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A View From The Overlook: Comfort Zones


National parks no longer offer segregated facilities, as Shenandoah once did, but why don't more blacks visit the parks? NPS photo.

One of the banes of being a high-ranking bureaucrat is the necessity to issue a report on the reason for your existence. That is, your progress in achieving the goal (or goals) of your office, or sadly, the reasons you have not succeeded.

Over at the State Department, there is undoubtedly a bureaucrat assigned to solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict. (In the remote possibility of that happening, John Kerry will get the credit, but it will be a faceless bureaucrat who did the actual work and who presently writes the reports on why peace isn’t happening in the Middle East.)

Back at the National Park Service, a bureaucrat with the eponymous name of Mickey Fearn was given the title of "Deputy Director for Communications and Community Assistance" and tasked with the job of getting more minority groups in general and blacks in particular to visit national parks, and, failing that, finding out why they don’t.

Now in these times of budget sequestration and general tough times, one plausible answer could be: who cares? Blacks are, after all, free men and women in a free country and it is their own business to decide how they choose to spend their free time and money.

While the National Park Service did not exactly lead the charge for Civil Rights, it has not actively discriminated against blacks since the 1930s. For a short time, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park was the nation’s only segregated national park, complete with its own separate but equal Negro waterfall (Lewis Falls). However, even that sop to Southern white sensibilities didn’t last long, and Shenandoah National Park was completely integrated decades before the rest of Virginia was desegregated.

No Visitor Left Behind

Ah, but that is not enough; the NPS is an earnest, thoughtful, Dudley Do-Right type of agency that sincerely desires that no potential visitor be left behind.

So the question was put to Deputy Director Fearn: “Mickey, why don’t more blacks visit national parks?”

The deputy director, who is black, came up with a statement that due to a collective memory of slavery in the fields of the anti-bellum South and being lynched in the woods during Reconstruction and beyond, blacks had developed an aversion to the Great Outdoors and much preferred living in cities.

There is some merit in this thesis, but the reality may be a bit more complex.

One crusty ranger of my acquaintance pointed out the obvious: “It takes money to visit a national park and blacks and money are not always that well-acquainted.”

As for a black phobia against the Great Outdoors, most of our recent wars have been fought in deserts, mountains, and rain forests and blacks by the scores of thousands have experienced no particular malaise (aside from being shot at) from being in the countryside.

A more likely explanation for black resistance to the national park experience is lack of familiar faces, experience, and a resulting low comfort level in a rural or “wild” environment.

Although there are black farmers and even ranchers, the vast majority of American blacks are the products of an adventure called “The Great Migration,” the movement of millions of rural Southern blacks to big cities; an historic event as important as what transpired at Ellis Island was to white Americans (Yes, we could use a “Great Migration National Historic Site"!) As the years passed, the descendants of share croppers, tenant farmers, and farm laborers lost connection to their rural roots, unless relatives remained landowners. Gradually, blacks became an almost completely urban people with no particular contact with, or interest in, what went on outside of cities.

Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Now very few people of any race or ethnic persuasion are adventurous enough to do something in completely unfamiliar territory without back up.

An exception to this rule would be my best friend in grade school and high school, Dr. Daniel Halloran. Dan has two PhD’s; one in Chemical Engineering and one in Oceanography. He is a very bright fellow, but some think he lacks common sense.

You see, Dan likes to play ghetto basketball. (Did I mention that Dan is white?) His work takes him to all the major American cities and each American city conveniently has a black ghetto. So, after he has presented his scientific paper or whatever, Dan will take public transport to the ghetto and hunt up an outdoor basketball game.

They are not hard to find. Using his genial assertiveness and never taking no for an answer personality, Dan is soon playing basketball. (Dan’s hobby, though rare, is common enough to be the subject of a Woody Harrelson film comedy. “Whiteman Can’t Jump!,” the title coming from a black stereotype of white players) Dan can jump and for someone well under six feet, is deceptively good at a tall man’s game.

Although his black middle-class friends tell him that he is crazy and THEY would never enter these areas, Dan has never had a lick of trouble and made a host of new friends, most of who had to rethink some suppositions.

Eddy Harris is a man much like Dan Halleran except that he is black and 6-foot-4. In 1985, he decided to test his comfort zone by doing something very, very unusual. He decided he would be the first black to paddle a canoe down the Mississippi River, from its source at Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota to New Orleans.

This was sort of a double Comfort Zone squeezer as not only didn’t blacks normally do long haul, John Muir-style nature trips, but Eddy Harris had never paddled a canoe and had never been camping. Eddy felt that he could pick up those skills enroute to New Orleans.

Dealing with the locals would be more problematic, Eddy’s friends informed him. The folks that lived in cabins in the thickets along the Mississippi and practiced subsistence hunting and fishing, were unlikely to be Ivy League graduates. They might not cotton to the idea of a black asking to camp on their ground, or even passing by on the river.

Eddy was concerned enough to pack a pistol along with his supplies.

As it turned out, he needed the pistol on only two occasions, (One was an attack by a pack of wild dogs). According to his book Mississippi Solo, Eddy's delightful narrative of the adventure, “99 percent of the people I encountered were kind, friendly and very helpful, and very curious about what I was doing and wished me every success.”

One frequently asked question was, “Didn’t you get tired of the river?”

Eddy's response was, “I never got used to the river. There was always something new and fresh; a new danger, a new piece of beauty, a new marvel, a new something to discover.”

His Mississippi River experience expanded his comfort zone. By the time he reached New Orleans, Eddy was a very good canoeist and camper and very much at ease with white rural society. (He would later take a motorcycle trip through the post segregation South, a journey documented in his South Of Haunted Dreams.)

Eddy's new experiences led him to become an outdoor recreation missionary to his fellow blacks, including, of all things, fly fishing, something almost as rare in the black community as, well, ghetto basket ball for whites.

Undoubtedly, before he retired from the Park Service recently Deputy Director Fearn contacted Eddy Harris to tap into his experience to discern what, if anything, is to be done about getting more minority groups interested in the outdoors, nature, and the rest of it?

Eddy does not believe the problem is economic: “After all, it doesn’t take much money to paddle a canoe down a river. It is mainly a matter of comfort zone.”

So what can be done by Mickey Fearn or someone else to improve minority visitation?

Quite a bit has been done already by showing rangers such as Shelton Johnson, a black ranger who figured prominently in the Ken Burns-Dayton Duncan documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, in action on television.

Minority groups tend to idolize and idealize their sports heroes. They have the advantage of being instantly recognizable and their words and actions taken as gospel, for better or for worse.

Perhaps the deputy director's successor would like to offer seasonal NPS ranger employment to some of the more public-spirited NFL, NBA, or Major League minority players during the various sports off seasons. Most professional athletes have enough college to qualify for a seasonal job and all would consider the GS-5 salary as amusing petty cash which they would probably donate to the park.

Do such public-spirited players with broad comfort zones and an interest in nature actually exist?

I’m sure that they do, but finding them is above my pay grade. I suspect that would be a job for Mickey Fearn's successor.


Nice thoughtful piece.

Thanks for another thought-provoker, PJ.

Good one, PJ. Thank you!

Pj, thank you for another thoughtful piece. I do think money is an issue, more than many political leaders would like to acknowledge. It is expensive to get into some of our large western parks, transportation, food, lodging (including camping), etc. I see it here daily in my own community, a gateway to Yosemite National Park. Thanks again Pj.

Thanks for this piece.

There's some research on geographic distance and park visitors - blacks seem to depend more on parks being close by than whites and Asian-Americans do, and that's presumably connected to money as well as to other things.

Bob, you would think that proximity might be a major factor, but when I last visited Shenandoah National Park, I was struck with the relative lack of diversity in both park visitation and concession and NPS staff, despite the fact that Shenandoah is so close to the Washington, DC area. I think the same can be said for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains, which are relatively close to many urban areas with mixed populations, and those parks, unlike Shenandoah, do not charge entrance fees.

Owen and Bob, the more I think about this, the more I begin to think it has virtually nothing to do with race and a whole lot more to do with cultural comfort zones.

I have a number of very Caucasian friends who were city raised and who now -- even in retirement -- have absolutely no desire to venture into any place that doesn't have sidewalks and traffic lights. I invited a guy who grew up in Chicago to go on a hike into the mountains that rise above our city. He came with me, but spent the entire time worrying about twisting an ankle and expecting the mountain lion that has been reported in the area to leap on us at any moment. He confessed that he has never been camping, has no interest in fishing or hiking, and is quite content to spend his retirement watching pro sports on TV.

He's just one example of several. On the other hand, friends who do enjoy outdoor things seem to all have been introduced to those place when they were kids -- whether it was their parents or Boy or Girl Scouts or some other activity.

Maybe that underscores the need for our parks and schools and families to get together and try to introduce children to the outdoors lest we have an entire generation of Last Children in the Woods. I know I'm concerned for my grand kids and now that they are becoming old enough, I'm going to try to make sure they get out there. And my kids were all out in wild places when they were young. Yet today, it seems as though there's "just not enough time" for it.

Sigh . . . . . . .

"Not enough ttime for it" is a major issue, especially for single parent families. Being far removed from one's cultural comfort zone is certainly another critical factor. It's very difficult for me to imagine that for many different types of people, a visit to a national park may not be considered a "fun" thing to do. Of course, the same challenges are faced by those desiring to increase diversity in the demographics of audiences at classical music events and among those who visit the great museums of art, culture, science, and natural history, most of which are located in our inner cities.

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