Camping Out, Debunking Myths

Farai Chiyeda, camping out in the Joshua Tree National Monument. i i

Farai Chiyeda, camping out in the Joshua Tree National Monument. hide caption

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Farai Chiyeda, camping out in the Joshua Tree National Monument.

Farai Chiyeda, camping out in the Joshua Tree National Monument.

Farai Chideya recently went camping in Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park. While there, she considered dispelling a few myths that fall into the category of "what black people won't do."

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ED GORDON, host:

Memorial Day is also considered the kickoff of summer, and, of course, with summer comes vacations. NEWS & NOTES' Farai Chideya got an early start on hers. She and five friends recently pitched tents in the high desert of Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park. The experience made her wonder why more African-Americans don't go camping.


As I was driving into Joshua Tree National Park, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me, a Confederate bumper sticker.

(Soundbite of "Dueling Banjos")

CHIDEYA: Immediately the theme from "Deliverance" started going through my mind, but instead of making a U-turn back to the city, I watched Mr. Confederate Flag pay his entry fee. He drove into the park, and then so did I. The flag reminded me why many of my black friends stay as far away from nature as possible. Some of them even turn it into a rule: Black people don't camp. I guess that's a cousin of black people don't swim, one of those things which, if you're black, you'll hear dozens of times from other black folks. But camping has its own special issues. As one person told me, `We spent 200 years out on the plantation. I like being inside, especially if the folks sleeping in the next campsite think the South should have won the war.'

I wish that `black people don't' was just a myth, but Joshua Tree covers miles and miles of desert. I met folks from Italy and Japan. I didn't see any black people at all. And then I finally spotted one sister. We gave each other that, `Hey, black woman' nod and then she was gone. So I went back to the campfire where my friends--yes, my white friends--were cooking dinner, and we talked. We talked about the velvet blue of the night sky. The stars seemed close enough to touch. We talked about the beauty of the spring blooms and the calls of the coyotes. And we talked about whether black people don't camp was a myth or a reality. After all, my grandmother was a Girl Scout leader. My mother took me and my sister camping all the time.

Then I told my friends about the guy with the flag bumper sticker. Wasn't it silly, I said, for people like me to let our paranoia get in the way of a good time? But then Jack told this story. His cousin was out hiking in a national park in Colorado. Two guys started shooting at him with their rifles. Being ornery and armed, he started firing back. But hey, maybe I shouldn't mention that story. After all, I want more brothers and sisters to get out there in the wilderness. These are national parks. We pay tax dollars, too, and it's a shame that more black folks and more city folks and more people, period, don't see just how beautiful America really is.

Luckily, there were no shots fired on my camping trip, but there was plenty of excitement. On my final day, four of us decided to climb a huge rock formation. It looked like a scene from "Mission: Impossible."

(Soundbite of theme from "Mission: Impossible")

CHIDEYA: In front of us were huge boulders piled up hundreds of feet like a giant toddler had been out to play. Between the boulders were crevices you could fall in and gaps you had to leap over. And after thinking for a second about whether or not I was crazy, I started climbing. I skinned my knee; I skinned my elbow. I thought, I could break my neck and die, or worse, I could end up in a coma for 15 years with my relatives fighting over me. Why, oh why, didn't I fill out that living will? Finally, we reached the top. A couple hundred feet up, you can see for miles. I wanted to shout, `Look, Ma, I'm on top of the world!' But I didn't. Like all the people before me who climbed this high, I just gazed at the beauty of our nation.

There's a reason why U2 came here to record the album, "The Joshua Tree." There's something otherworldly and mysterious about this place, and if more of us knew the beauty that awaited us when we explored the world, you could change `black people don't' to `black people do.'

(Soundbite of "In God's Country")

U2: (Singing) Oh, yeah...

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "In God's Country")

U2: (Singing) Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky, the rivers run but soon run dry...

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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