Trailblazer: Ralph Lee
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Trailblazing Role: Founder of TRLBLZRS hiking group
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While it’s not uncommon to see parents toting their children along on the trail in backpack carriers, some people are slightly older when they head out for their first hike – twenty-six years old, in fact, if you’re Ralph Lee.
In a refrain that rings true for anyone who grew up in a park-poor area or urban neighborhood, the Queens native just wasn’t exposed to the outdoors as a kid. He never went on a hike, never pitched a tent – never even considered the possibility. However, after traveling from New York to Mississippi, then landing in Los Angeles, the trail finally called. It has a way of doing that to people when they arrive here, considering the city is bordered by mountains to the north, with even its iconic Hollywood sign beckoning from high atop a chaparral clad slope.
Ralph’s first hike was in Los Angeles’ famed Runyon Canyon, a popular spot best categorized as a combination of fresh air gym, hook-up joint, and gateway drug for the outdoors inclined. What began as an occasional outing with friends grew into a deeper exploration of Southern California’s ample outdoor resources, and eventually into TRLBLZRS, a hiking group that Ralph founded in 2014. Over the past two years, he’s taken people on monthly day hikes, along with occasional overnight trips, the latter including an annual campout at Red Rock Canyon State Park to watch the Perseid meteor shower. In the process, Ralph grew not only into a bonafide nature lover, but also into a community leader.
I recently spent an afternoon walking through Los Angeles’ West Adams neighborhood with Ralph to talk about TRLBLZRS, his connection to the outdoors, and his hopes for the future.
What made you want to continue hiking after those initial experiences in Runyon Canyon?
The biggest thing for me was putting myself in a space where I could clear my mind and get away from stress, and more importantly, reorganize the stress into something a little bit more manageable in my own head. I would love to just go on hikes, either by myself or with the crew – kind of the same crew of three to four guys. Even if I was with them, I would take the time to maybe slow down and head to the back, or speed up and head to the front and take some time for myself to chill out and put things in order. So that was kind of the biggest thing – mental health regrouping. Like, we’re walking and talking right now – I love being active while I’m meditating.
I think of hiking as “walking meditation” sometimes. I do it solo, sure, but also get into conversations with friends that you might not get into otherwise.
It’s the best way to connect, for me. You know, being out amongst nature where there’s no other distractions. I’d much rather catch up with somebody on a mountain or a trail, rather than catching up in, say, a coffee shop or a bar.
So, let’s talk a bit about TRLBLZRS. You come to Los Angeles, you get into hiking, and you start this group. Take me back to the beginning.
So, those friends that I started hiking with, we noticed after hiking in L.A. for about two years or so that we didn’t see a lot of people like us – we were all black men. We noticed that there weren’t a lot of black faces out on the trails that we hiked in SoCal, and this was after hitting, I don’t know, somewhere around fifteen to twenty trails across Southern California between the Santa Monica Mountains and Angeles National Forest. So, we felt like we’d covered a lot of ground just on our own, and we hardly ever saw any black folks hiking or at trailheads. Once, we caught one woman at a trailhead that was black, and we were like, “Wow – a unicorn!”
So we said, there’s something here. Over the course of the next several months to a year – this was back in 2013 – we started thinking about how to address that. We were thinking – alright, do we start a club? Do we start a brand? Do we start an app? What do we do? But after meeting a few times, people just started to get busy and things didn’t pan out. So, fast forward to November or December 2014, and I thought, okay – we’re not going to do anything with what we sparked and started up, but we had discussed the idea of being “trailblazers” and had come up with the term “TRLBLZRS,” said that feels right, we’ll stick with that. We wrote up a little About Us throughout that time that we were brainstorming, of just our own story. So, I said alright, I’m just going to put this in motion and start from the ground up, and we’ll see where it goes.
December 2014 is when I put pen to paper – or finger to keyboard – and simply just started up a MailChimp account. I said all we gotta do is just start up an email list with coworkers and friends, and we’ll see if this thing catches on. So TRLBLZRS would now be a monthly hiking group, because I’m gonna be out hiking anyways, and one big thing about me is that I’m a pretty social person and I love being around people – it’ll be a great opportunity to catch up with people, to build and network. The first hike got about fourteen people out. It was great to be out the gate with that many people and such a diverse group, people from all walks of life, friends of friends – it wasn’t just who I’d invited, so people had some kind of need for it. We started doing it month by month, the last Saturday of every month, and it’s just been going pretty strong ever since then. We’ve gotten as many as twenty-three people on one hike – and in the earlier days, we had as little as two people.
Where do you see TRLBLZRS heading in 2017?
The big thing about TRLBLZRS that I’ve held tight to my heart is allowing it to grow into itself – or grow from its humble beginnings to be what it’s supposed to be, without me trying to overlay something inauthentic on it. For me, that means the two years that we’ve been operating and getting people out, it’s about understanding what they’re enjoying about the hikes. So, for 2017, it’s about really understanding a little bit more about what people are getting out of it and how we can build off of that.
What kind of feedback have you been getting so far?
“Man, I haven’t been encouraged to engage with the outdoors in a long time, and I’m glad that you have these hikes, because now I can re-engage with the outdoors. I don’t have to look for hikes anymore – you kind of already do that for me!”
I got one piece of feedback that was something to the effect of, “This encourages me to get out and work out at least once a month in a way that I haven’t worked out all month. Diversifying the way that I stay fit, because I’m either going to the gym or I’m running, but I’m not really incorporating elevation, or I’m not really incorporating fresh air” – because we do live in LA, where there’s a thick layer of smog at any given time if you look up to the sky, and we need to get away from that.
Because we have so many people from so many different walks of life, people are always so excited about the conversations that they have with people. We’re not just single-filing it up the trail for the most part – we kind of break up into small groups and people have their separate conversations, and switch off to naturally fall into whichever conversation they’re interested in. People leave with new networking contacts, new friends that they stay in touch with, and people go off and do their own hikes. I’ve also heard people say, “I may not go on every hike, but when I think I might want to go somewhere or take friends from out of town, or family, I just look at your emails and bam, there you go!” So they’re using it for things I didn’t even know would exist!
Building on that, 2017 for TRLBLZRS is about carving out a space for beginners in the outdoors. That’s what TRLBLZRS is focused on because that’s what I categorize myself as – as a beginner. I’m a little bit further along than most of the people that I know, which gives me the ability and satisfaction to kind of give back in my own way, to take my knowledge of trails and a little bit of knowledge of the outdoors, and share that with people as we go along every month. But, I think there’s something there that exists for a greater population of people that either haven’t hiked, or have only hiked a little bit and just need a little bit more of a peek into what the outdoors has to offer in order to make a full jump to incorporating it into their life.
Why do you think it’s important for people to have the outdoors in their life, and why are you drawn to helping people make that connection?
I’ma give you the honest answer, and that’s the biggest reason that I got into the outdoors: to tackle mental health issues. If we allow the cobwebs of what frustrates us throughout our week – whether it be from work or whether it be from relationships, or what have you – if we allow things like that to fester because we’re caught in our rat race of living life, and we don’t take a break and do things that give us that solitude – like hiking, like yoga, like meditation – then the world will continue to be as fucked up as it already is. That’s just my macro viewpoint on it. I feel like if I’ve found something that’s gonna help do that, and if I can pass that along to people…I’m gonna pass that along to my son, for sure. I’ve been taking him hiking since he was 3 months old. If I can give that back, I’m gonna do that. So, this is my way to give back to the world if I can. For 2017, we just wanna work on how we can build out this hiking group from just a hiking group to something where we can give [outdoor] access to people in metropolitan cities like L.A., Chicago, and New York, where I’m from.
TRLBLZRS is not the only outdoor venture you have at the moment – you’re also deep into the application process to become a state park ranger here in California. Tell me about that.
I guess I’m the kind of person that when I’m into something, I’m into it heavy or I’m not into it at all. Zero to a hundred. So that’s great in some instances, if it’s righteous and something that I should be falling wholly into – and in this case, I fell in love with the outdoors and hiking. But clearly, it’s not something that you can do and still provide for your family, or even provide for yourself unless you are doing certain things. So, I kinda put it in the back of my mind when I first thought of figuring out how to make a career out of being in the outdoors. I thought ideally, “Oh, a brand could sponsor me to do the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] and then I can, like, make a bunch of money hiking, wearing awesome outdoor gear, and I can retire like that – but no, that’s unrealistic. Just a little bit. So, the next best thing for me was doing something that kind of feeds my other sense of satisfaction, which is giving back to underprivileged youth like myself, because if I would have gotten into the outdoors at half the time that I did, my life would be much different than it is now, I’m sure.
The other thing is giving back to underprivileged kids who grew up – or are growing up – without exposure to the outdoors, because maybe their parents just aren’t into it…and they just need a little bit of exposure. I don’t think that it’s going to save the world, but I think it’s going to help just a little bit, at least.
Being a park ranger is going to allow me to make a living, providing a gateway to people to get to the outdoors, and it’s going to give a different type of face than those you’d normally see patrolling the outdoors. We, as African American men, there’s been a change of face a long time ago in history, and I think it’s cool to just kind of add on to that in some way. Additionally, there’s programs that exist with the state parks in California that encourage kids to get outdoors, so it’ll be fun to be a part of that, and it’ll be super satisfying.
Are there any specific parks you’d like to work at within the California State Parks system?
There’s a couple of different motivations that I have to be at a few different parks. So, the first one, if all goes well and my plan keeps on track, as I think it will, is Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown L.A.
That doesn’t seem like a typical pick – I feel like most people would want to be further out in nature, in the mountains or in a forest.
Yeah. [Initially,] I didn’t want to be in downtown L.A. But for one, I want to make sure that I’m in a location where my son can have access to a better variety of schools and whatnot, so I kind of want to remain in L.A. for that reason. I was able to go and get a tour of what they’re developing, because it’s not open currently…and just know that this park is going to basically set the tone for the future of state parks in California, from what I understand. That’s one big reason why I would want to be stationed in L.A., at least for my first time out the gate after the academy, because I’d get the chance to be a part of that evolution. So, that’s exciting.
Then, I would love to be in the redwoods – I haven’t even visited the redwoods yet, but I know I would love to be there! And then, the Central Coast, somewhere near Monterey. Get some ocean cliff vibes, and just live a life that I can just kind of enjoy when I’m retired.
The through-line of everything you’ve talked about is helping other people connect with the outdoors. What advice would you share with people who want to get started hiking, but aren’t sure where to begin?
Well, [start with] the benefits, right? The benefits of hiking are what’s going to lead you to either explore further or to kind of get into it on your own, and that’s what I want to kind of encourage and inspire people to do – get into it on your own, don’t just do it because it looks cool. I mean, yes, that’s the bait that’s gonna get you there, but the real reason is because it’s just great to be in the outdoors, to give that solitude to yourself when you can. And seeing how the world works just from a collective ecosystem type of way – looking at the running water through a creek, and seeing that in the areas where the water hits the bank is where you’ll find the most foliage. [Seeing] how plants and humans need our nutrients and water, and will grow, and in places where we’re not getting fed what we need, we don’t grow. Just simple elements like that where you don’t need to go to a classroom to learn, you just learn it when you’re there. That’s the stuff that makes me feel more connected spiritually and just connected to the world that we live in. So that’s kind of what I would give to people – that kind of solitude, that kind of joy, that kind of calmness – it’s hard to find that in any other place.
Finally, thinking of all of the things you have done, and want to do in the outdoors – what do you hope your “outdoor legacy” will be?
Man, if I could say that I’ve inspired ten adults and fifteen kids, to quantify it, to inspire them to take the outdoors and own it for themselves, and to go beyond maybe what TRLBLZRS provides or what have you, that would be my goal. Maybe that’s happened already, and maybe it hasn’t – but that’ll be my goal.
all photos courtesy Ralph Lee
Trailblazers is a new series on Modern Hiker that profiles hikers who are making an impact in the outdoor world, whether locally or on a larger scale, both inside and outside of the industry. We are always looking for inspiring people to highlight, so feel free to send suggestions to Shawnté at Modern Hiker.
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