I had thought that when I left the south that I would at least be leaving some of the more overt racism behind.
It was heartening as I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and for the first time encountered a multi-racial group of backpackers. Prior to that, all of the backpackers I had met on the trail were white, with the exception of a women from Korea, and a man from Japan. I’d had plenty of people in the south kindly (if a bit impatiently) explain to me that hiking and backpacking are easily accessible and available to everyone and that the reason the demographics were so skewed on the trail was that those other folks just don’t like the woods.
I was looking forward to leaving racial stereotypes behind as I entered the north, but unfortunately there isn’t a switch at the Mason-Dixon line that makes the blatant racism go away.
On a rainy day in Pennsylvania a couple of thru-hikers and I decided to get a ride into town instead of getting soaked (again) in the rain. Our shuttle driver was a very nice local woman that liked to talk… A lot.
We were driving through corn fields in the middle of nowhere and she was telling us about local politics when she suddenly started telling us about an Indian temple that we were approaching. We rounded the corner and there was a really beautiful temple with gorgeously manicured grounds and a grand entrance in pink and gold that looked like a lotus flower in full bloom. She explained to us that the Indian temple was a little out of place amongst the corn fields and followed up by saying, “I guess they like to have a place to get away from their little 7-11s and gas stations.”
All four of us were flabbergasted… Did she really just say that? But she was nonplussed and just kept talking. The next major topic of conversation was about the trail… Surely this would be safer ground.
I was telling her that we the things we end up talking about on the trail are the things we have to worry about on a daily basis, like finding water, making sure we have enough food, and staying dry… She nodded her head with understanding and said, “You’re thinking like an Indian… an American Indian.”
At this point the people in the back seat stifled a giggle as they waited to see where the conversation would go from there. How do you respond to a comment like that?
We moved on to talking about books. This inevitably meant yet another conversation about Bill Bryson. All of us have had at least 20 conversations that all start the same way, “Have you read that book… The one by Bill Bryson… You know, A Walk in the Woods.” Though this conversation started the same way, it took an unexpected turn.
Our shuttle driver told us that she’d read that book and liked it, but that her grandson had gotten her one of his other books (A Short History of Nearly Everything), but she didn’t like that one. “I’m not one of those… evolutionists,” she said with disdain, “I can’t even read about that stuff, so I couldn’t finish it.”
Somehow even the safest seeming topics of conversation (food, water, books, scenery) had led to very controversial and uncomfortable assertions.
We finally got to our destination and piled out of the car. As the car drove off, the four of us looked at each other in disbelief, enjoying the sudden silence.
(For those of you that are interested, the “Indian Temple” that she was referring to is actually the Vraj Hindu Temple)