By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — On the first Saturday of each month, dozens of Black men gather to hike up and down rustic trails, exchange feelings of shared camaraderie and marvel at the various wonders of nature.
Jelani Nattey, 39, an Akron, Ohio transplant, founded the nonprofit Black Men Hike L.A. in 2019 after realizing that he yearned to explore the outdoors.
“To tell you the truth, I was going through a period of depression,” Nattey said. “I was new to Los Angeles and I found myself lounging on the couch a lot. My wife, Lydia, who is a real outdoorsy person, suggested that I explore the wild by taking up hiking.”
Nattey gathered a few friends, picked out a hiking trail and the small group started climbing in earnest.
Since those modest beginnings, the group has now grown to include between 65 to 80 individuals from every age group and from every walk of life.
“After I started hiking, I would say that I experienced one of the best feelings that I have ever had in my life,” said Nattey, who works as a tax accountant. “I immediately noticed a difference in my physical well being and outlook.
“Hiking has increased my heart health and helped to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. I felt refreshed, clear minded and energized and I had more mental clarity.”
Statistics indicate that due to the pressures of life, Black men suffer from high blood pressure, depression and experience higher rates of stress than other men.
“The suicide rate among African-American men is four times higher than the average population,” Nattey said. “That’s why I wanted to start this group by helping my community heal.”
Pausing, he added, “Being in nature now brings me real joy. It’s the energy that gets me through the month and I really treasure the fellowship.”
Since its inception, the group has hiked more than 50 trails.
“We have hiked trails in Malibu, Santa Clarita, Rancho Cucamonga and Laguna Beach as well as other locations throughout Southern California,” Nattey said.
Hikers regularly share life experiences with each other, such as a hiker who publicly expressed his joy and anxiety over the impending birth of his first child or a father who brought his teenage son along to be mentored by the elders.
“Sometimes he won’t talk to me, but maybe he’ll talk to them,” he said.
Nattey added that the time spent outdoors provides a space for the men to share life perspectives or to receive advice on personal matters.
The group also acts as a sounding board and refuge for Black men seeking solace from recent traumatic events such as the rash of Black men shot and killed by police across the country.
“We don’t try to push anything and we don’t judge,” said Nattey, who added that many of the men have formed lasting friendships or just enjoy basking in the feeling of brotherhood.
“Some hikers come for advice and others come just to seek peace,” he said, adding that the group ends hiking sessions with a period of Zen meditation.
Nattey said that when 60 to 80 Black men congregate at a hiking location, they often create quite a stir.
“We get mixed reactions from onlookers,” he said. “Sometimes we get positive reactions, but there are other people who look at us oddly and with an air of uneasiness. I don’t let it bother me.”
Kyle Smith, an executive assistant with the city attorney’s office who also serves on the board of directors for Black Men Hike, added “It’s great being able to experience the camaraderie and brotherhood with the other hikers. People talk about their health concerns, things that they’ve recently experienced or the stress they have on their jobs. It’s like a support group, composed of a tribe of like minded individuals who all share the joy of the outdoors.”
Smith said that more African-American men should take advantage of the vast number of state and county parks available to them.
“There are public spaces that our tax dollars pay for that we as African-American men aren’t taking advantage of,” he said. “We should take advantage of public green spaces and hiking trails that we actually pay for that we don’t use.”
Not only do the men enjoy hiking, but Black Men Hike has been spreading the joy of the outdoors with their youth group, the Young Kings, who range in age from 11 to 18. The group founded the Young Kings in 2023.
“To have the opportunity to take young men on a trail who have never been hiking has been a beautiful experience,” Nattey said. “Just to see the youths enjoying nature and witnessing their joy lets me know that we are moving in the right direction.”
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.