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Family camping can be a wondrous adventure – for some

September 23, 2015

Family camping can be a wondrous adventure — for some

(As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 23, 2015)

Our family loves to camp. From the time we met, my wife, Lori and I regularly ventured to wild places. Our wedding was at the top of a mountain in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.

A year later, our first-born arrived in late September and by the following June we were tenting. I vividly recall our little Zoe — clad in fleece hat, top and bottoms — collecting pine cones as she crawled around our campsite.

After relocating to New England, welcoming a second child and adjusting to life as a family of four, we returned to camping. During one particularly memorable trip, Zoe and brother, Adam, spent hours — five days in a row — digging in the decomposing tree stump at the edge of our campsite, collecting and naming slugs, which they housed in the bottom of our canoe. They could not have been happier — or slimier.

Recently, with Adam, now 6 and Zoe, almost 9, we camped near the same tree stump, a short walk from the shores of Lake Champlain in northern Vermont. We slept and dreamt deeply for six nights, our bodies inhaling fresh air and resting after long days of biking, hiking, swimming, kayaking and exploring our natural surroundings.

On our fifth day of bliss — as we swam and basked in the sun — another family joined us at the water’s edge. The father was black, the mother white and the skin of the three young boys reflected their mixed race.

Adam easily merged with the boys and without words each continued to hunt for smooth flat stones, which their little arms hurled at the lake, counting the times they skipped and watching with delight as we fathers joined in the fun.

I chatted with the parents, she a native of a Montreal suburb and he of Burkina Faso, a small West African country. They were camping for a few nights before their boys returned to school, soaking in the same type of natural respite we were enjoying.

As our families shared the shoreline, I was aware of my whiteness — realizing that I rarely see people of color during our many outdoor adventures. This observation hung — unresolved — in my mind as we parted ways.

A couple of days later, after returning home, I read a column written by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, whose skillful and thoughtful prose I greatly admire.

In this particular column, Kristof reflected on his idyllic experience hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in the remote California wilderness with his college-aged daughter. I imagined myself someday doing the same with Zoe.

But I also bristled at his claims that wilderness areas offer escape from the oppressive inequalities of everyday life, are inherently democratic and serve as “the last fully egalitarian places in America.”

So, then, why do I rarely see people of color when I am camping? I wondered. Granted, people of all races choose not to camp for a variety of reasons — fear of wild animals, fear of getting lost, the unwillingness to shed the conveniences of domesticity.

But I suspect for many people of color reasons also include barriers that block their access to wilderness experience.

The long history and current reality of racial discrimination and violence could understandably leave people of color feeling vulnerable about camping in wilderness areas that are frequented almost exclusively by white people.

People who live in urban centers — disproportionately people of color — may lack experience with camping and other outdoor adventure. And those of limited financial means lack vacation time and the income necessary for camping gear and car ownership required for travel to remote locations.

From what I’ve observed, wilderness may offer a form of escape for some, but it is not an escape readily accessible to all people.

So, while our family still glows from our recent camping trip — and we are already planning next summer’s adventures — I am also motivated to learn more about removing barriers and promoting access so that all families have the opportunity to experience the joy of camping.

John Engel of Florence is an organizational consultant and Director of the Healthy Men and Boys Network of Western Massachusetts. He can be reached through his website

One Comment leave one →
  1. Steven permalink
    September 24, 2015 8:33 pm

    Well said!

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