Hiker Shilletha Curtis doesn’t just meander through nature; she’s determined to be the first Black lesbian to achieve The Triple Crown. There are many factors to consider for a serious hike, especially when embarking on it alone. The terrain is unforgiving, wildlife can be territorial, and the weather can change in an instant. Not to mention the lack of access to the comforts of home. Arduous hikes aren’t for everybody, but if you have the fortitude, they can change you forever.
Shilletha can personally attest to that. Born in New Jersey, she was active in basketball and track, but hiking wouldn’t be on her radar for years to come. At the intersection of three marginalized groups, she aspires not to give the hiking world a facelift but to swap that face for a new one. It’s a lofty goal to be sure. Shilletha stands out in a space that is traditionally white-dominant, and with that comes hostility online and in person. Regardless, she keeps her eye on the prize.
“The Triple Crown is a completion of the three big national scenic trails,” Shilletha explained to Travel Noire. “The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,650 miles through three states: California, Oregon and Washington. The Appalachian Trail is 2,193 miles through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. The Continental Divide Trail runs 3,100 miles through five states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Only a couple hundred people have completed it including one Black woman and one Black man.”
Shilletha adopted the moniker Dragonsky after a backpacking excursion she did through Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail with a colleague. She was new to hiking at that time and had some trepidation. A disagreement about pace, coupled with the uncertainty of new terrain resulted in a panic attack.
“The adrenaline and fear surged through me, and I took off like a horse, galloping right into a boulder,” Shilletha said. “I fell and so did the tears. A knot formed and blood was running down my leg. Something landed on my head. I felt for it and noticed the buzzing of its wings. Moments later, I looked at my right foot and there was an orange dragonfly. It stayed with me and I smiled. The sky had been grey, but it suddenly opened, and I saw a patch of blue. I knew at that moment that my name was Dragonsky. The dragonflies are always there for me.”
This paved the way for more intense expeditions, but the preparation is no joke.
“Preparing for a hike is a tedious process, let me tell you! First comes the research and knowledge is power in nature. The more I know, the better prepared I am for weather, wildlife and the terrain. I gather the gear and gadgets and practice with them outside. For instance, while training for the Appalachian Trail, I spent a month in my tent in 20 degrees and below weather with my winter gear. If I got cold, I would go inside, make adjustments and reset. I knew I wanted to do a winter hike and didn’t want a run-in with hypothermia.”
What was it like completing the Appalachian Trail by herself?
“I never saw it coming,” Shilletha said. “The pandemic stole my job from me. I spent the past few years working as a social worker and a veterinarian technician. I thought that was all that I was. After losing my job, I had a severe panic attack that sent me to the hospital. During my lowest moment, I remembered the voice of the older white man I had met at Harriman State Park a few months earlier. He said, ‘you know, behind me is the Appalachian Trail. It runs 2,190 or so miles from Georgia to Maine.’ I knew at that moment that I was going to do it, but I didn’t know when or how.”
While it might be fun and even safer to hike with others, Shilletha values solitude and likes to plan her own schedule. She classifies herself as a warrior in the forest who plays by her own rules.
“I was surprised at the amount of support when I finished the Appalachian Trail,” she said, which was in stark contrast to the racism she endured on the trail itself. “Companies such as GoPro, Lululemon and others congratulated me. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ‘liked’ my post! My dragonflies were so proud.”
Shilletha’s story spread like wildfire over social media, particularly Instagram.
On April 9, she started her second leg of The Triple Crown: The Continental Divide Trail. She knew it would be a beast.
“This one is not for the faint of heart. I will be traversing through the deserts of New Mexico and battling snow in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. There will be monsoons and avalanche dangers. In Wyoming and Montana, I’ll be in Yellowstone, which is grizzly bear country. It scares the hell out of me, but this is why I’m doing it. I never run from the mountains. I face them, and when I do, I make them quiver in their bones.”
Shilletha’s confidence is laudable. But it isn’t an easy kind of confidence or doesn’t seem to be. She fought to build and nurture it, and still is. Affirmations from loved ones and strangers on the internet keep her fueled. While others might crumble under the pressure, her laser focus is her ally, and her haters couldn’t look more ridiculous. Shilletha has something to prove here- first and foremost to herself. And she wants Black people to know that the hiking world can be theirs for the taking if they want it.
Shilletha has a book deal with Disney and her memoir is set for release in 2024. If her hiking adventures are any indication, you can anticipate a roller coaster of a read.
Follow her on Instagram @i_am_dragonsky and her YouTube channel of the same name.