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Nelson Holland battles negative thoughts all the time, so much so that they’re liable to knock his sizable frame to the ground.

“You’re too fat,” his demons whisper to him. “You’ll never be successful.” 

When he feels this way, Holland goes to his favorite spot, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge at the edge of Denver, a place where Holland discovered nature and changed every part of his life. It doesn’t matter what he weighs there. The bison that Holland knows so intimately that he can tell you where they’ll move next don’t care. His dark skin color, braided hair and slight Brooklyn accent don’t bother them either. 

After a hike around Lake Ladora, those thoughts fade away, and Holland’s kind heart whispers something else to him: He is successful. 

Holland not only found peace, some fitness and a kid’s love for the outdoors at the Arsenal, he found a way to become Colorado’s unlikeliest influencer and TikTok star.

He came to Colorado from Long Island, New York, after a friend from Boulder encouraged him to visit. 

Holland suspects today that his friend wanted him to come out because he knew Holland smoked pot. Instead, Holland saw the Rocky Mountains, and it was love at first sight. When he decided to stay just for those views, he spotted the bison on the Arsenal’s sprawling grounds, not far from the FedEx facility where he worked. Here’s how that conversation went:

Holland: “Are those BISON?”

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Co-workers: “Yeah, there’s a bunch over there.”

Holland: “CAN WE GO?”

Even now, years later, Holland, who lives in Aurora, describes himself as a 3-year-old with his nose to the glass when he sees wildlife. You can see his joy in his TikTok posts, from the first time he came across bighorn sheep near Mount Evans to the moose in State Forest State Park to the time he woke up in Estes Park’s YMCA of the Rockies and saw an elk right outside his window.

Holland, 31, is different from most of the nature freaks who worship Colorado. He readily admits it. He’s fat and Black, and he named his TikTok and Instagram accounts Fatblackandgettinit to emphasize it. 

But he didn’t know how different this made him until he turned his phone camera his way during a hike, showing himself instead of just showing pretty pictures of a moose, and his numbers soared, “immediately,” Holland said during a walk around Lake Ladora in December. “People were fascinated with this person they normally don’t see out here, I guess.”

Holland didn’t know that some might think he didn’t belong in the outdoors. That was the New Yorker in him, he said, someone who was pleasantly naive about nature. He just wanted to be outside because it made him feel good, even if he didn’t understand why.

But his naïveté faded as people recognized him on the trails he hiked alongside the wealthy, white, musclebound bros trying to set a personal best up a peak. He began to hear from what he now knows are marginalized communities, such as people of color, the plus-sized and the gay and queer communities. 

Now he gives speeches, works as a brand influencer for companies such as Lifestraw and The North Face and led a high school group up Mount Bierstadt, a 14er, after training with them all summer. He’s also met Gov. Jared Polis.

@fatblackandgettinit

This holiday season, give your family and friends the gift of life clean water. @lifestraw #ad #lifestrawpeakholidays #blackinnature

♬ smiles & sunsets – ultmt.

Holland is a quiet, introverted dude and still doesn’t understand all the attention, but he gets his own influence now. He’s always been Black and, yes, fat, but now he’s finally gettin’ it. 

Birds of a feather. But from different flocks.

If you want to understand how rare Holland is in the influencer world, you could compare him to Parker McMullen Bushman of Denver. In some ways, she is the female version of Holland: She’s a plus-sized Black woman who tries new adventures in the outdoors, such as a rafting trip she took with Holland, and her influence and persona took off after joining TikTok.

But Bushman also has a master’s degree in natural resources with an emphasis in “environmental inclusion,” a career she had for 23 years “before I had heard of TikTok,” she said in an interview. 

@kweenwerk

catch me outside how bout that?😂

♬ original sound – mexicangueys
@kweenwerk

I’m not going to lie this trip had me terrified! But we had such a great time by the end of the tour we dubbed it “Black Water Rafting”! #CLIFCreator

♬ original sound – 👑 Kween werK 👑

She has a colorful image she calls KweenWerk — in that same rafting video she did with Holland, she complained that she wouldn’t be able to wear her neon-bright makeup and headwraps — and a website and the expertise to go with it. She had a lead role in this summer’s Outdoor Retailer trade show and wrote an article on microaggressions for the show’s magazine.

She has the intellectual chops, in other words, to thoughtfully present the challenges different groups face in the outdoors. But she was also the first to believe in Holland’s potential as an influencer.

She began her career after working at various environmental education centers and camps and wondered why she didn’t see many people who looked like her. But she got her own lesson after moving to Colorado in 2017. By then, she’d led kayaking trips, was a birder and took long walks in the woods, but she was afraid to hike in our state’s purple mountain majesties.

“I thought hiking here was a white male climbing up over the side of a mountain,” she said and laughed. “I had to reconnect with hiking in a different way.”

When she discovered that not everyone has to climb a 14er to be a hiker, even if it feels that way sometimes, her hikes got longer, and she began to film them for TikTok. What she heard from other Black people worried her.

“A lot of what I heard was, ‘I’m fat, and I’m Black, and we don’t do that kind of stuff,’” Bushman said. 

She eventually grew into KweenWerk, which stands for Keep Widening Environmental Engagement Narratives, and her channel, she said, is “all over the place,” from adventures and hikes to lighthearted skits to serious discussions about issues such as the microaggressions she wrote about.

Microaggressions are subtle comments or actions that hurt someone’s chances of enjoying the outdoors or even from visiting them at all. They don’t have to be intentional — in fact, many times they aren’t, she said — but they hurt just the same. Even well-intentioned actions, such as cheering for her when she reaches a lake or a lookout on top of a steep trail or complimenting her on her “colorful” outfits, skin color or head wrap, make her feel unwanted.

He’s inspired me as well. I was afraid to push myself as hard until I saw him push himself

— Parker McMullen Bushman, a Black influencer

“What they are doing is calling out something they perceive as different,” Bushman said. “When you get questions such as ‘Have you ever done this before?’, they are probably the 50th person who has said that. When one person says it, you can brush it off, but 50?”

Bushman tries hard to be funny and nice and gently point these things out. It’s her nature to be nice and joyful. She doesn’t want to chastise what she calls “white folx” on her website. But this is also why she loves Holland.

“I love how authentic he is,” she said. “He just wants to show people how beautiful Colorado is, and he’s taken lots of pains to do that and get out there consistently.” 

Holland does address issues similar to those considered on Bushman’s platforms. In one video, he hikes with a group that just wants to enjoy views instead of treating a hike like a competitive race. In another, he interviews a Black friend who hadn’t visited the Arsenal, even though he’d lived in Denver his whole life. But his message is just as effective as her more academic takes, Bushman said, and may even reach a different audience. She still believes in him today. 

“He’s inspired me as well,” she said. “I was afraid to push myself as hard until I saw him push himself.” 

Likes for the fat guy 

It took five videos for Holland to go viral on TikTok. In February 2021, he took a short video of himself swimming in a hot springs pool in Glenwood Springs and titled it “No likes for the fat guy, huh.” 

He actually got 13,000 likes and more than 70,000 views, a big number, even for a post about a fat guy. When some well-intentioned followers told him he wasn’t fat, he posted himself shirtless in his next video at 330 pounds. But it’s the next video he posted that makes him cringe today, he said. It’s of a moose. It’s a cool video because all moose videos are cool, but it’s boring, he said. The moose isn’t doing anything. 

When his numbers began to climb, he studied what others were doing, and he learned some important lessons, such as: Don’t post boring pictures of wildlife just sitting there. Maybe, if you see bighorn sheep, as he does near Georgetown in some of his later videos, post your face flashing a shocked and slightly scared expression. 

The numbers exploded, then, and, to be frank, caught him by surprise. He was using TikTok to sell prints of wildlife photos, but the videos themselves were much more popular, and he realized that he wanted a career in social media instead of FedEx or DoorDash.

But despite all the time he put into learning how to do it, the key was to be himself doing what he loves in nature. People started to ask him to speak, and just this year, North Face and LifeStraw signed him to promote their products.

“I guess this is what an influencer is,” Holland said, as if he still doesn’t understand his role. “This is what they do, right?”

@fatblackandgettinit

Happy Holidays Everyone! 2022 has definitely been one for the books. I’ve grown in more ways than I could have ever imagined. If you would have told me, I would be on NPR, do fundraising for students, or work with big brands I would never have even thought that was possible. Thank you to all of my family, friends, and followers for making this year my most special year yet. Heres to making 2023 even better! #blackinnature #blackhiker #diversifyoutdoors

♬ original sound – Alexandra Ivanisevic

His first video with more than 100,000 views was of Holland at Red Rocks calling it “one of the most magical places in the world.” A few days later, he posted a montage of himself in nature, with the question, “Who said black people don’t like the outdoors?”

The North Face is a company that sponsors some of the best alpinists, climbers and trail runners in the world. Holland is thrilled to be on the team, and he gets that his role isn’t to wow people already enjoying the outdoors: It’s to give The North Face a new audience and, of course, new customers. He loves this job, even if he describes a recent outdoor photo shoot the way kids might describe going to Sears for a family portrait.

“It was on a Saturday,” Holland said, “and there was a group of people looking at me like I was a celebrity. It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done.”

He is a celebrity now, or about as much of one as a TikTok star can be in the real world. He has more than 115,000 followers, and he’s recognized on trails all the time. This is one reason why he likes social media other than the fact that it’s his career now: He felt welcomed by the community when, at first, he didn’t feel that way out hiking by himself. 

“It wasn’t very inclusive for me at all,” Holland said. 

On social media, he saw other people of color, like Bushman, whom he now considers a friend, and who encouraged him. Many others encouraged him as well, far more than the people who openly scoffed at him as he huffed up a trail.

“There are actually groups that are doing what I do,” Holland said. “The community on there has been amazing. Nationally and even kinda globally. There are people in Canada telling us to come visit the Rockies up there. It’s pretty cool.” 

Though he said he still gets a bad vibe from hikers in some smaller towns, his status as a celebrity shields him from many of those microaggressions that Bushman talks about, and this is why he tends to focus more on his favorite spots to hike or visit in Colorado, especially places that aren’t quite as popular, instead of social issues on his channel.

He does want plus-size people and Black people to get outside more, but he’s trying to reach anyone who is afraid to hike in wild places. Those people can be white or skinny as well. 

Holland isn’t embarrassed by his size, but he sees it as a potential hindrance to what he loves to do. He did lose weight in 2020, nearly 100 pounds, shrinking him down to 270 pounds. He’s now at 350 pounds again, and he thinks that could be too much for mountaineering, something he really wants to try. 

“We will see what it feels like,” he said. “I don’t want to lose weight for a societal standard or to look better on camera, it’s literally hiking in the mountains and me wanting to do that, too.” 

Nelson Holland at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on Dec. 14. Holland frequently explores new trails and goes birdwatching on long-distance hikes. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Gettin’ it done

Holland isn’t afraid to do hard stuff, including Colorado’s best natural torture device, the Manitou Incline, a staircase straight up the side of Pikes Peak that gains 2,000 feet in a mile. CrossFit bros LOVE the Incline, taking selfies far above their abs to show just how steep those stairs are that they just DOMINATED.

In one of his most recent TikToks, Holland, meanwhile, helped a plus-sized white woman with cancer ascend the Incline for the first time. In the video, he shows regulars blowing by them, but he laughs at their prowess instead of allowing himself to be intimidated by it, calling them “superhuman” while admitting in the opening line that he’s “already thrown up today.” 

When Colorado Public Radio did a story on Holland, Narissa Stahl, a physical education teacher for Denver’s George Washington High School, reached out to him to talk to her class. Stahl loves her students, but she knows her limitations and thought Holland could inspire them. He’s Black and younger, for instance, and she, well, isn’t. Holland did, in fact, connect with them, especially Kennedy Pinkney, a senior who is Black, who started a group she called Closing The Adventure Gap a year ago. 

@fatblackandgettinit

Please support this amazing AVID class, @ctag23 who is currently providing much needed representation for youth, women, and people of color outdoors. They are my heroes. #blackinnature #hiking2022 #bipochikers

♬ Aesthetic – Tollan Kim

“Just talking to him is a breath of fresh air,” Pinkney said. “He doesn’t look like everybody on the mountain. It’s kind like, ‘If he can do it, then I can do it.’”

Pinkney laughed at that because it sounded rude, but that’s exactly the attitude Holland told them to take, and it’s exactly why Stahl wanted him to speak. 

And here’s the thing: It worked. He challenged the kids to climb a 14er, Mount Bierstadt.

The peak is considered by many to be the state’s most accessible 14er because it’s close to Denver, off a paved road with a huge parking lot and a relatively easy hike. But it’s still a 14er, without much oxygen and a long and steep way to the top. Holland trained with them, chunk and all, and went with them on their big day.

I don’t want to lose weight for a societal standard or to look better on camera, it’s literally hiking in the mountains and me wanting to do that, too.

— Nelson Holland, an outdoor influencer

“It was very scary to think about doing that,” Pinkney said, “but being alongside him, he moved at his own pace.”

Many of the students made the top, and now there are others interested in joining Stahl next year, including her fellow teachers and the superintendent. 

“They seemed happy to be outside,” she said. “I do see a change in them. They are closer together. They are able to connect on a different level out there.” 

Learning how to live 

On the coldest day in Denver in decades — it felt like minus 30 degrees, according to the many weather apps — Holland went for a walk.

“I was kinda depressed,” he said in a post. “So I wanted to get outside.” 

Holland has said, many times, that he wasn’t really living until he discovered nature. He was going to Brooklyn College, an hour-and-a-half by train from his grandfather’s house, where he was staying, and when his grandfather died, Holland dropped out of school and felt listless before coming out here. The first time he saw the Rocky Mountains, something stirred inside him. 

“Is this real?” He recalls saying to himself.

He didn’t even know what an influencer was, other than the Kardashians, when his channel blew up. He admits that, at first, he underestimated the time it takes to be good at it. “It’s way busier than anyone would have thought.”

It takes him at least a couple hours to edit a video, and he does his own camera work, which does, thankfully, push him to find time outdoors. He also needs to interact with the public, something he enjoys but finds draining, as any introvert would, and answer emails and attend meetings and work on speaking engagements. He’s also trying to start a guiding hiking company. 

It’s been a tough adjustment, and there were times he would go to the Arsenal to cope. The 15,000-acre refuge has more than 20 miles of hiking trails, and Holland’s probably done all of them at least once. He’s been there so many times, more than 100, he thinks, that he knows the bison herd’s movements and even their mannerisms. The first time he saw them made him “instantly fall in love.”

“There’s nothing I’d rather do than hang and watch wildlife,” Holland said. 

Holland admits he’s still bad at promoting himself. Lifestraw and The North Face approached him, he said. He hasn’t sought deals himself. He feels driven not by fame or success, even though he is enjoying his new career. He believes he’s building a community of people who may not think they are ready for the outdoors to get out there. 

He recalls a few months ago when he was hiking at Golden Gate State Park and a couple approached him. “We are out here,” they told him, “because of you.”

It made him tear up, he said. “That feels pretty surreal.”

☀ MORE COLORADO SUNDAY

He recalls a recent discussion with another creator, who told him she spends a half-hour a day talking to her followers via email or social media. Holland said a half-hour a day would do “nothing” to reply to the people asking for a comment back. Still, he does believe he’s figuring it out. 

“This year was overwhelming,” he said. “But I’m ready now to take it all on.” 

He still hears those negative voices despite his success. He still gets down. But he knows what he needs to do to get rid of them. He said goodbye to his guests after spending time with them at the Arsenal, the place that started it all for him. But instead of heading back to his car, he turned toward Lake Ladora.

“It’s so beautiful out here,” he said. “I think I’m gonna go walk now.” 

Nelson Holland at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on Dec. 14. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Dan England

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland