It seemed like everybody was on the phone a few weeks ago. Jamie and I covered some ground on a 48 mile bike ride. So many people were completely checked out of reality. Well, they were checked into another reality or pseudo-reality, I guess, but they weren’t present. Almost ran into a few smartphone zombies standing in the middle of trails unaware that other people were still on the trails near and around them.
You can watch as their soul leaves their body and passes through the screen into digital space. Talking, texting, Facebooking, Facetiming.
A while ago at a powerlifting meet where I was taking photos, I saw a woman with a phone up in front of her face. It looked like she was taking a photo of the room but she was reading Buzzfeed articles. Whatevs. Do your thing. A few minutes later I looked over and she’s standing there still and lifeless, phone up in front of her face, another Buzzfeed article aglow, directly facing a wall buttress like the final scene of the Blair Witch Project.
The smartphone society is neither smart nor a society. Discuss amongst yourselves.
I did a great kayak tour recently. A night time full moon kayak tour.
There was a fair amount of smartphone inceptioning going on. It was a great time, though, with friendly people despite the cliques. Absolutely stunning and surreal being on the Potomac at night. I wish there had been people willing to “model” in front of the monuments. I could have gotten some killer shots. Need to work on my people skills. Sometimes people are like, “You’re going to post these, right?” and other times people are like, “I don’t want my picture taken.”
Then they spend their time taking the crappiest photos and selfies. Oy. So it goes.
This is why I prefer to have friends join on these adventures. Sure, I’m always hopeful that I’ll meet people with similar interests and knowledge to share. More often than not it’s all women and me if you don’t count the instructors/leaders/guides. As a rule, I’m usually the only black person.
Younger women. I like younger women. No problem there. But they’re definitely on the defensive, huddling in their cliques. Understandable, I suppose. There’s a formidable “why are you talking to me” vibe.
Conversely, I went on a paddling outing where it was all black women. Great group. Adventurous, fun, and we all stepped out of our comfort zones with the paddleboarding. At dinner one of them asked me if I was married and had any kids. I said no.
She said, “How did that happen?”
I was speechless. “Uh. I can tell you how it didn’t happen.”
I didn’t know if she was flirting or what. When she saw I was flummoxed she said everybody she knows and meets has kids. The thing is, she viewed me as the same species, so to speak, which is rare given the circles I usually travel in. It was refreshing.
Re-conversely, I’ve observed that if I’m in a group setting where I’m the lone black guy and there’s one black woman, she’ll avoid making any eye contact or acknowledgment of my existence for as long as possible. I’m not sure what that’s about.
When one encounters consistent behavior in others, one must reflect on one’s contribution to said behavior, whether through action or demeanor. But I don’t know. More defense mechanisms because men can be awful, I assume. Or men can be cool and then turn on a dime into some kind of misogydemon. I’ve seen it.
If there’s a senior citizen or someone in the empty nest years, they tend to be very open and congenial. But other than that it’s like, have you all ever interacted with someone outside of your demographic? Ridiculous.
Keepin’ it One Hunnit
Let me be real with you. I’ve learned how vulnerable and fragile and beautiful we all are. I don’t care if you’re a senior citizen, a kid, a college student, male, female, black, white, brown, red, yellow, ill, dying, religious, agnostic, atheist. Even people whose personality conflicts with my own. Even people who watch reality shows. (You know who you are.) Our mutual humanity is grand, unfathomable in its complexity, and at the same time predictable and formulaic.
It’s like how galaxies are inconceivably vast to the point where we can only understand it indirectly — through comparison and analogy. You have to describe distance in vast units of time.
“How far away is that possibly Earth-like planet?”
“If we could travel at the speed of light, which is impossible since we have mass, about 50,000 years.”
“Are we there yet?”
Yet, we can predict a galaxy’s workings internally and as an entity once we understand the rules, the natural laws, that govern it. Then we learn that we’re not as clever as we thought. Our understanding is fuzzy. There’s a lot more going on and we really only understand the possibilities and probabilities. The more we learn about what makes it work and what it’s made of, the more we dig, the more we don’t know.
You know what I say. We’re a tribe of circumstance. All of us here alive on this blue-green marble hurtling around the sun. We’re all we have. Once you realize that we’re all seekers — we’re all insecure and unsure, translucently layered with experience and memory — simultaneously having a go at risking vulnerability and fortifying our defenses, relying on the the tools and techniques that worked for us at critical points in our past, you see a fellow traveler. Just like seeing another weary traveler on a trail in a wilderness after days of solitude, you smile, wave, nod, stop for a chat, share experiences, help when you can.
Of course, in our everyday world, interacting with strangers like you understand and accept them creeps them right the eff out — the unsolicited familiarity. It’s a violation of our social tribalism.
Like I’ve said before, in the world that I frequent … it’s very white. Well, in NoVA there are a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern people, too, but still. They’re insular communities in their way. In a beautiful way, actually. I tend to live near tech centered areas. Just like when I was in the Bay Area. The percentage of black people is around 2%.
When I seek out African American groups for activities, a relatively new effort, that’s a different culture, too. One time I made a nerdy Lord of the Rings reference and no one got it. Not one person. Crickets. “Nobody? Nothing? No one got that?”
I went on an outing with a black group a while ago and someone stated how good it was to be out there with Us. They do activities with other groups and organizations but they felt comfortable and at home in a group of black folk.
I don’t automatically feel at home or get the warm fuzzies just because it’s a black group. That has to be earned. It was a great group, though. Fun, outgoing, adventurous, laughing the whole time. As a group, we lit up the trails with positive energy and personality.
A few people asked us if we were a family or a club. You could see the question mark of curiosity here and there.
There were inside jokes about white people being uncomfortable when they saw us. I don’t think it was the case at all. People were just curious and, frankly, they have every right to be.
I’ve done that trip four times and I can’t remember having seen another black person. I’ve seen locals and also tourists from all over the world — Germany, France, Russia, Asian countries, and so on — but no black people. Then all of a sudden there’s a group of fifteen black people of varied ages and types of gear (indicating different experience levels)? I’d have question marks, too.
When I was in college, I was part of a scholarship group. We took a trip to New York City and went to the Metropolitan Museum. 20 college aged young black men in suits. A black security guard called me over and asked who we were. He, and other people, sometimes thought we were a sports or musical group. Fair enough. We told him that we were part of an academic scholarship program from Maryland designed to increase the number of black PhD’s and the number of black people pursuing STEM careers. He was floored. He was beaming. He wanted to shake our hands. (No, I don’t have a PhD, by the way.)
WHY AREN’T BLACK PEOPLE OUTDOORSY?
There are a few ways to answer this. On one hand, I could say it’s a stereotype and then name drop. We have culturally and historically had strong ties to the land and outdoors. Farming, gardening, fishing, and so on. For a while in the early to mid 20th century it seemed like every family in America had those relatives that lived out in the country.
We, in this country, have lost that rural element, sadly. Not all, but too many. I have noticed that a lot of outdoorsy black people are former military.
On the other hand, refer to what I wrote above. Note the themes of enthusiasm vs. alienation, coming from someone who is passionate about being outdoors. It’s anecdotal but feel free to extrapolate.
Outdoors recreation requires time, equipment (= money), access, and a desire to forego creature comforts. It’s a high bar if you really want to get into it. There are ways to save money, of course, but it’s still a barrier getting geared up properly.
Hiking is free. Sitting and contemplating is free. Everything else requires an investment so you have to be dedicated.
Want to go kayaking or canoeing? You can rent if you’re willing to pay $30+ per boat every time. Want to own your own stuff? Boat, paddles, extra paddles, a place to store, a way to transport, PFD, emergency and safety equipment, lights, ropes, etc. thousands of dollars.
Want to go camping? You can get gear at a low price from Target and Walmart. It’ll get you started. But it’s really heavy and may not be very durable. If you want to get into the wilderness and away from car camping you need light gear which is pricey. Hundreds to thousands of dollars again. Plus you have to know where to go and all the rules.
Suppose you’re a kid in southeast DC and want to see the stars and spend time in the woods? What are your options?
On another recent outing with a black group based around DC I was surprised by the amount of people who don’t have cars. Being city-phobic, it was a bit of culture shock, but if you live and work in a walkable city with half way decent public transit, why would you burden yourself with the hassle of a car?
That’s why it burned my toast to hear Andy Shallal, DC businessman with great restaurants and venues to his name, on his radio show say that cities need density and not more green space. He said that if people want to see green they can drive out to the mountains and national parks. He’s got a pointed sense of humor and speaks off the cuff but still.
Grrrrrr. Eff that noise.
Fear. Fear and apprehension. My family has a lot of respect for my attempts at adventuring. For the most part it’s not for them, though. Their first thought is danger. Not fun, adventure, beauty, creation, connection, or growth; danger. It’s not safe.
Second would be, like, bugs, gross bathrooms, no bathrooms, being physically uncomfortable. If you just spent all week on the 9 to 5 grind + commute, why in the world would you want to drive hours to sleep/ride/paddle/walk outside? That sounds like work and not relaxation.
Plus you’re far from emergency services if anything goes wrong. What if you run into crazy people? Outside is where the Klan is. (For my older relatives the KKK and the similarly-minded were a very real threat, physically and economically. They sought to control and reign in black people through acts of terror and intimidation. No exaggeration. No joke.)
I was biking with a friend on the NCR trail once and saw a black couple at Monkton. It used to be a bustling waypoint with a food shop, functioning restrooms, shade, water, tubing and what not. Now it’s quieter. Plus, late in the day it gets a little sparse. You are in the boonies. There’s one road crossing a ways up the trail where if you’re riding or hiking north and you look to the left you’ll see a black goat standing in the middle of the road or chewing on a grassy embankment.
I saw a black couple at Monkton taking a break from cycling and as I walked past and exchanged polite greetings the woman, while pointing up and down the trail at the isolation and homogeneous demographics with her eyes, said, “Have a good ride. Um. Be careful.”
She was uncomfortable. She was relieved to see me, another black person. She wanted me to validate her discomfort.
Having said all of that, if you have even modest means in this area there’s so much you can do. On the cheap. With carpools. Meetup groups in particular are your best bet. You may have reasons but you don’t have any excuses. Not around these parts.
Still, there’s the social thing. To me, part of the adventure is the people you meet. Awkwardness and alienation are part the of the human experience. Everybody has a story. Everybody is going through something. Seriously. The next time you’re the only chip in the cookie and get to talking to someone, ask them a few polite but genuine questions about their family, health, or future plans. When they answer, the walls between you will crumble.
With the two black outdoorsy meetup groups I joined, I realized that I have a higher outdoor metabolism than they do. By “they” I mean the members of those groups. One group is trying to ease people into it and grow their sense of adventure gradually. The other focuses more on social events. The events are far and few between when it’s cold out or when the leadership is transitioning.
So I posted my own events on Facebook and their FB groups. I got some likes. They don’t know me, though. People are looking for social safety and comfort.
This may also be because women are the ones trying new things and doing these events. Mostly. Your creep alert has to be set on high when you’re socializing online. Stay frosty out there, people.
Almost finally, getting people outdoors is a concerted effort. I’ve met some amazing people. They spend more time doing things for their communities than they do for themselves. That’s what it seems like. In minority communities, the people with a certain level of privilege, freedom, or flexibility heed the call to give back. It’s a tenet of minorities. There’s an implicit responsibility to “your people”.
Being black and outdoors is, in a sense, a movement. It’s an act of will. It’s an act of defiance against the inertia and complacency of post-modern living. It’s a quest for equality. It’s an effort to pass on all the rewards — physical, mental, spiritual — that the outdoors can offer that entire classes of people can easily be denied for generations.
From public gardens to swimming lessons to outdoor activities groups to community programs. They are on the ball and get very little attention or credit for it.
HIKING WHILE BLACK
If you haven’t seen that Funny or Die video with Blair Underwood, it’s worth checking out. It rings true with your outdoorsy black friends. Take my word for it.
But like I said before:
There’s a real simple solution to this awkwardness, black people.
Go hike, bike, camp and everything else. And when you do? Don’t just go with each other all the time. You’ll miss a lot of amazing experiences and amazing people that way; experiences that you can share and pass along. Reap the benefits. Share the wealth.
Go get some.