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Re: [at-l] Minorities

Warning: The Rhyming Worm will now turn from hiker to philosopher.

Most of the posts on the "minority" question seem to be arguing that
minorities either (a) haven't developed the taste for the outdoors, and
should be taught it, or (b) they are ill-at-ease (either for economic or
cultural reasons) with the prospect of spending time in an uncomfortable
and unfamiliar wilderness setting. But WHY?

Let's go at this from another angle. Instead of talking about why blacks
and hispanics DON'T thru-hike or do long sections, let's talk about why
whites and asians DO. (I include asians because I can think of at least a
dozen asian thru-hikers or long section hikers whom I met doing the trail
this summer.)

Here's my take:

We're all looking for stories to live and die by, whether it's a story of a
UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet, a story of a Jew in 1st-century
Palestine who rose from the dead, or the story of buckskin-clad men finding
a pathway through the wild to build a new nation (for which see Ken Burns'
latest TV documentary).

The white Anglo-Saxon protestant grew up in a tradition that glorified the
story of Plymoth Rock dissenters who set out to build the Kingdom of God in
the midst of a savage land. It glorified the pathfinders--Daniel Boone,
Lewis and Clark--who went to the wilderness to discover a new world. It
glorified the individual who, unable to fit into society, went off to start
anew where he could make his own society. It glorified the outcast, the
prophet without honor in his own land, the hermit, the seer. Think of
Thoreau camped out in his cabin. Think of those 19th Century Romantic Poets
(Wordsworth, Keats, etc.) hiking through the hills and dales of England's
Lake District, finding poetic inspiration in the crags and mists of the
open land. Think of JRR Tolkien, whose quaint homebody heroes go tramping
through the Wild to save the world. Think, even, of Joseph Smith, Brigham
Young and their followers crossing the Rockies to found a new holy land.

My point is, we grow up being taught this stuff, hearing these stories,
letting them seep into the core of our being. Isn't it natural that some of
us, discontented with the tawdriness of the workaday world, would find the
promise of some kind of spiritual fulfillment and reawakening in the wild?
Even if that "wild" is hiked by millions of people each year, as the AT is,
still it is a place to go for a pilgrimage.

I know less about Asian culture, but my understanding of Buddhism and
Hinduism is that there is a strong pilgrimage tradition--and a great
respect for solitude and nature as a place of spiritual insight--in those
cultures too. Thoreau had studied Eastern religion, and found much in it
that accorded with his own American transcendentalism. It doesn't surprise
me that someone from that cultural background, finding difficulty with the
task of immigrant success in capitalist America, would notice a kind of
spiritual longing that the wild offers to answer.

Certain cultural traditions look to nature and the wild for answers to
spiritual questions, and people from those backgrounds are strongly
represented among the thruhikers. That, at least, seems right to me.

Not all cultures tell those kinds of stories. Jews, for instance ( I'm
half-Jewish myself, but didn't grow up in a Jewish community) have two
millennia of living in cities and enclaves to color their stories. I met
only one devout Jew on the trail this summer, and most people I know from a
Jewish background are extremely urban in their orientation. In much of the
Jewish cultural tradition, the wild is a place where bad things happen.

I don't know much about black cultural traditions, but my sense is that for
the most part American blacks are cut off culturally from their African
forbears, and the myths and stories of Africa have never fully taken root
here. The ones that have, like those of Br'er Rabbit and his companions,
were distorted and filtered by the experience of capivity and slavery. Like
the stories of the Jews, the ones that survived were those that emphasize
community, and personal ingenuity, rather than isolation and spiritual
vulnerability. Coherence, not isolation, was the key to survival in a
dangerous society.

Assuming what I've said is true, you'd expect to see a lot of Native
Americans on the AT. I met none. Maybe they don't need the white man's
pilgrimage to find spirituality in nature--I don't know. I know so little
about Hispanic culture that I won't try to fit it into this formulation,
either. Similarly, I'm almost completely ignorant about Islam, aside from
knowing that there is a strong tradition of pilgrimage there. But I won't
try to explain why these groups seem so under-represented on the trail. So
take all this philosophizing with good pinch of salt,  not just a grain.

But to sum up, my sense is that people who have adjusted well to
contemporary life don't have any reason to go to the woods for much more
than a dayhike to stretch their legs and get a pretty view. It's those of
us who need a different story to live by who go looking for it along the AT.

--Rhymin' Worm

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