Into the Woods

Aftab Uzzaman

The redwoods made my father do something he never did at home in New York City. He looked up.

“Jesus, these things are as tall as buildings,” he said.

We were ten minutes into an hour-long hike in Muir Woods, about fifteen miles outside of San Francisco. My father squinted and held a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the scattered light coming through the canopy. The sight of him, here among the big trees, made me do something I never did at home: I compared him to the people around us. As groups of hikers passed—couples, families with young children, retirees—it seemed that my father was the only Black person in the park.

I had traveled from Portland to meet my parents, who were on the West Coast for a squash tournament. My father, nationally ranked in the sixty-and-over division, had invited me down to watch him play. The days before I arrived, he and my mother had visited Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. The trip to the woods was my idea.

Typically, my father only attended competitions that were part of the East Coast circuit. My mother always accompanied him, and they usually tacked on a couple of extra days to make a mini-vacation of it. I suspected that this trip was as much about the tournament as it was to see how much rescuing I needed. My recent move to Oregon had been rocky, and I had been calling home several times a week. Years earlier, when I had left home for college, it seemed that my mother started measuring my happiness using an intuitive equation that multiplied the frequency of my calls by how long we spent on the phone. The more I called and the longer we chatted, the more she worried. And the more she worried, the more she encouraged my brothers and my father to phone me on the days I didn’t call. I was used to her long-distance, behind-the-scenes support coordination, but the idea of my parents making a cross-county wellness check was a first. I suspected the calculus of their concern was compounded by the fact that we had never before been separated by so many thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable.

 

 

When I moved to Oregon, I walked away from a good job, a three-year relationship with a man everyone (myself included) assumed I would marry, and an invitation to extend my master’s degree into doctoral work. I told my parents about my decision to move one evening when I dropped by their apartment—the same apartment I’d grown up in, the one that still had elementary school artwork framed in the kitchen. Trying to fix my decision in space, my father asked why I wanted to live in the middle of the country. Realizing he’d confused Oregon with Ohio, he said, “What’s way out there, anyway?” Then he turned away, as if the question had been rhetorical. For him, as for many New Yorkers, “The City” was the center of the universe. My mother, in contrast, measured the implications of my decision in time zones. “When it’s after dinner for you,” she said, “I’ll be asleep.”

As a graduation gift to myself for finishing my master’s program, I did a thirty-day wilderness trip in Colorado. Before the trip, I had never owned a pair of hiking boots; summiting peaks and fording rivers were the stuff of movies. While I was away, a work colleague changed my desktop computer screen saver to draw topographical maps of the world’s tallest peaks. My first day back, I stared at my monitor for hours, watching the outlines and elevations of Kilimanjaro, Everest, and Denali unfold. It seemed that might be the closest I would ever get again to the mountains. Eager to return to the urgency of alpenglow, I gave notice three months later and set out for Portland. When I told my parents the news, my mother crossed her arms and held her elbows, as if trying to steady herself; my father lifted his chin and rolled his eyes back.

“There used to be cowboys in Oregon,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, deciding against correcting him. Oregon still had cowboys.

Then he met my gaze, and I watched him watch me. I wonder whether he could sense then how I was slipping away, not from him, but from what he had known and loved all these years—the crowds, the noise, and the hustle that defines Manhattan.

“Well,” he said flatly, “it's your life.”

 

 

When I arrived at my parent’s San Francisco hotel room, my mother hugged me, and I could feel her hands clasped behind my back as if to make sure there could be no slipping away this time.

Taking a step back, she said, “How was your flight?”

“A friend drove me to the airport,” I said, even though I’d taken a shuttle.

When I explained my plans for the day, my father said he didn’t see the point of going to “some big trees” and suggested a half-dozen other things we could do in the city instead. Tired from the flight and the hassle of the car rental, I wasn’t interested in museums or streetscapes. I kept my argument simple, “No. I want to go to the woods.” For the short drive from downtown to the state park, my father sucked his teeth and gently shook his head, keeping his objections alive. Peeking in the rearview mirror, I caught my mother’s attention and asked her to check the guidebook for information on Muir Woods. She read out some facts: redwoods are the tallest living organisms on earth; their root systems can spread for one hundred miles; a downed tree can take hundreds of years to decompose. “What a thing,” she said. My father stared down at his hands, uninterested.

There’s a stereotype that Black people don’t like nature, and that’s why you don’t see them as often as you see White people on the trail. Statistically, people of color visit state and national parks less than White people, which has sparked a wealth of socio-psychological explanations, ranging from environmental equity to the collective association of lynchings with forests. Thinking about my first year rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking in Oregon, I couldn't recall encountering a single person of color in my adventures. It made me wonder what people had thought when striding or pedaling past me in these wild spaces, if they had thought anything at all. My father was Black and my mother was White, and my olive complexion made me fit in and stand out in a wide range of settings. The only times I had felt alien in the outdoors had been because of my lack of experience, not the color of my skin. I attributed my growing sense of ease in the outdoors to my circle of friends, who patiently taught me what I needed to know to have fun while staying safe. I didn’t question that something else might be at play until I told a climbing friend that I recently had been mistaken for a delivery person because of how I looked.

“That’s impossible,” he said, “because you basically are White.”

I’d heard some version of this before—that I act White, that I look tan, that I’m “passing.” Whatever the misperception of my identity, I started to wonder if it made a difference when it came to playing in natural spaces.

 

 

In the parking lot at Muir Woods, my father sat in the car after my mother and I had gotten out. I tapped on the passenger-side window and said through the glass, “We won’t be here long.” He pushed the car door open, swung his feet around, but stayed seated with his hands resting on his knees. He kept his focus on the ground until I put a hand on his shoulder, “Come on, Dad,” I said. He must have heard the pleading in my voice.

The outdoors had never been his milieu. We never went camping, and I can remember only a single time that he took me to Central Park. We didn’t climb trees or toss a Frisbee around Sheep’s Meadow that day; instead, he bought me a line of tickets to ride the carousel. He hoisted me up on one of the outside painted horses, the ones that pranced the highest, and fastened the thin leather safety harness around me. Then he stepped off and stood by the ticket booth smoking a cigarette. I rode alone and picked out his figure with each round in a blur of blue sky and greenery. Even though my elementary school was across the street from the park, we never detoured in that direction when he picked me up in the afternoons. I don’t remember ever asking to play in the park before going home. If I did, the answer must have always been “no,” because when you hear “no” over and over, with time, you forget the question altogether. The time I spent with my father was defined by enclosures, not horizons; our favorite father-daughter pastimes were going to the movies and playing squash, a game that takes place in a box of a room with a door that is so low you have to bend down to pass through.

My friends’ families would drive out of the city to camp in the Catskill Mountains or the Berkshires. They described rustic vacations in primitive cabins or nights spent around a campfire falling asleep under the stars. When I would ask my father why we didn’t do things like that, all he would say was, “That’s not for me.” I didn’t know if he disliked the outdoors, but I did know he hated being cold, he could only fall asleep with the TV on, and he loved the on-demand services of hotels. Even as a child I knew those preferences were incompatible with camping. I didn’t dwell on the matter; my father was not a man of compromise. Whenever my friends talked about that great camping trip they’d taken, I parroted one of his lines: “People just say it's better sleeping on the ground.” Then I’d shake my head and suck my teeth the way he did, dismissing the idea as some kind of foolishness.

Instead, we went on vacation to places like Jamaica and the Bahamas. My father loved the sun, the sea, and four-star accommodations. I forgot all about not owning a family tent and sleeping bags while jumping on the hotel beds in an air-conditioned room and spending the whole day in a bathing suit and flip flops. For my father, who grew up poor in Harlem during the Depression, staying in hotels was a dream come true, something he’d seen people do in the movies. He never had the twenty-five cents for a ticket, so he would sneak into the theaters to escape into the lives of other people on the big screen. He remembered films like Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, who navigated post-World War I life in Berlin from satin-pillowed rooms with mirrored foyers. The irony of films like this was that when there were Black faces on the screen they were shoeshines, bellhops, and maids. And even if my father’s family had been flush with money in the 1930s, it wouldn’t have guaranteed the grandeur that Hollywood projected; Black people couldn’t rest their heads for the night just anywhere. What hadn’t occurred to me when I left big cities in the urban east for smaller locales in a more rural west was that people of color also described feeling unwelcome or unsafe sleeping in the great outdoors.

 

 

The hour-long loop trail in Muir Woods wound around the forest floor. The clear view of the sky was blotted out, and dappled light splashed onto the trail through the canopy of needles and cones hundreds of feet above our heads. I wanted to say, “See, this is why I’m here,” but the trees spoke for themselves. My father rested a hand on a tightly patterned redwood trunk, his skin a complement to the sepia and tawny highlights of the bark. He stretched his fingers wide, catching his fingertips in the vertical recesses. When he was a boy, his mother had signed him up for a summer camp in Upstate New York sponsored by The Children’s Aid Society; that’s where he had learned to swim and canoe. Camp was an escape from the sweltering city, where there was nothing to do when school let out except play in the street. While the experience was a chance to get out of the city for a week or two, it didn’t make my father eager to run toward the wild.

Now, as I watched him transfixed, eyes up, staring at the trees, I was taken by how ironic it was to see him standing stock-still in the middle of the trail comparing the redwoods to skyscrapers. As a native New Yorker, tall buildings were his best point of reference even though, as a rule, New Yorkers don’t walk around with their heads tilted back marveling at the Beaux-Arts, art deco, and neocolonial architecture. In the face-off of pedestrians edging for the advantage in crossing the street, New Yorkers are eyes-front. Only tourists look up.

But in these woods, we were all looking up. My mother, me, and the other hikers. Even the park ranger flashed his eyes skyward. Who wouldn’t, when the defining feature of the horizon was not just vertical but also alive? I don’t know why my father never seemed to like the outdoors, if it was something as simple as a personal preference or if it was part of a deeper tangle of culture and race. All I knew was that he was a New Yorker letting his guard down, a stranger in a verdant land, fascinated with the trees as if they were the stuff of fables. He was in my world now.

“Does it look like this in Oregon?” my father said, whispering as if he’d snuck into a church.

“In some places,” I said, not telling him that my favorite spots were actually the forests where the moss clinging to the bark turns fluorescent green and downy with dew. 

“I see,” he said, turning to look in both directions of the trail, and then to me.

“It’s this way,” I said, pointing ahead of us. 

And then we kept walking, the three of us, deeper into the woods.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Beautiful story.

Valarie | December 2020 | Portland

Hello, I was given the address of the story by Camilla Jauch, a very old friend of mine and I really enjoyed reading it. Having made this experience of the Redwoods years ago, my husband's first reaction corresponded exactly to your Dad's, and he got 'converted' later. It's an overwhelming experience for any living soul, I believe. Thank you for the story and stay well. Best wishes , Dorothea

Dorothea | December 2020 | Bühl Germany

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