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A New Railroad Links Black Nature Lovers to Adventures Across the United States

How newly launched WayOut Railroad seeks to provide Black travelers with inclusive and affirming outdoor spaces.

Throughout the pandemic, millions of Americans fled to the great outdoors, seeking sanctuary, fellowship, and fresh, mask-free air to breathe. For some, the respite provided a chance to bow out of the rat race, go off the grid, and reevaluate life goals and values. For Dr. Aasha Abdill and Michael Speights, the downtime was a blessing, giving them the opportunity to rediscover their love for nature and manifest a lifelong dream.

The Seed

This past August, the couple launched WayOut Railroad, a new platform connecting Black travelers with inclusive and affirming outdoor spaces that prioritize their history, culture, safety, and interests. In the spirit of Sankofa, the new community was nicknamed the AboveGround Railroad in homage to the Underground Railroad, one of the primary inspirations for the initiative. “As we attended camping events and Black-owned campgrounds spreading the word about our vision, we would [call it] the AboveGround Railroad, and people’s faces would light up,” said Speights.

“Our goal was never to get people to join an organization. We want to help foster a culture. The AboveGround Railroad is about building genuine community and laying the infrastructure for the growing movement of Black nature-seekers.”

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Taken at Browns Farm – Water Valley Mississippi.Photo courtesy of WayOut Railroad

The married founders met in college and quickly bonded over their fondness for camping during a dream backpacking trip through West Africa. “We would often have to sleep outside and loved the freedom and the simplicity of it all,” Abdill recalls. It was the first trip of many, and after finding their refuge in nature, the couple felt sharing its wonders and benefits with the community should be the cornerstone of their next endeavor.

“Back then, our vision was to buy land and create an environment for Black youth to learn ancestral skills, wilderness survival, herbalism, and African communal values,” said Speights. At the time, the couple wasn’t in a financial position to see that dream through. However, fifteen years later, that initial seed has sprouted into a nationwide network of Black farmers, homesteaders, and campsite owners who share their passion for making outdoor spaces inclusive and welcoming for Black travelers.

The Need

One could call it divine timing. On the heels of so much racial upheaval and division in this country, Black, Brown, and Indigenous Americans are especially thirsty for outdoor recreation and the greenspace therapy it provides.

The Outdoor Foundation reports that 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor activity in 2020 compared to years prior. However, only 9% of those new participants were from Black and Brown communities. Numbers from the National Park Service mirror this disparity, as they received 297 million visitors in 2020, up 60 million from 2020, but less than 3% of new visitors were African American.

Such statistics suggest that Black people don’t participate in outdoor activities by choice. However, this recent study by The Nature Gap details how historically systematic racist policies and practices in the U.S. “have segregated and excluded people of color from public lands and other natural places.” WayOut was created to decrease this gap in access and engagement by encouraging Black people to discover outdoor travel on a different scale.

“Our tagline is Roam Free. Rest Assured,” said Abdill. “We want to help people feel safe exploring the lands of this country and connecting to the wonders of nature—no matter where their travels bring them.”

Unity Family Farm - Gibson GA. Photo courtesy of WayOut Railroad_
Family Camping Photo. Photo courtesy of WayOut Railroad
1. Unity Family Farm – Gibson, Georgia.Photos courtesy of WayOut Railroad 2. Family camping.

The USDA Forest Service confirms that the health benefits of outdoor activity are not only measurable, they significantly improve our physical, mental, and community wellness overall. Studies show that shifting dirt through our fingers, hiking through the woods, and listening to a rolling river are proven therapeutic agents that reduce stress, lower the risk of depression, increase mental abilities, and serotonin and endorphins–our happy hormones.

“Mental Health is a big issue we hope WayOut can address, specifically around healing from trauma and feelings of loneliness. We are intentionally building ways that allow people to (heal) while connecting with others and their spirit,” said Abdill, who went on to note how her family’s bond has flourished during their last few years on the road travel camping.

Courtesy of WayOut Railroad

“I’m convinced there’s something about the outdoor environment that opens us up. We laugh more as a family and have conversations we don’t really have sitting around the dinner table. At home [the children] have their own friend groups, and much of their conversations are via text and social media with their peers. But on our camping trips, they have quiet conversations with each other. I love that for them.”

Junetta O’Neal, owner and creative director of Bomax Ranch and Retreat, swears by the healing remedies her land provided during the shutdown. “I could soak up the sun, roll around in the lush green grass, listen to the sounds of wildlife, and be at peace anytime I wanted. After enjoying sunrises and sunsets on the land and realizing how beneficial [they] were to my wellbeing, I knew I couldn’t keep it to myself.”

In April 2021, O’Neal turned her private oasis public. The spacious 53 acres property in Crawfordville, Georgia, accommodates RV, tent, bungalow, and glamping lodging to nature newbies and veteran nomads alike.

“When I heard what Aasha and Mike were creating, I knew I had to be a part of it,” said O’Neal. “I applaud them for creating a platform that brings awareness to campground owners who work tirelessly to create green spaces for everyone, especially [those with] Black and Brown faces, to enjoy. I’m honored to be a stop on the railroad and welcome everyone to visit.”

Ready to Come Aboard?

AboveGround Railroad’s SouthEast line stretches from East Texas to Maryland. HFR Campsites and Retreats, Lacy Oasis, Kidogo Farms, and Freedom Georgia are just a few locations currently set on the track-ready for RV, van, glamp, or sleeping bag under the stars campers. Anyone aligned with AGR’s values and vision of building a community of safe and affirming spaces for Black people are welcome to join.

And to ensure everyone has access to the platform, cooperative economics and collective stewardship programs are in place so that affordability is not a deterrent.

“The ultimate goal is to lay the groundwork for the development of a real community built on shared values, love, resources, and hard work,” said Speights. “Our Love on the Land program will include community gatherings where volunteers can gather on a railroad stop [to] spend the day collectively helping with land projects.

Digging out foundation for Community Agricenter – TKO Farming – Louisville, Mississippi.Photo courtesy of WayOut Railroad

We’ll connect landowners with people willing to offer a hand in exchange for a place to camp out. We’re also developing a resource-sharing program where community members can offer each other access to items like farming equipment, lumber, renting a vacation property, or even skilled labor. Resources could be offered at a nominal fee, or members could barter support for each other.”

Meanwhile, the couple continues to roam the country, scouting new stops to add to the Southern line as the railroad expands to other regions in the coming months.

“And this is just the start,” Abdill adds. “Once folks feel safe and part of a trusted community, that’s when transformative change and connection can begin.”

Learn more about membership and community at wayoutdoors.org or follow @WayOutdoors on Instagram.

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