The Color of Camping
The guy two sites over quite couldn’t believe it. He stood, holding his pit bull’s leash tightly, his white belly uncovered, his face pink and wide, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He commanded Ryder to be still and was rough with him. The dog barked as Anthony, my husband, my African American husband, trudged up from the east side of the lake holding his fishing gear.
Anthony greets him, as he always does, but the man just keeps the dog against him wiggling and barking. We are the only people of color in the campground, which is two hours east of the Bay Area, where we are barely noticed. But we are often the only people of color in any campground we go to, except for a few fisherman here and there who grew up in the South fishing their whole lives. And I'm sure, like resorts and spa towns, people of color have the campgrounds they flock to. We just don’t abide by those divisions and put ourselves in the middle of “Bubba” country, for a good view, a cool lake, a star clustered sky.
When I started camping seriously and by seriously, I mean a card-carrying member of REI, I was living in Nebraska. Outside of the Cornhuskers (the players, not the fans), I wasn’t around many people of color, so when we camped on the Lewis and Clark Lake or out in the Black Hills, I surrounded by the same population as my everyday life. There, people just asked. “What are you?” This may sound like an offensive question, but in fact, it’s easier to swallow than the immediate assumptions that come with whatever stereotype pops to mind when seeing a unfamiliar-looking person. Most people thought I was “Indian” (meaning a local Native American) or Mexican, meaning my family worked on someone’s land, usually seasonally. Sometimes, I let it go there because explaining I was Arab-American and for some folks that needed explaining (pre 9/11) was just too much work.
I continued camping, back packing, cross country skiing, rapelling, downhill skiing, cross country biking, rafting, canoeing, and hiking. All of which are identified primarily with neon-dressed Colorado blondes. The muscular sun kissed crowd shared GORP in the Uncompaghre Wilderness and talked about what was just above the tree line or over the next ridge or their favorite place to decompress back in Durango. The culture was the trail and it rarely mattered who you ran into, the talk was about the experience and what 14 K you’ve done before or were planning to climbing.
The car camping crowd is different because it is easily a family affair. And in some of the car camping cultures, equipment is dominant: tents, R.V’s, screen houses, generators, bug zappers, lanterns, huge stoves, coolers, packaged food, beer, and cigarettes. We always opt for the more ecological campground with tents only. Yet we can’t seem to escape some tiki lamps and fires started with gasp! lighter fluid.
Mostly the campers are there for recreation, not the stillness of the woods, or the changing colors of the terrain, the eagle sighting or the silent nights. They know each other by the style of camping that is presented.
We are minimal: Tent, stove, lantern, drawer of supplies, cooler of food. We come without chairs, boats, rafts, screen houses etc. We keep to ourselves, truly going for the “disconnect.” We hike, swim the dog, fish, cook and read in the hammock. No beer, no music, no generators; we weren’t members of the club in any sense of the world.
After this most recent trip, which was peaceful and lovely, I considered the question of color at campgrounds. I spoke to a few other folks of color who camped with their families when they were younger –they all admitted to being the only color in any campground in any part of Cali or anywhere in the U.S. While other outdoor activities draw a more diverse crowd, the campground has stubbornly stayed on the white side.
Some theories came my way from friends who camp and don’t camp. The idea of a person of color “roughing it” after a history of roughness seemed a little absurd to some.
Others suggested that the sense of not-belonging was overwhelming. Why would you make yourself “the only one” during relaxation as well as at work?
For the upwardly mobile, camping is downward.
Some see camping as another version of being in the fields, living in a hut, fetching water.
Finally, my sisters say, what? no showers? bah!
When Anthony arrived in our site, we sat at the table for dinner. I was pulling chicken and mushrooms off the fire, he was stirring his cocoa. Suddenly, Anthony felt something beside him. “Look,” he said. I turned to him. Under his arm, nuzzling like a sweet horse, was Ryder, the pit bull. The same dog, being held tightly by his owner, went ballistic as Anthony climbed up to the site. Across the road, the owners stood awestruck as Anthony stroked the big old head of the friendly dog. Brewster stood across from him, a little tense. Who was this dog flirting with his dad?
Anthony rose and walked Ryder back to his site. “There you go, boy,” Anthony wished him off.
The owner grabbed his collar and leashed him up.
Anthony returned to our table and we ate our food, the fire died, the stars filled the sky, frogs called from the reeds, and dogs slept. Everything was peace.
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