The year was 2001. We had recently moved to the North Carolina mountains after leaving Atlanta. An Atlanta friend from the real estate development business called to invite me and my family to join him, his wife and three children rafting on the Upper New River in West Virginia. Robert (not his real name) was eldest son in a prominent family, attended private schools, graduated from Princeton, then from Harvard with an MBA. He is a smart man, and he is black.
This was many years before the recently prominent threats and killings of innocent blacks that have dominated the national news, but he knew how pervasively prejudice still reigned in the South as well as elsewhere. He thought it was time for an outdoor family adventure to raft whitewater on the New River and spend the night beside the river, camping and paddling, cooking over open fires, pooping in the woods au naturel. Nevertheless, as a black man in the South, he was reluctant to expose his family to whatever risks might linger among the denizens of the West Virginia backwoods, abandoned mining towns, and riverbanks. He wanted his family to have allies they could trust.
At the time, I thought his worries about wilderness threats from white guys with guns was a bit melodramatic, but I am white and can still hear the banjo in “Deliverance” when I wander far off well-trodden trails in areas of conspicuous poverty. I can speak southern or hillbilly fluently but personally have had unnerving encounters in the remote hollers of Appalachia.
We rafted a flooded New River with muddy water washing out most of the significant rapids. Our daughters and sons bonded as if they had known each other for years. Our guides -- all white but not all local -- were engaging, cheerful and playful with the children. Chris on the sweep oars in the equipment barge (big raft piled with gear) shared his Walkman earphones with our young sons so they could rock out the rapids to the sounds of the Grateful Dead under a rainbow-colored umbrella. The sun shined, the river cooled, and food cooked over fires and in cast iron Dutch ovens just tastes better than the same food at home. A long day of fresh air and paddling feeds the hunger that makes any meal more flavorful. Sleeping in a tent after conversations around the fire tended to be deeply restful, the misty mornings accented by the aroma of fire smoke, coffee and bacon.
As we left the river in the outfitter’s bus, my son fell asleep with his head leaning on the shoulder of an attractive young female guide fifteen years his senior. The other kids likewise slumbered in spite of the noisy whine of the bus rolling down the highway, windows open to the summer heat, back to the base camp, the end of a fine trip.
Later that summer, Robert and his family stopped by our log cabin for lunch and a visit. Then he motioned to me to follow him to his SUV. He had a nearly flat tire.
“No problem,” I declared. “Just stop at the big convenience store/service station you passed on the way up the gap. Good folks and they’ll have you fixed in a jiffy. We use them all the time.”
Robert’s face portrayed an anxious hesitation. “You mind going with me?”
“Not at all, but they really are good people.” I thought I knew why Robert was concerned about the rural mountains where there are few blacks (even though Gladys Knight had a home just a few miles south of our cabin). “Let’s head on down before we eat.”
As he drove the winding mountain road back to the highway, he told me what had happened to him that very morning. After picking up one of his daughters from summer camp, he noticed that his tire was leaking badly. In Brevard, center of an area famous as the home of ten thousand summer camps (I still do not know where they hide them all), he pulled into a gas station and asked if they could fix the flat. Not only was there no service to be found at that service station, the language voiced by one of the hillbilly pump jockeys was clearly antagonistic and racist. Moreover, he ignored Robert even while Robert made it clear that he could wait and was not trying to rush the work. In the smog of tension, Robert discussed the situation with his wife, Susan, and they decided they could make it fifteen miles to our home and plan from there.
Needless to say, his treatment dumbfounded me. It was not because racism surprised me; I had witnessed plenty growing up in a rural area where KKK billboards still marred the roadside in the not-so-distant past. But Brevard is a tony village with an arts college (mostly music) near liberal Asheville, a town that embraces everyone from billionaires to junkies. Still, I reminded myself that I am not black and can never see the world through those eyes and experiences.
The good old boys, local mountain folk, at the County Line wheeled Robert’s SUV into a bay and promptly repaired the leaking tire with smiles and solicitude, not a shred of passive aggressive racism among the bunch. We thanked them, left a decent tip in the industrial-size plastic mayonnaise jar and paid a few bucks for the work. Back at the cabin, both families gathered around the picnic table beside the cabin under the black walnut tree for an alfresco lunch. Life was good sitting at the table, talking and laughing with friends, recalling fun moments from the rafting trip.
Soon after our rafting trip, in the course of my wife homeschooling our children, our son was studying the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for black equality. The text mentioned how black people had suffered discrimination. Our son asked his mother, “What are black people?” In no way did he connect the phrase with the family that had rafted and camped with us.
We had avoided speaking of people in terms of race or skin color. Therefore, he had never thought of his trip on the New River with a black family as anything other than camping and paddling with friends. Sadly, it had become time for him to understand how the world thinks about race and how people have been mistreated for their color, their beliefs, their associations. At least he had several years of utopian ignorance about superficial differences among people.
The next year, Robert called again to see if we were up for another rafting trip. Definitely. At that point, our children ranged in age from six to eleven with our son and daughter the youngest and oldest respectively. Another family joined the group for the trip. They were white, easy-going and showed no prejudice or misgivings about their rafting companions. Their daughter immediately joined the other children in playing on the river beaches and splashing in the water.
In the course of several rafting trips over the years, I have found that raft crews and trip members in general tend to form quick bonds of camaraderie. Maybe it is the common risk of running whitewater, maybe it is the long hours floating a remote river with a break for a simple make-it-yourself sandwich lunch, or maybe it is the opportunity to tell tales of outdoors daring that would seem too much like boasting if shared out of context in the workplace. Most participants lose their inhibitions and scream through the rapids like teenagers on a roller coaster at Six Flags. Pure fun. Combine those actions with the full exposure of being wet and dirty in swim trunks and t-shirts, no showers, using an ammo can (boom box) for a toilet and having no running water other than the river itself, and people recede into their more native selves. Binding with others is one way to avoid what might embarrass some on Main Street.
The second year, there was no flood, the water was reasonably clear, the rapids fresh and bold with white water waves tumbling over themselves. We ran the fast water in rafts and duckies, taking a dunking or ten along the way.
Back at the outfitter’s base, we gathered for a group photo, all members of the group mixing with the others, no one clinging to family or race or social standing. Another fine trip for everyone.
[It is tragic that the 21st century has not only failed to bring understanding and equality (though, arguably, there has been some improvement), but incidents of violence based principally on prejudicial biases have become more common (or more commonly known). During the COVID pandemic, an Asian-born close family friend, an American citizen since birth, has been subjected to cruel and hostile comments in public. Despicably, our society has not come far enough to embrace the equality of all people as people regardless of differences in the color of their skin or place of birth. In addition, too many people remain fixated on political affiliation even though the two parties are sides of the same coin, both seeking advantage for their own interests over the best interests of the citizens they pledged to serve.]