Message From The Director
Sitting around a campfire can be a magical moment. As darkness descends around you, the eyes of everyone gathered are instinctively drawn to the light of the fire. Through the years, I have sat alone with a campfire as company on a long night, gathered with family and friends around a fire pit, huddled closely with fellow travelers after a day of backpacking and sat in a campground with friends new and old. I don’t know what it is about a fire, but I have found that in the comfort of darkness, with the glow of a fire, you will find yourself opening up and sharing in a way that you most of the time, wouldn’t. As the light from the flames intermittently illuminates everyone surrounding it, you find yourself plunged into conversations that anywhere else might feel awkward. I have listened to my son reflect on the challenges of high school, friends share struggles in their lives, and I too have spoken of my concerns in a more genuine way than I would comfortably do in other places. A campfire is magical.
This month I had the opportunity, while camping at Table Rock and Sesquicentennial state parks, to sit around another magical campfire and hold meaningful conversations. The campfire conversations were planned by an organization we have partnered with, Black Folks Camp Too (BFCT), and included campers from the campgrounds we were in, and guests BFCT had invited. The invited guests, almost all of which were first time campers and African Americans, were experiencing our parks for the first time, and other who joined the conversation just happened to be camping while we were there. As we approached that first night, I had my doubts about the outcome of the fire. In fact, I spoke frankly with the owner of the company and communicated my uncertainty for how well the conversations would go. After all, these people barely knew each other, and we were going to touch on topics like the impacts of race on people’s camping experiences. As worried as I was, the campfire was not concerned and proceeded to do its magic.
As we sat under the stars in perfect fall weather, the conversation started slowly, like it usually does, but as logs were added and caught fire, so did the conversation. Earl Hunter, the founder of BFCT, shared the journey that led him to create the company a year ago, and what he hopes to accomplish. I talked about my observations in parks and national discussions about the lack of diversity in our campgrounds. Then, hesitantly at first, but with ever increasing comfort people started to share their experiences in campgrounds. From Yellowstone to Hunting Island, we spoke with people who had traveled the country.
There were favorite parks and wildlife encounters, memories of experiences shared and mistakes that can be laughed about now. As seasoned campers told tales of their lifelong camping memories and new campers shared their new-found love for camping, it became apparent that race was not the only thing that differentiated them. The families and couples that joined us from the campground, grew up learning to camp and loving it. For the new campers that joined us at these campfire conversations, and for most people of color in our country, according to national studies, camping and enjoying parks was not a common activity their families participated in when they were children. Since so many were never exposed to these activities as children, they in turn, have not exposed their families to these activities.
The result is that our park system and our campgrounds, like those around the country, do not reflect the racial demographics of our country or our state. In fact, it is unusual to see more than one or two African American campers on even the busiest weekend in most parks.
As our conversations around the fire unfolded, it became clear there were reasons for this, and solutions. One couple whom Earl had invited, joined us at Table Rock in their RV. They began camping four years earlier, after they took the leap of faith into an RV without any experience or knowing anyone who camps. Since then, they have been through three motorhomes, traveled the country and encouraged several of their friends to try camping. They are the exception to how most people become campers.
However, none of the other African American campers who joined us had ever been camping. We discovered in our conversations that, unlike most of our seasoned campers, they had never enjoyed the experience of camping with families or friends. The generational love of camping that many of us have, was not an experience many people of color had the opportunity to receive. The perceptions they had of camping were skewed, mostly because they had never experienced it.
As the firelight flickered over the four nights we spent camping and talking to people, the conversations typically outlasted the glow of the fire. I had the opportunity to share something I love with a group of people who were not only new to it but intimidated by it. Through the days as their appreciation of parks and the joy of camping grew, understanding of the challenges and obstacles grew as well. We shared some incredible food, told stories of our families, re-counted experiences from our lives and enjoyed the natural beauty of the parks and the primitive experience of sitting around a fire. We affirmed what we all know, that regardless of race, gender, identity or any other descriptor people may attach to us, each of us has joys and struggles, we come with fears and strengths and we all have the ability to make our world better. Through this experience, I made new friends, and I hope they now share a little more in one of the pastimes I love.
So, what’s next? How do we take the lessons from around the fire and move forward? It is always challenging to come away from such a positive experience and figure out the next steps. I hope that all the people coming off of this weekend are asking this question, and if you are reading this, I hope you are asking, how can I help? How do we get more people enjoying time camping and around the fire? Well, we are making plans now to invite more people to join us around the campfire, and if you are heading out soon to enjoy the great outdoors, we invite you to do the same. Invite a friend, one who has never camped before, to join you. Ask people why they don’t camp, try to share what you love about it with them. Together we can expose new groups of people to the wonders of sitting around a campfire, enjoying company and conversations.