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Mountaintop Experience

A new group aims to get more people of color exploring the outdoors

 

Update: This parks and nature group has adopted the name Pathways to Parks. The goal of the group is to encourage black and brown people to take advantage of parks, trails, and nature preserves through activities such as hiking, camping, cycling, tennis, walking, and picnicking. If you are interested, please contact Tanya Shahid-Cummings at pathwaystoparks@yahoo.com

 

The Cliff

“Are they crazy?” Tanya Shahid-Cummings wanted to know. She was on a mountain, looking at a narrow trail at the edge of a sheer drop. But her companions were cheerfully walking it.

She could turn back. She had before, when she found herself in situations outdoors that intimidated her. But this time, she says, “I didn’t want to be the chicken in the group.” And she didn’t want to let them down.

They were trying out a new idea—a group that would get people of color together to explore local parks and trails. The hikers included her friend, Flo Mayberry, a fellow retiree and former Californian; her boyfriend Larry Pender; and Tony Beurskens, the community engagement manager for Conserving Carolina. It was their first hike, on the six-mile Wildcat Rock Trail, near Gerton, NC.

The hikers were at different levels of comfort. Some walked confidently over a log to cross a creek. Tanya crawled across. Some were tall with long strides, but Tanya’s not even five feet tall. She had to work harder to keep up.

Then they got to the cliff—that narrow trail over bare rock. “I overcame my fears and I did it,” Tanya says. “And it was so beautiful. Oh, it was so pretty up there.” The rock outcrop offered views over a valley with farmland curling into forests, and across to more mountains.

“That made it fun, because I conquered it,” she says. “It was as though I conquered the world. Like I achieved a great feat by being  able to do something I didn’t know I could do.”

Where Are the Black and Brown Faces?

Her adventure started with a lecture—when Frank and Audrey Peterman came to Western North Carolina in March. Multiple conservation groups sponsored their visit, which included a tour of the Carl Sandburg House in Flat Rock and the keynote address at UNC-Asheville’s Greenfest.

In her Jamaican accent, Audrey told her story. She was already in her 40s by the time she discovered the national parks in her adopted country. The first one she visited was Acadia, in Maine. On a mountain overlooking the sea, she realized that if God had created a place so perfect, so beautiful, so wondrous, and God had also created her, then she must also be perfect, beautiful, and wondrous. And so must everyone else. She’s tried to live in the light of that insight ever since, she said.

She and Frank set out to see more of these awe-inspiring places, on a 12,000 mile road trip as their last child was graduating from college. But they wondered why they saw so few people who looked like them. Where were the people with black or brown faces?

In Yellowstone, Frank met an older white man who told them what he’d seen when he came as a boy with his father, and later when he brought his son. “That was one of the few times in my life that I questioned whether I had been a good father,” Frank said at UNC-Asheville. This man had passed on to his family a sense of ownership of the national park. Frank had not done that for his children.

Audrey and Frank set out to change what they saw, launching new careers as advocates for engaging Americans, in all of their diversity, with the nation’s public lands.

“Both Stories”

Kathey Avery’s family has lived in Bat Cave for generations. Her grandmother and great grandmother sold timber off their land. Her parents farmed and grew apples. In this tight-knit community, her father was a founding member of the volunteer fire department.

In 2009, with Kathey’s encouragement, her parents sold around 150 acres of mountain land bordering Chimney Rock State Park to The Nature Conservancy. Kathey wanted to preserve the beauty of the mountaintop and the habitat for wildlife habitat. “I didn’t want people building on the top of that mountain,” she says, “and that was the only way that I could figure to safeguard it.”

But she knows that, to other African-Americans, places like Bat Cave are foreign.

“A lot of our people live in the urban areas and a lot of them, especially in Western North Carolina, are intimidated about getting outside the city limits to do any hiking or anything,” she says. “I was born and raised in the country. But I do understand both stories. They think, in these mountains, Ku Klux Klan is still roaming freely. And I’m sure they’re still around, or people with that mentality. But most of the people that live in the rural area, they’re friendly, and they don’t even probably realize that people are afraid to come out into the country because they feel that way about them.”

When African-Americans don’t leave the city, she says, they miss out on the beauty, the fresh air, the exercise, and the peace of mind they could find in the mountains.  

When Kathey heard about the event with the Petermans, she told her neighbor Flo, who passed on the word to Tanya. At a reception after the talk, they were sitting at a table with Tony from Conserving Carolina and George Ivey from the North Carolina Arboretum. They decided, on the spot, to do something.

“We said, this is it,” Flo recounts. “We’re going to start something—start a hiking group. For everyone, but specifically targeting people of color because we were inspired by the Petermans who told us that people of color do not take advantage of our national parks to the same degree that other groups do.”

Kathey, who works as a nurse, has less time for hiking than her retired friends. But she’s enthusiastic about the group, which she sees as a way to make people feel more comfortable so they can get out in the country. “Especially the young kids,” she says, “to get them branching themselves out and enjoying that kind of life and not being limited by what they don’t know.”

Where to Start

Flo is a third-generation San Franciscan, who moved to Bat Cave with her husband eight years ago. But, after the Petermans’ talk, she realized that she doesn’t know that many local trails. If they started a hiking group, where would they go? Tony introduced them to the Wildcat Rock Trail and, next, the Trombatore Trail. Both trails cross land that is owned by Conserving Carolina in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Flo says, “Those trails were so embarassingly close to me, and I hadn’t been on them, so I knew the time had come for me to learn more about my area and bring other people along with me.”

She was inspired not only by the Petermans’ message, but by them personally. “I can’t believe they’re so fit!” she says. “And happy. They’re always happy. I want that!”

She and her friends have stayed in close touch with Frank and Audrey and they’re excited to visit them in Florida this fall and see the Everglades. As they get their group off the ground, they have a lot of ideas. They want to connect with new people. They want to engage younger people. They want to offer more kinds of activities, like picnics, strolls, or bike rides. They talk about traveling to see national parks. They talk about expanding to multiple chapters.

For her part, Audrey says, “Frank and I are overjoyed by the eagerness and enthusiasm and can-do spirit of this group, and so happy that they are taking on our mission. We know the pleasure this diverse group is going to feel as they explore the outdoors together—and learn the eye-opening history. It’ll be a life altering experience.”

This article was originally published in the Hendersonville Times-News

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