How a Black hiker from Aurora champions inclusivity in the outdoors, one TikTok at a time

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18min 37sec
Ryan Warner/CPR News
Nelson Holland during a hike on Mount Falcon in Morrison, Colorado

When Nelson Holland moved to Colorado eight years ago, hiking mountains was not on his bucket list. The New Yorker knew what the Rocky Mountains were, but he didn’t know that you could easily hike them. And as a Black man who has been large for much of his life, he didn’t know anyone who looked like him and hiked.

But soon, Holland, who now lives in Aurora, was walking around lakes. He discovered how the views, wildlife and trails could be healing, and he started pushing himself further. “I never thought that I would be able to hike a fourteener at over 300 pounds,” he said. But he did it. And then he hiked some more.

In February, 2021, Holland started a TikTok account called @fatblackandgettinit to share his hiking experiences and connect with a larger community of people advocating for a more inclusive outdoors. The account has gained over 90,000 followers, to date, and has opened doors for him to meet other Black and Indigenous creators, as well as Colorado Governor Jared Polis.

Holland, however, doesn’t pay close attention to the number of followers he has or the number of views he gets. For him, the real point of the account is to open doors for people. Whether that’s showing BIPOC followers that they have a place in the outdoors, or allowing people to travel vicariously through his videos. “I get comments where I literally inspire people to go do any trail, or sometimes a trail that I just did,” he said.

That mission has transcended screens: Holland recently started a guide company to help people who have not seen themselves in the outdoors get out and hike.

In March, Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner joined Holland on a hike at Mount Falcon Park in Morrison. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Warner: Your TikTok account is called Fat, Black and gettin’ it. Unpack that for me.

Nelson Holland: It feels like all of my life, I have been over 300 pounds. I'm definitely Black; I identify as Black and look that way. Everybody treats me that way. And I really just want to represent for all the people that look like me to get out and hike because I never see people that look like me on trail. And when I do, it's literally one out of 20, 50 or 100. I almost never see anybody my size hiking on the trail, but I also rarely see any Black, Indigenous, people of color out in these spaces, either.

Warner: The third part of your TikTok handle is ‘gettin’ it.’ What does gettin’ it mean to you?

Holland: I guess this is more personal. I never thought that I could do some of these things that I was doing. I never thought that I would be able to hike a fourteener at over 300 pounds. But I took this journey one step at a time, just walking around lakes. Before I knew it, I was hiking up mountains. And I pushed that even further. I just want to show people that fat people can be out here getting it too.

Warner: We're at Mount Falcon in Jefferson County. Why did you choose this place for us to meet?

Holland: This is a nice stroll with a beautiful view. I often tell people from out of town that this is one of the first parks where they should acclimate [to the altitude].

Warner: It's close to the Metro, an easy drive. When you say that you don't see a lot of people your size or your color, why do you think that is?

Holland: I think it's about a few things, but one of the most potent reasons is because they don't see people that look like them out there. I live in Aurora now, and a lot of my friends from Aurora are afraid of deer because they have never had a family member fish or camp or be in these spaces. Historically, Black people were excluded from spaces like these.

And as for fat people, every time you see somebody hiking a fourteener, it's somebody that weighs 180 pounds and has Patagonia on and all the gear. There's nobody representing all the other people out there who also enjoy nature.

Warner: So in a way, it's a numbers game. You've got to see enough of the folks who look like you to feel comfortable, and until you do, it just doesn't feel like your space. Do you think that's it?

Holland: Yes and no. I feel like that's the case for most people. But for me, coming from New York, I had never seen anything as beautiful [as the Coloradan landscape]. I felt like I had to explore these spaces, whether [people] accepted me or not; I know we are not back in the 1940s and that I'm allowed to go to these places.
So, I gave it a try, and I found that in a lot of cases, the places are friendly. It has been a life-changing experience for me and I feel like I need to share it with the world.

Warner : What transformations have you noticed in your mind and your body as you have gotten into the mountains more?

Holland: The weight loss was not something that I expected, but it came. Like I said, I was really just out here for the views and the journey. And then my mental health got so much better, and I got so much more stable and stronger. I think part of that is relaxing in nature, and part of that is overcoming some of the challenges that I wasn't sure I could do.

Warner: Do you feel like you're a little addicted to nature now?

Holland: 250 percent. I recently realized I'm definitely addicted to nature. I'd say it's just about the cleanest addiction you can have. When I don't go out for even a couple of days, I start getting antsy and my mental state gets a little worse. I just feel like taking these hikes always puts me at my best.

Warner: A little earlier, you mentioned folks walking around in Patagonia. My first thought was, "Oh my God, Patagonia is so expensive," and it made me think about the economic barriers:, the gas that it took for you to drive out here. Do you think those things keep a more diverse crowd from coming into the great outdoors?

Holland: I definitely do, and gas is really bad right now. But from my perspective, I always wonder why more minorities don't come to these spaces, because other than gas, a lot of them are free.

When I bring people from New York [out to hike], I'll often come here because it only costs me gas. [My friends are] going to see some beautiful views, maybe some wildlife and an awesome sunrise or sunset. We can bring some food out here. So yes, transportation is another thing — a lot of people live very far away from these places, but there are places you can take the bus to. I like to show the side of hiking where it's very inexpensive and anybody can do it.

Warner: You said you bring your New York friends out. What are their experiences? Did you say you thought someone was afraid of deer?

Holland: I know for a fact that people are afraid of deer. That one's funny to me, but if you have never been [out] here then you've never seen anything like that. [Maybe] you've seen some of the YouTube videos where somebody gets kicked by a deer, and I guess you consider it a threat.

But, for example, I brought my dad to Waterton Canyon by Littleton one day, and there were a bunch of bighorn sheep there. We got about 20 feet away from these bighorn sheep, because they crossed right next to us while we were looking in a different area. And as soon as they finished crossing the river, my dad looked at me and goes, "I finally get why you moved here."

Warner: Had he been perplexed until then?

Holland: Yeah. My Black friends, specifically. I think they just didn't understand why I would move across the country. I told them my reasons, but I think everybody thought that I would be here for a year and then go somewhere else or move back. But eight years later, I'm still here.
I think that's what they didn't understand. You can see it in pictures, but when it happens to you, it's different. We used to watch action movies, me and my dad. That's one of our things. And the way I describe wildlife is: it's the coolest, realest action movie you could ever see.

Warner: You mentioned that people have been kind to you on the trails. What are things you notice?

Holland: I have met some really cool people on the trail who have shown me some cool spots that I didn't know about and pushed me to go further when I wasn't sure I could do it.

But my own trail experience is not as welcoming as I would like it to be. Often, I don't get the friendly wave that everybody gets. And sometimes when I hike past older people further out West, they give me really dirty looks that make me feel a little uncomfortable.

This online hiking community that I found with people that I can meet [in person] has been crazy supportive. [They are] what has pushed me to do this because there are a lot of other people that are like me and feel like me.

Warner: Is that a safety in numbers thing for you, do you think?

Holland: For me, I have this ability just to run into [and face] my fear. So I'll go out there, whether it's just me or whether it's a group. But, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable when I have other people with me. And it's not necessarily always people that look like me; The hiking group I'm in is a lot of white women. Just being with them on the trail makes me feel more comfortable. I know they feel the same way, but it's funny: having a bunch of white women while I'm out in the wilderness does feel comforting.

Warner: When you see people give you stink eye, do you try to get into their minds to understand what was behind that unpleasant glance?

Holland: I think most people that deal with issues like that would caution you to not try and get in that person's mind. I just assume that they're from a different time and a different place than me. And there's just got to be more shared experiences before we can see eye-to-eye. But hopefully, me doing this is something that helps break down those barriers.

Warner: What has been your most-watched TikTok? You have a lot of followers.

Holland: I have a decent amount.

Warner: Do you remember what the latest number was? I think I might have put it in my — Hold on, let me bring out my notes out of my fanny pack.

Holland: [laughs] I like that.

Warner: Okay. I think your last number was 87,000, Nelson.

Holland: It sounds about right.

Warner: Most-liked video, so far?

Holland: You know, I don't readily remember this. I know the Manitou Incline was something that got people to even notice me hiking up that. But I actually don't think that's my most-liked video.

Warner: I like that you don't know what is the most-liked. I don't know — it tells me your heart's in the right place. You're on social media, but you don't sound obsessed with the metrics of it.

Holland: I'm not going to lie. There was a time where I did look at analytics and metrics a little more than I do now, but really it's completely about the journey and the [natural] views for me. I remember more of the hikes that I do than the [TikTok] views I get from the hike. I will say that when I go to a super beautiful place and I don't get a lot of [TikTok] views, I think, "I wish I could have shown that to more people."

Warner: Aww, because you want to share this.

Holland: Yeah. I just went to Buena Vista, and a lot of people did see that video. But, it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. So, I just want to share that with the world.

Warner: I love going up there. In the pandemic, the outdoors became more important. Have you found that?

Holland: Definitely for my followers. For me, it has always been important. But everybody that has found me [on TikTok], they have found me because they were looking for something to do in the pandemic.

Warner: Favorite comments or feedback you have gotten from followers?

Holland: First, I get comments sometimes from people that are stuck in the hospital and literally can't get outside, and they say that I'm there outside — and that just… You can see me —

Warner: Choke up.

Holland: Yeah. That feels like something special. Also, I get comments where I literally inspire people to go do any trail, or sometimes a trail that I just did. Lately, I have been more focused on accessibility. So I'll try to show trails in real time that people can go on with wheelchairs or whatever issue they might have. So yeah, that really makes me feel special.

Warner: Because these folks tell you that they go on those trails afterwards.

Holland: Right. And sometimes they will even tag me in their video, and it lights me up with joy. Recently, I was on trail with a follower-turned-friend that's in the hiking group. We did a hike in the Boulder Flatirons, up to the first Flatiron, the first and second Flatiron trail. She's a beginner hiker, and she had no idea that she could do something like that. I walked with her all the way, and we got it done. And I'll be thinking about that for probably the next few months.

Warner: I didn’t know what a fourteener was before I moved here. Did you?

Holland: No. No idea. I knew Mount Everest, and I knew there were Rocky Mountains, but I didn't know you could hike them and what that meant.

Warner: When you went hiking with your dad, what did you talk about?

Holland: Me and my dad are best friends, so we talk about everything all the time. He actually reminded me that I was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. I didn't go too far with it, so I tend to forget about it. But this seed was planted years ago. Colorado exposed it in crazy ways.