Nature & Nurture: Brandi Aulston’s Hike+Heal

Brandi Aulston and parents. Photograph provided by Brandi Aulston.

By Jeneen Owens

Still on the cusp of hoodie weather, the sun was high and bright over Houston playground on the Sunday of the family hike hosted by Hike+Heal in partnership with Friends of the Wissahickon. The clear sky, open and inviting for the little leaguers on the baseball field, the young people playing in the hockey rink, and the tiny humans running on the playground.

Brandi Aulston founded Hike+Heal, a Philadelphia-based hiking group, in 2019 as a way for her to build community in a space she’d longed to see. Aulston said the “outdoors weren’t reflective of people of color recreating and enjoying nature.” As such, Hike+Heal was born out of her desire to make the outdoors accessible to and inclusive of communities of color. 

Brandi’s family cultivated her love of the outdoors, which grew into this loving Hike+Heal community. Her parents often support her by joining the hikes. Wearing her signature honey-colored logo sweatshirt, they gave me insight into how she became this beacon of love. They introduced her to outdoor activities at a young age. She and her brother learned to swim early, spending many summer days with their maternal grandmother at the Nile Swim Club. Aulston shared that her uncle convinced her parents to go camping. Once they were comfortable with this new activity, Brandi and her brother often went camping with their uncle and annually with their extended family.

In the five years since its inception, Hike+Heal has offered numerous hikes with small groups of women. The hikes take place within the city’s beautiful Fairmount Park and have expanded to include various healing modalities, including yoga, guided journaling, meditation, and wellness retreats with international and domestic destinations. A book club has also been created for members.

Hike+Heal has curated partnerships and collaborations with Philadelphia-based businesses and organizations, including Friends of the Wissahickon. This partnership was born out of the desire of Friends of the Wissahickon to support BIPOC hiking communities.

The family hike opens with a welcome circle, and all the participants give their names, say whether they are new to the Hike+Heal community, and reveal one thing they are grateful for. There was a good mix of new and veteran hikers. There were couples present, moms with their children, friends who decided to try something new together, individuals who ventured out alone, and one cute puppy. One man shared that he was grateful his girlfriend scheduled the hike for them. And a little girl told us she was grateful to spend time with her mom. There was a collective “Awwww” from the group.

Aulston’s welcoming demeanor and beautiful smile invite participants into the larger, more loving community.

Hunnies embark on the family hike. Photographed by Jeneen Owens.

New members are assured and encouraged by more seasoned members to keep up the great work, and no ‘Hunnies,’ as Hike+Heal tribe members are called’ are left behind. I spoke with several women who expressed a desire to explore nature and experience hiking. But, the fear of the unknown and anxiety around their safety as women of color kept them from attempting something new–that is, until they found the Hike+Heal community.

Participants begin the hiking trail as strangers and emerge as a part of something bigger. The conversations during the hike were amazing, from noticing and appreciating the beauty of a magnificent red maple tree to discussing hiking gear and commenting on the children’s adventurous nature to deeper, more existential ponderings. I had an especially intriguing conversation with one veteran hiker about epigenetics, which then blended into a discussion about music concerts and the blessing of having friends who live in different countries, which helps expand your mind.

I witnessed several connecting acts of love during the hike. Many of the newer hikers were referred to the group by current Hunnies. One young mother, present with her two sons, stated, “They keep me grounded.” She shared that her sons enjoy being outside in nature and have gently nudged her toward the outdoors. Her youngest son likes to play in the dirt, feel the grass between his toes, and be near trees, and he innately self-regulates in those spaces. 

The hike was shy of three miles with several breaks. The first stop was the horse stable in a clearing across from beautiful single-family homes on a tree-lined street. Everyone took in the majestic animals through the eyes of a child. The magnificence of and wonder about horses never truly goes away. As we stood, snapping photos, I overheard conversations that echoed my sentiments. Two women discussed their desire to learn to ride a horse, admitting that their fascination had been set long before Beyoncé released Cowboy Carter.

Hikers capture pictures of the horses in the stable. Photographed by Jeneen Owens.

I spoke with a mother who brought her two young daughters. She said she had participated in a hike before this one, but today was her first time hiking with her children. I’d overheard that same mother teaching her daughters proper terms for things they pointed out, helping them with pronunciation. Her voice was patient and loving even when the little ladies needed to be redirected as they played on a bed of large rocks that separated our walking path from the fence where the horses roamed.

Further along the trail, we crossed a small creek, trekked up a rocky incline, and marveled at the steep trails off to the right for more experienced and brave hikers. We stopped a few times to allow for water breaks and a few people to catch up. The children sat on the ground in a semicircle, communing with one another without direction from their parents.

The smaller children, 4, 5, and 6-year olds wriggled their hands away from their parents to walk with each other, help one another collect sticks, supporting each other along the way. I witnessed acts of love that may go unnoticed in this group of people, mostly unknown to one another. A woman noticed another’s backpack open and offered to zip it up. Some hikers passed word through the line to step to the right when a biker was riding to the group’s left. There was a couple holding hands while sharing this new experience together.

Children spending time together during the family hike. Photographed by Jeneen Owens.

Upon returning to where we began, the field was clear of the little leaguers. We gathered in a circle where Aulston led us in a stretching, breathing, and team exercise. In the final exercise, she asked us to move in to tighten our circle and place an arm on each person next to us. We were instructed to put our right ankle over our left knee and bend. Then switch. This exercise highlighted the power of community: we can all get it done if we lean on one another a little.

In reflecting on Hike+Heal, Aulston shared that, while it was not planned, she’d had goals to give back to the community and leave a legacy. Witnessing the strength of the Hike+Heal community is confirmation that staying focused on your passion can create something amazing. Her legacy is the Hike+Heal community. Community is love.

Hike+Heal and the Friends of the Wissahickon offer quarterly family hikes free of charge.

Love Now Magazine

This article originally appeared in the 2024 Summer issue of Love Now Magazine with the theme of Family Love. You can read more stories like Brandi’s here.