When you are a nature-lover, and of color, in America
Recently, I decided to take my boys out for a day of hiking. There are some short hikes around the reservation near our home here in New Jersey, but I wanted something a bit more challenging, so we headed an hour away to Pennsylvania to explore the trails along the Delaware Water Gap.
It was a gorgeous day, a nice break from the humidity and intense heat we have felt so regularly this summer. The kids and I were in high spirits and we were excited to explore nature. The radio kept playing all our favorite songs and we cracked jokes. There was no traffic and the drive was easy.
Then I spotted it. A pick-up truck had merged in front of me and across its back cabin window was a large sticker that took up almost the entire glass. It was the confederate flag. I felt my body get tense. I honestly don’t know if we had crossed the border into PA yet, it really didn’t matter. I was heading into rural America, alone, with my kids.
On this wonderful afternoon, the sight of a large confederate emblem on the back of a pick up truck’s window made me nervous. I went from being relaxed to hyper-aware and a bit scared.
It followed me throughout our entire day.
When people, none of which were of color (and this is typical of most of our hiking experiences) walked past us, I smiled and said hello. When people stared at me (that’s what it felt like, a stare), and didn’t smile or say hello, I wondered if they were bothered by my being there. I gave more thought than I wanted to about what they might be thinking.
I was engaged with my kids and they never sensed my anxiety, but I was anxious.
At the end of the day, before heading home, the kids wanted to stop somewhere to eat. They pointed to a local diner along the road.
“Ok, boys. Please, please be in your absolute best behavior. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t fuss around too much. We don’t want to upset anyone here.” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out my mouth, but after a day of bottling up my nerves, the idea of walking into a diner, in rural America, just got to me.
My 9-year-old asked, “Why, mom? Is something wrong with this place? Why are you so nervous?” He is so perceptive, that one. He can listen to me speak and hear when something is wrong.
I became a bit frustrated with myself, “Nothing. Just, please. We’re not from around here, let’s just make sure to be in our best behavior.”
I walked into the diner. Scanned the room. Not one person of color. A lot of much, much older people. Of course. It’s 5pm on a weekday.
It felt like the whole room turned to look at us. They probably didn’t.
As our waitress took us to our table, I could feel the eyes on us. Was it real? Was I just being crazy?
I was super, super nice to the waitress. She messed up my order a bit, I told her it wasn’t a big deal. I gave her a big tip.
We got in our car and started heading home and I felt disappointed in myself and relieved at the same time.
My husband will read this post and it will be the first time he learns about my experience, because I wasn’t even able to process into words till now. And only in writing. A part of me didn’t want to tell him because I didn’t want him to feel scared for me and convince me from venturing out there. He probably wouldn’t try to stop me, but he would be nervous. He has experienced some things since being with me.
For a few years now, I have been advocating that more people of color travel to our national parks, that we take part in what is our right to enjoy the outdoors. That we put aside our fears and set out to explore all the natural beauty this country has to offer.
I have traveled to no less than 10 national parks to date. I love being outdoors. I love hiking, snowshoeing, swimming, and horseback riding. I even love camping. This is a huge transformation from just 9 years ago for me. It has changed my life, my goals, my passions. I want my children to have a taste of those experiences, I want others in my community to have a taste of those experiences.
Since my first park visit in 2009, I have fallen in love and will spread the message far and wide, for my kids and my community.
But I remember, very vividly, what is at stake. The fears and insecurities that envelope us as we venture out into environments where there aren’t many others like us, and where we might not be welcomed.
I didn’t turn back and cancel our trip. I wasn’t going to take that away from my children, or from myself. But it affected me and I carried this fear the entire day.
I write this now and tears fall from my face at the thought of it.
The arguments against what I feel, what so many of us feel, is present in almost every platform where these things have been shared. To date, as the national parks celebrate their centennial, I have yet to see a huge push for representation of minorities engaging in the parks in much of the marketing and campaign messaging.
I am a dark skin, Latina, plus size 45-year-old mother of three who loves the outdoors and ventures out as often as I can, and I don’t see myself represented. And I felt scared over the sight of a symbol that isn’t welcoming of people like me in an area close to where I enjoy hiking with my family. And I didn’t see any other people of color to help squash that sense of being the only one.
So, where do I go from here?
Those of you who have read my site for a while now are familiar with my mantra:
It’s not that I am fearless. It’s that I don’t like being afraid.
And so I am planning several hiking and camping trips with my boys. It matters to me that I am not going with my (white) husband, because I realized on that afternoon that if my husband was with us (and for a moment I thought to myself that I wish he was), I wouldn’t have been so nervous. I realized that I have, consciously and not so much so, used him as a shield in many of these types of trips we take on and I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to know that I can not only set up a tent by myself (granted, he’s going to show me how), and that I don’t need him to protect me against whatever, or whomever, has a problem with my existence.
I am in the process of planning a camping road trip through Montana later in September with my boys. I am both nervous and excited, but mostly excited, and really looking forward to the adventure and lessons in store for us.
The point is, I came face to face with a buried fear the other day and I am choosing to not let it control me. If you are reading this and have felt the same way at any point in your life’s journey, I hope I can help and inspire you in some way. I want you to know that I understand it and I know how real it is and how legitimate it is but you are not alone and you shouldn’t let it stop you from getting out there.
Overall, we had a great day of hiking (you can read about it here) and are hoping for this hot, rainy weather to let up soon so we can go back and take on a longer hike in the area.
This is the reality of what it is to be a person of color who ventures outside of their community and into the world. Hopefully, with more of us sharing our stories others will recognize that we are out here, that we want to feel represented, not only because we matter, but because it comforts us to see our likeness doing the things that so many of us enjoy. It feels good, but it also feels safer. And that is something we all deserve.