By Yerika Reyes
AFO Content Writer
In my last piece I wrote about my preparation and arrival to the campgrounds of the Porcupine State Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was my first experience camping without an experienced camper. As a queer woman of color I had so many questions, fears, and anxieties. Some of those were quelled when I as there, others when I got back to the city. There are also some questions, fears, and anxieties that remain unresolved.
I don’t have a plethora of experiences with camping. However, through observing my college friends, a bit of googling, instagramming, and asking people around me their thoughts, I have realized that there are differences in the ways people from various geographic locations, races, ethnicities, and classes (to name a few) go camping. One thing that was glaringly obvious to me while camping was that the majority of campers came with their families. It seemed to be a tradition, a habit, a ritual, an expectation. Camping was built into their summers and a way for them to all came together. I saw fathers teaching sons how to chop wood for a fire. I saw children making friends and racing each other on dirt paths with their bikes. I saw mothers tending to their campsite. I saw dogs running around greeting all the visitors. At this particular campsite, while all of this was going on, I realized that Sandra and I were one of two or three campers who did not have an RV or camper. This was a different type of camping than what I had seen on trendy instagram pages with all the right filters.
Although most everyone we saw had a camper/RV situation at our location, there are groups of avid campers who are not into that scene and stick strictly to tent camping and or hiking.
As the blog Stuff White People Like, writes about camping, “Worst case scenarios include: getting lost, poisoned, killed by an animal, and encountering an RV. Of these outcomes, the latter is seen by white people as the worst since it involves an encounter with the wrong kind of white people.”
The implication of the “wrong kind of white people” is two-fold in my opinion. One, there are the kind of white people who are poor/working class and live in mobile homes/RVs. There may be an assumed conservatism here too. Two, they are the kind of white people who are not eco-conscious or aware, who may care more about their comfort than the environment. These stereotypes are used to further divide and try to establish the “right way” to go camping. Which in this sense is the eco-friendly way. It is a way to reinforce a hierarchy, between right and wrong or bad and good, and often with harmful classist assumptions. This is not the only division that exists within camping - even among the RV owning families - it was obvious that there were families who could own RVs that were large and expensive while others had modest campers attached to their small pickups.
When I stayed at Porcupine Mountain State Park most of the other campers had large pick up trucks or SUVs and their camper attached. This was not a place filled with priuses, bikes and kayaks loaded on. Seeing all the families, many of whom were from Wisconsin, loaded up with their belongings, taking day trips, and coming back to eat and hang out by the fire was like a watching a movie. It felt like a place so foreign and distant from my own reality.
I grew up in the city of Chicago. My mother, an immigrant, was working two to three jobs at a time to make ends meet. It never occured to me that there was any more nature than the patches of grass that lined every city block, the local park districts, and the giant lake and strip of beach. This is how I understood nature. The trees would lose their leaves and blossom again the spring. The mosquitos would come heavy in the summer but we had the beach to cool ourselves off. I did not know that even within my own city there were forest preserves and wooded areas. I did not know that people desired to leave to a quieter place. I could not picture these places and it was hard for me to see the appeal. It felt to me I had everything I needed. I did not know anyone who camped. It seemed like a thing that only happened in movies or books with white people. It was a fantasy that I could not wrap my mind around.
So when I saw the sun set over Lake Superior, families behind us cooking and chatting, setting up their fire - I felt like I was in an a alternative reality. I wished to myself that there were more people with my partner and me. I longed to be with and around people who looked like us or had similar background to enjoy the sunset and sounds of the lake. I was grateful to be sitting there but frustrated with the way camping, like many things in this country, is designed to erase and exclude people and history.
So why do people camp? I learned recently that T.H. Holding is deemed the “Godfather of Camping.” In 1906 he published a book called The Camper’s Handbook which helped to ignite recreational camping for upper class white people. Furthermore, camping and the skills needed to camp were greatly influenced in White American culture by the founding of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. As Gene Demby explains, Boys Scouts chapters actively restricted access exclusively to whites. Which in turn limited access to people of color, especially Black people.
These are just two examples of the ways in which white people and white institutions have limited access to camping; in American history non-whites were consistently excluded. The
majority of people who camp are white because they have been given access and ownership to these spaces over decades.
As Tanya Golash-Boza, Safiya Noble, Vilna Bashi Treitler, and Zulema Valdez explain in an Al Jazeera article, "According to a 2009 survey by the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service (NPS), whites accounted for 78 percent of the national parks’ visitors from 2008 to 2009; Hispanics, 9 percent; African-Americans, 7 percent; and Asian-Americans, 3 percent.”
The article goes on to explain how various factors limit non-whites from attending the park, from expense to knowledge, to stereotypes, but cites racial bias and mistreatment (especially for Black people) as one of the main culprits for keeping people away. In the article, the authors call upon parks to provide trainings and make efforts to be more inclusive.
The effects of this mistreatment and racial bias are disturbing and far-reaching. Latria Graham speaks to the ways in which Black people were historically and systematically excluded in a recent story, saying:
In part it’s because African Americans don’t always go where white people do. Swimming? Pools used to be segregated in the South and other parts of the country, so it wasn’t easy to join a team and practice your freestyle kick. Skiing? Not in the cards if you’re poor and live in an inner city. Beaches? In many places, blacks were banned by law or custom. And national parks weren’t especially welcoming, either; many were created as an escape from urban sprawl, at a time when urban was shorthand for blacks and immigrants. The parks were designed to be clean and white, and if we let the data tell the story, that’s how they’ve stayed.
She goes on to explain that her experiences with nature were in places she had access to and felt safe.
As I reflect with my partner about her experiences I can see some of the parallels in their stories. The way that her life outside Atlanta, Georgia and her parents’ ability to own property with woods nearby changed her access. Although she had also never camped, she had a relationship with nature that I never developed.
Another important factor of accessibility is that camping, especially the way my partner and I did, costs a lot of money. If we had had to buy all the equipment we probably would have spent upwards of a thousand dollars. This means having disposable income to invest in gear that we may or may not use in the future. Although camping can be seen as an affordable alternative to traditional vacationing, the cost can add up.
My partner and I did not know we had to buy a recreational passport to camp in a Michigan State Park, or about the camping site fee, or the amount of money we’d spent on gas. In fact my brakes went out while we were up there and I had to get entirely new breaks. This could have been devastating to a family who had very little money to even go on a trip in the first place. I was grateful to even have a credit card to put the cost on at the time. That in itself is not a luxury other people have.
The Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Report found that, 66% of people they surveyed (who participated in an outdoor activity) in 2017 had income of $50,000 or higher (and only 13% of people made $25,000 or less).
It is apparent to me that camping has and continues to exclude many people. Culturally, camping seemed very bizarre to me. I am the daughter of two immigrants who walked across a desert, slept in makeshift tents, and hiked miles to get to this country. How do I explain to my mother that I want to sleep in a tent, that I want to hike up terrain, that I found this enjoyable? In many ways, it seems counterintuitive to all the upward mobility that my parents desire that I obtain. Why would I choose to live in a way, temporarily, that so many people actively try to escape?
It’s a very strange sight to go camping and then come back into the city and see homeless tents set up at the side of the road. One that I have not yet been able to wrap my mind around.
While I gazed at Lake Superior on our camping trip, I wanted more people who looked like me, and came from where I came from to be sitting beside me. I wanted more first-generation American city girls like me to enjoy the sunsets, the views of the trees and lakes from up above, and the feeling of exhaustion and happiness when you finally fall asleep. As I drifted to sleep every night, I wondered about whose land we were sleeping on? Where were the native people from this region? Were these parks made to push people out? Should I advocate for more access when it reinforces the displacement of indigenous folk?
More to come on that in my next installment...
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