By Ken Thurman
When I informed my father recently that I was going to hike Buck Mountain, his initial reaction was almost expected. He thought I’d gone crazy.
“Why do you want to do that?” he asked incredulously. “That’s something only white boys like to do. You won’t see any black folks out there.”
Hmm . . . come to think of it, he was right, but why?
In my case, you certainly couldn’t blame it on socioeconomics or the stereotypical “the hood” that so often robs youth of opportunity and dreams. As an African-American, I’d grown up in a middle-class and racially integrated Midwestern neighborhood during the 1960s, attended a private school and even liked the Beach Boys’ music (well, some of it) and Leave It to Beaver.
But aside from a little fishing here and there, I’d never been exposed to hiking or camping, and the same was true of my non-white friends. In fact, I didn’t know any person of color who went hiking—except for a couple of guys who were in the Boy Scouts, and they were doing it only to earn merit badges.
So why is that blacks apparently don’t like to hike?
A comedian on Black Entertainment Television provided one suggestion a few months back while poking fun at those who would seek out adventure by climbing or hiking anything higher than a flight of stairs or a ladder: “Whenever you hear about somebody being rescued off the side of a mountain, jumping out of an airplane on a skateboard, or being trapped somewhere like in a cave or something, you know it’s gotta be white folks because they just go looking for danger, don’t they?” the comedian asked as the predominantly black audience rolled in laughter. “You won’t find us out there, though. . . . No, sir. The way black people figure it, they have enough danger right at home just trying to get to the corner store and back without getting robbed or shot.”
All jokes aside, cultural perceptions and the issue of personal safety probably have a lot to do with it. A social worker I know contends that hiking takes many blacks out of their “comfort zone” and places them in unfamiliar surroundings where they often feel vulnerable and unwelcome. Historically, he noted, blacks have not been welcomed in white surroundings. It wasn’t so long ago, he reminded me, that blacks were routinely attacked or killed for being “in the wrong place.”
Even though much of the racial hostility occurred in the South, age-old fears transcend geographic boundaries. As the social worker put it: “I think there is almost an unspoken, subconscious concern among blacks about how they will be perceived out in the middle of nowhere if they encounter someone who is not like them.”
Some of those concerns, I must admit (and I don’t know why), were in the back of my mind when the Explorer asked me to hike up Buck Mountain near Lake George. I also wondered if I would be up to the task. Shoot, it wouldn’t be that difficult, I told myself. I figured I’d climb a few modest hills, come back down, fire up the hotdog grill and call it a day.
The day of the hike couldn’t have been more perfect. The sky was a crystal-clear blue, and there was only the slightest hint of a cloud. Visibility was high and humidity was low. A white friend joined me and—perhaps picking up on my anxiety—assured me that we’d have a great time.
From the Pilot Knob trailhead, where we started, it’s 3.3 miles to the summit. The trail begins on a fairly level old road, heavily shaded by hardwood forest. The chatter of birds and chipmunks provided a relaxing backdrop to a peaceful setting like few I have seen before, and the inviting sound of cool running water as you cross ButternutBrook reminded me of how great this Earth is.
Once across the brook, we passed unusual rock formations—including one that looks like a cottage—that line the trail like sculptures in an art gallery. About an hour into the hike, I needed a to take a breather. We sat beside a small stream with a waterfall to cool off. It was here that I first realized that there would be no hotdog grills fired up anytime soon. We were less than halfway to the summit.
Beyond the stream, the trail steepens and starts to zigzag. When we reached the two-mile point, I informed my partner that it was time for another break. We had been climbing for an hour and half. Shortly after we resumed our ascent, we ran into a forest ranger strolling down a steep stretch of trail. I seized the moment to ask him a few questions (and take yet another break). I wanted to know about the terrain ahead and the distance to the top. Surely we must be getting close, I asked, as I wiped perspiration from my brow.
“Oh, you’ve got another half-hour to 45 minutes to go. But you’re getting close,” he replied. I smiled and thanked him and then proceeded up the trail with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on a death march.
The vegetation and tree cover became thinner as we got closer to the summit. In one half-mile stretch, we ascended more than 400 feet. After taking another break and downing some more water, my spirits were lifted as I saw up ahead a clearing and open rock. The 2,334-foot summit looked to be only a few hundred feet away. The faint sound of the wind and the distant cry of birds seemed wonderfully strange to me. I stopped on a small ledge to take in the moment and to enjoy the most magnificent view of Lake George I have ever seen.
Big mistake! While admiring the panorama of the lake and distant mountains, I looked down the steep trail we had just climbed. At that moment, I realized that I was about 2,000 feet above Lake George—without the benefit of wings or parachute. With anxiety setting in, I then turned and looked farther up the rock toward the summit. It was so close, but I knew I would go no further. I could go no further. I had vertigo.
My partner urged me to continue, but once he sensed my firm reluctance, he gave up and proceeded on his own. He returned about 30 minutes later to tell me everything I had missed. I was satisfied to take his word for it. Our descent was much faster and easier. I think I only stopped once for water along the way.
I imagine I’ll be talking about my hike up Buck Mountain for years. Even though I didn’t quite reach the top (but someday I’ll tell my grandkids that I did), the feeling of freedom I felt on that lofty perch cannot be captured in words. I now know that’s why people hike.
By the way, I didn’t see one person of color on my hike, and I never did get my hotdog.