On the banks of the mighty Columbia River, the mountain-bike trails around the town of Hood River are some of the best in the state. From fast and flowy to chunky and epic, there’s something for every type of rider. Plus, it’s only five hours from Brooklyn Bell’s home in Bellingham, Washington. So this past June, when Bell, an artist, activist, and mountain-bike racer, and her friend Zack Paukert were looking to explore some new trails (in a safe and socially distant manner), they rented an RV and headed south.
“Riding gives me a sense of calm and clarity,” says Bell. “When I’m riding, I can just be who I am.” And as a Black woman actively working to make the outdoors more inclusive, Bell was in need of a break from it all. First COVID-19 dashed her bike-racing season and travel plans, and then the Black Lives Matter movement upended the rest of her life. “I was living between two different worlds,” says Bell, “between going to a protest one day and being surrounded by other Black people and then mountain-biking the next day and being surrounded by white people.”
Bell, 23, has always sought solace in her artwork and the outdoors. As a kid, she’d draw characters and assign personalities to them. As she grew older, she began spending more and more time outside and started mountain biking and skiing.
While the outdoor community was generally very welcoming, there were no Black skiers or mountain bikers in Bell’s world. She kept running into the same types of people over and over again. “I’d draw these characters and I realized that there were no archetypes that looked like me,” says Bell. So she created her own hero, Ruby J., who has a septum piercing and cool goggles and a slouchy hat. “Ruby J. is basically the ski role model that I always wished I had as a kid.” Today she hopes Ruby J. and the rest of her artwork will inspire young women of color to pursue gravity sports.
Bell’s artwork is just one of the ways she’s working for more representation of people of color in the outdoors. She’s been featured in ads, profiled in videos, and written up in the pages of mountain-bike magazines. She speaks at events and is an outspoken ambassador for a handful of outdoor brands. Which brings us back to Hood River’s fun and playful trails and Bell’s desire to show more people Black joy in the outdoors—“the silliness, the laughter, the zeal, and the passion.”
The weather, as it often is in the Northwest, was cool and rainy that June, and the RV felt like home to Bell and Paukert, affording a warm and dry place to cook, play games, and relax—and allowing them to focus on the riding. “When I’m on my mountain bike or I’m out playing in the mountains, that’s where I feel like I can exist and find pure joy,” says Bell. “I can go out and try to be the change that I want to see.” Her hope is that the more people see that change, and are inspired by her actions, and the voices of others like her, then the more likely we are to all work together to really make a difference.