Way Out with J.R. Harris

Adventures with J.R. Harris

Third Place Books, Seward Park
Wed., Nov. 29, 6 p.m. reception; 7 p.m. reading
5041 Wilson Ave. S., Seattle 98118
Co-Sponsors: The Trail Posse, Mountaineers Books, Seward Park Audubon
Click Here for Tickets

I first heard of J.R. Harris back in 2013, when I first started researching African Americans in the outdoors. It had been my intention to reach out to him, but with most of my well-laid plans, it slipped through the seams.

Fast forward to earlier this month, when my friend, Glenn Nelson posted on Facebook that he along with Mountaineers Books, Seward Park Audubon and Third Place Books Seward Park, were co-sponsoring an author’s event with none other than J.R Harris. There it was, my opportunity to speak with J.R. through this upcoming event.

J.R. (as he asked me to call him) and I spoke by phone. I wanted to give him a short synopsis of my work. As I began this introduction he said, “First let me say, I’ve done some research on you, read up on your work, and watched your video. Thank you for bringing attention to matters around lack of diversity in the outdoors.” I wasn’t prepared for that; most conversations begin with me sharing my story. It was refreshing to hear him speak of my work.

We then jumped into the meat of the conversation. I wanted to know how his lifelong love of the outdoors began. He explained that as a young child growing up in New York, his parents wanted to make sure he and his younger siblings had planned activities for the summer. They didn’t want them just hanging out around the house. J.R. along with his two siblings were sent kicking and screaming to summer camp. This was J.R.’s first introduction to the Boy Scouts and to the outdoors. He recalls he was the only African American in this particular scout troop (1950s). After that first summer away at camp, he was hooked. He says if not for the love and sincere interest his parents took in their summer vacations, he would never have known the blessings of the outdoors.

As J.R. grew so did his passion for the outdoors. Through his book Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker, he shares stories of his adventures in the deep backcountry, where it was seldom that he ever ran across other hikers, let alone another black person. He doesn’t speak much about race in his book; he said that’s not what his story is about, but he hopes to inspire young people of color by sharing his story. He recognizes the need for greater advocacy work around engagement of communities of color in the outdoors.

It was an absolute honor to speak with J.R. Harris, an African American man who found his place in the outdoors and speaks of his journeys with such pride and passion. He made a comment that stuck with me, saying that with every adventure in the outdoors he takes, he comes back a better person. I can so relate to that sentiment. I wanted to offer J.R. the opportunity to share just a little more about himself, in his own words. Here are a few of his thoughts:

Teresa Baker: What initially drew you to the outdoors?

J.R. Harris: I wasn’t drawn there, I was exiled there, to a Boy Scout summer camp in the Catskill Mountains by my parents. I grew up in the projects of New York City and things could get very unruly during the summer so my folks, over my objections, shipped me out there, supposedly for my own good. But once I got there, the experience was transformative. For more details, check out chapter 3 of my book.

TB: As an African American man, have you ever faced biases in the outdoors? If so, can you share one such instance?

Harris: I have never experienced any biases in the outdoors. I’ve been to a lot of national parks and other public lands over the last 50-plus years and most of the people I’ve met there have been very friendly. I don’t believe bias is a huge factor in keeping people of color from going outdoors. There may be an expectation of bias, and if there is, that’s something that needs to be addressed via outreach efforts. It’s a barrier that, if it exists, needs to be removed, and the way to remove it is to get more of us out there.

TB: What do you hope to create by sharing your story with audiences?

Harris: I hope Way Out There will inspire people of all ages, particularly urban dwellers, to get outdoors and, in their own way and at their own pace, explore, be curious, and experience nature and all the benefits and life lessons it teaches. I hope it shows that if a kid from a working-class urban family can do it, there is no reason why anybody can’t do it.

TB: What advice would you offer to a young person of color who doesn’t feel they have a place in the outdoors?

Harris: I would say that everybody has a rightful place in the outdoors. Everybody. The outdoors doesn’t discriminate, it belongs to all of us equally. I would tell that person to pick a sport or activity and go for it. I would say that I’ve been there so I speak from experience. I would give this advice to any young person, regardless of color, who felt they had no place in the outdoors.

TB: Who in your life has inspired your outdoor adventures?

Harris: Nobody inspired me, I learned to love the outdoors on my own. But there was one person in particular who was fascinated by my journeys and who appreciated that there was someone like me going out there and doing these adventures: my good friend and Tuskegee Airman, the late Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. He said they reminded him of his own younger, adventurous days as a fighter pilot. Check us out on his TV program, African American Legends: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50eU8rVlJYc
I’m honored that he wrote the foreword for my book.