the foreground," says Thurston. "On my mom's part, and with my sister's support, they showed me another world that wasn't just on the corner or on the stoop – the world was so much bigger than our block.

Making nature attainable for all families is something Thurston strongly believes in. And this takes practice and commitment. "Something that occurred to me recently about freedom—I have to practice being free before I'm free, so that when I get free I know how to be…I did not grow up with that poetry," he says. His adventures with his mother and sister exposed him to the mindset that supported his exploration.

"Yes, you can go out into the woods of West Virginia. Yes, you can walk the Blue Ridge Mountains and go out to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and see the wild horses of Chincoteague as a 10-year-old little Black boy," he says. "No, we don't have money, but we own this car. And my coworker has a tent we can borrow. We made a way out of no way."

He also suggests parents get children involved in local, low-budget nature activities like hiking, biking, joining a co-op, and gardening. These activities can also be communal. After all, Thurston's mom was the parent who took other children camping because their parents could not.

Thurston believes the elements in nature provide the support we rarely have access to these days. He hopes America Outdoors can be a bridge to bring us back to nature and Black people, especially, need to reclaim the relationship with the land that was taken from us.

"I think about what this land has meant for us. For many, it's complicated," he says." Our blood is in this soil. But all life needs to heal, including Black people as well as the land—because it didn't ask for this."

Thurston also hopes the show reveals the authentic range of emotions that one might feel while engaging with nature. "There's no acting or reading prompts. I'm genuinely excited, afraid, hot, cold—all the feelings and emotions are real. I hope that other folks get infected with the idea that there are so many different ways to connect with nature," says Thurston.

On the show, we see Thurston spending time and sharing ancestral stories with Indigenous communities, surfing, riding horses, white-water rafting, and interacting with teens whose faces light up when participating in several nature activities. America Outdoors, just like Thurston, is breaking barriers and expectations of what the outdoors is and who it's for.

"It doesn't take a lot of money. It does require some access. Some entrées. Some guidance. But it's possible."

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