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2018 Escape says goodbye Vegas, hello adventure!

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The 2018 Escape is efficient, powerful—and totally versatile.

Natural Wonder

The 2018 Escape journeys into the Valley of Fire with the inspiring group Outdoor Afro—and one anxious city slicker

By. S. Tia Brown
Photographs by José Mandojana

Trust your feet!” Rue Mapp tells me as I anxiously attempt to descend a three-story-high rock outcropping in the middle of Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nev., about an hour’s drive from the flashy Las Vegas Strip. Mapp is the founder of the group Outdoor Afro, whose motto is “Where Black People and Nature Meet.” I glance down and wonder if I’m meeting more nature than I bargained for.

True confession: My idea of vigorous activity is an early-morning yoga class followed by a one-mile walk down brownstone-lined streets to grab brunch with my classmates. So when I was invited to join Outdoor Afro on this excursion I honestly pictured a Sin City version of the 3.35-mile paved track I sometimes walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A Vegas hike? No problem!

But now, standing on this gargantuan rock with no buildings around for miles, I think: Things are getting real.

Earlier in the day, at 7 a.m. to be precise, I meet Mapp near my Las Vegas hotel, when she pulls up to the curb in a new 2018 Escape. She gets out and helps me with my gear. I am amazed when, arms full, she kicks her foot under the rear bumper and the liftgate magically pops open. For a minute I am mesmerized by the coolness of this hands-free foot-activated liftgate.* I wander over and open and close it twice—once with each foot.

We climb in, cue up a playlist from my phone using SYNC® 3* with Apple CarPlayTM**, and hit the road, listening to pop music as the Vegas glitz recedes in the rearview mirror. Thanks to Adaptive Cruise Control*, the Escape coasts along at 65 mph and automatically decelerates if the vehicle ahead slows down, to maintain a preset gap. I grill Mapp: How did you come up with the idea for Outdoor Afro?

Outdoor Afro’s Las Vegas network includes around 400 members.

“I grew up with parents who loved nature,” she explains. Mapp and her family lived in Oakland, but also owned a modest country estate about two hours outside of the city, where they spent much of their downtime. “It had a Little House on the Prairie vibe,” she says, which included days spent fishing, hunting and canning. “I got a chance to see the multigenerational experience. I remember hearing ‘The air is so fresh’ and ‘The stars are so bright.’”

As Mapp uses the Enhanced Active Park Assist* to easily hands-free park the Escape near the other Outdoor Afro members’ cars in the packed lot at Valley of Fire, she recounts how those happy memories of her childhood resurfaced in her mid-thirties. In 2009, Mapp, then a recently divorced mother of three, was finishing her art history degree at University of California, Berkeley, and her mentor asked, “What would you do if money wasn’t an issue?” “I said I’d start a website for African Americans to connect with the outdoors,” Mapp recalls. Later that year, outdoorafro.com was born.

Emerging from the spacious Escape, we greet the Outdoor Afro members, including Toyya Mahoney, the group leader of Outdoor Afro’s Las Vegas network, which boasts around 400 members. These nature enthusiasts all joined Outdoor Afro for the same reason: They wanted to meet interesting people while doing something they love. So while their 9-to-5s vary greatly (from finance to health services), the one thing they all have in common is the happiness they share now that they’ve found one another. “I’m from Georgia and I’ve always been into outdoors stuff, like hiking and camping,” says member April Brown, who adds that she was often the only black person in her previous hiking groups. “Outdoor Afro is something I never thought could be possible.”

One thing I personally never thought was possible? Rock climbing. But now here I am, perched precariously on that high outcropping, listening to Mapp’s voice: “Trust your feet!”

Outdoor Afro’s leaders carefully research an area’s local history before each outing.

I look around at the red and brown mountains and gulp. This is decidedly not like Prospect Park, with its paved path and manicured meadows. This desert park is so vast, both cavernous and flat, that folks seem to disappear into the picturesque landscape. It’s intense—and daunting. 

We are trying to go down a drop on an inclined “path” that requires us to brace ourselves on higher-placed rocks for balance. I’m terrified. I reach down to brace for my descent, but my thick watch stops my wrist from bending. I take it off and shove it into my pocket. 

As I start to lower myself, my pocketbook shifts to one side of my body, throwing me off balance. “Um, can you put this in your backpack?” I ask a fellow hiker, removing my purse. She nods and takes it from me with a grin. 

“Trust your feet!” Rue repeats. This sounds easy but is challenging when there is no concrete or flat dirt road ahead. She lags in the back of the group with me as I grimace, moving slowly down the cliff. 

Mapp is in her element. “Relax!” she says. “You don’t have to be outdoorsy to enjoy experiences like this.” Later she points out that all types of people join Outdoor Afro: “We have the butcher, baker, the candlestick maker. Our members are attorneys, accountants, teachers and realtors. They rep and attract diversity.”

Mapp’s daughter—and all the group’s gear—fit comfortably in the Escape.

When we break for lunch, some folks take turns climbing a bluff, while others talk about other adventures. “I’m really into camping, hiking and cycling,” says Andi Rucker. Rucker works in the auto industry, but he spends his free time in nature. The Cleveland native says he got into outdoor activities three years ago when he moved to Sin City. Now it’s almost an addiction. “Nature has helped me focus and clear my mind. It centers you, in a sense.” 

Over the course of a few hours we trek through valleys carved out by rivers that overflow seasonally, and smell plants that sprout only in the desert; some members even bike down cliffs. Periodically, Mahoney, who works as an environmental protection specialist full-time, offers succinct briefings on everything from the landscape to historic events. Her knowledge is in-depth, effortless and empowering. “As a leader, it is required that we scout our hikes before an outing,” she says. “I typically scout and do my own research. I’m just somebody who’s passionate.”

About midway through our outing, something dawns on me: This is the real-life version of the online video meditation nature track I zone out to at work. After that, I just go with it. I even muster up the courage to join the others on a rock that’s about six stories high. “This is so cool!” I exclaim. Mapp laughs and other awe-struck group members agree.

Mapp isn’t surprised by my change of heart—she believes most people are intuitively connected to nature. Outdoor Afro boasts more than 20,000 members and 65 leaders in its “networks” around the country. “People keep saying they found their tribe with us,” she says. 

On top of that massive, gorgeous rock, Mapp once again reminds me: “Trust your feet!” 

And finally, I do.

*Available feature. **Don’t drive while distracted. Use voice-operated systems when possible; don’t use handheld devices while driving. Apple CarPlay is available on 2017 models with SYNC® 3; owners of 2016 models with SYNC 3 are required to perform a software upgrade and purchase a hardware upgrade. Requires phone with compatible version of Apple iOS and active data service. SYNC 3 does not control CarPlay while in use. Apple is solely responsible for their functionality. Message and data rates may apply. Apple, Apple CarPlay, iPhone, Apple Maps and Siri are trademarks of Apple Inc.

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