The first time I tried my hand at astrophotography (shooting the stars, as opposed to shooting stars) was on a clear night just outside Mount Rainier National Park. I was renting a cabin with my wife and her family, a trio of sisters from Colombia who spoke frequently about the possibility of seeing wildlife. I left them for the pitch darkness down the road along the Nisqually River.
I was back in about 10 minutes. I got my shot of the Milky Way, as planned. They were surprised, and not because I got the picture.
“Oso?” one of the sisters asked in Spanish, meaning the possibility of a bear hastening my return.
“No,” I answered, “gente (people).”
It never occurred to me on a night so dark that I could not see my hands in front of my face (without a head lamp, that is) that I might have to confront unfriendly wildlife. It was the possibility of encountering unfriendly humans in the middle of nowhere that actually scared the bejeebers out of me.
I recount this story to make a point about how a lot of people of color like me feel about solitude and wilderness. In my last column, I wrote about the disconnect between whites and nonwhites around how they express their experiences outdoors, and how that disconnect has perpetuated the false narrative that people of color are not outside, and don’t want to be.
It’s important to square that disparity so no one is left out of the picture. It is essential to engage everyone, not just in stewardship of our public lands, but in an all-hands effort to mitigate the impacts of climate change and preserve our planet.
The difference in perspective about what it means to “get away from it all” is just as misleading as the disconnect over what constitutes outdoor recreation.
The path to this divide really took hold in 1903. Then, a couple of elite white men, President Theodore Roosevelt and the writer and naturalist John Muir, stood upon Glacier Point in what would become Yosemite National Park. On that magnificent vista, they essentially hatched the idea of the national park system. They spoke of preserving pristine landscapes to serve as much-needed respites from “urban stressors.”
That last term, “urban stressors,” trips me. There are reasons to believe they were speaking about my ancestors and other people of color and brown immigrants who were streaming into big cities, creating “chatter” and competing for work, housing, and services. The dark racial history of this country painted for these communities of color a different context for “the middle of nowhere” — whether a place (like “the woods”) where terrible things happened, or to where an entire race of people were forcibly removed for merely looking like an enemy, and where agriculture was introduced and subsequent immigrant groups provided the kind of back-breaking labor from which the mainstream population had moved on.
Not to mention that many of the lands we now consider wilderness were not absent of people when they were “discovered” by the scourge of European settlers sweeping west across the continent.
Freed slaves, Native Americans, and Asian and Latin immigrants were ghettoized, reinforcing an inclination toward congregation sewn into these communities as tribal or extended-family structure. A racist America also prompted people of color to cluster, for support and safety reasons.
The gathering rift between solitude and community reached another milestone in the mid-sixties. In 1965 Paul Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), building upon the signing of the Wilderness Act a year before. Three years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his mountaintop speech, building on another signal event in 1964, the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
The momentous acts of 1964—Wilderness and Civil Rights—gave rise to competing imperatives. To people of color, the wilderness often feels like a gated community for people of privilege, where in relative isolation (at least from us) they can seek the highest forms of themselves by climbing granite walls, tagging peaks, and hiking trails that stretch from Mexico to Canada. These individualized pursuits seem unobtainable to us because of our continued focus on civil rights, just to be recognized as equal human beings.
This variance in outlook greatly influences the way public lands are managed. The demographics of public lands agencies remain hugely white, partly because of their inability to attract people of color to work at units not adjacent to urban centers. Usage is influenced because campsites, trailheads, and parking lots are not designed to accommodate larger groups of color; plus people of color don’t see themselves reflected in the workforce.
These differences also get lodged in outdoor culture, emphasizing the solitude, limited usage, and silence associated with in-the-middle-of-nowhereness.
My daughter Sassia and I recently went to hike the Colter Bay area of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. A light snow was falling and the ranger station and all other services had just closed, so we were alone. This is grizzly territory and Sassia was told by a ranger earlier in the week that bears had been spotted routinely on our route.
Most experts dismiss bear bells as useless, and Sassia and I are not loud conversationalists. I decided to play music on my mobile phone with the volume turned up. I have to admit: I didn’t come up with this rather inventive idea. The previous year, I was hiking in grizzly country near Cody, Wyoming, and was startled by a young white woman who was playing a podcast on her phone as she trekked up Heart Mountain.
It’s difficult to know if the music shooed off any grizzly visits, but I have a very pleasant memory of hiking Colter Bay with my daughter to a soundtrack provided by Frank Ocean. It would be a shame if such a pleasant, inventive solution to a safety issue in the outdoors, one that was true to our culture, actually conspired to exclude us because a value system based on solitude will not change to accommodate such differences.
This is a quarterly column co-published by Mountaineers Magazine.
(NOTE: Clicking on an image will launch a full-sized viewer.)