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Cold, Canines and Canoodling

Time is always forgiving. Only weeks ago, millions of people on the east coast were wearily looking out of their windows at the remnants of Snowzilla 2016, staring at snow measured by the foot. Some were excited and some, not so much. I can personally say that I was very happily snowed in. However, as time progressed and the cities and towns eventually started to dig themselves out, the fun was quickly snatched out from under us. Having the option to be like a cat, peering out of the window out to the pristine snow covered streets is a completely different animal than when the boss says it is time to come back to work and you and your fellow citizens now have to navigate said snow. I think I can speak for most of us East Coasters when I say, everyday you walked out of your front door that week, it was a harrowing experience and your time in the elements was limited.

Oddly enough, the next week there was a very small light at the end of snowplowed tunnel. The temperature had finally bumped up a bit and there was some noticeable melting going on and more people were starting to come out of the warmth of their homes, perhaps out of desperation or necessity. On this one particular morning, my parents decided to go to the park for a winter walk. As usual, I decided to invite myself. I purchased a new camera and I liked the idea of a snowbound adventure that I could potentially document. Since they had already planned on going without me, it was a task to quickly throw on and layer up in what I thought would keep me dry and warm outside in mounds of snow. I was reminded that they were ready to go and I needed to hurry up. For one brief moment, I almost thought about changing my mind; the frustration didn’t seem to be worth the hassle. All I could do was the best I could do and I just made it.

This outing was to Patapsco Valley State Park - McKeldin Area, which is in the most Northern part of Patapsco, along Marriottsville Road in Carroll County [not to be confused with Patapsco-Avalon]. One of the many highlights at this park is a waterfall. When I was a kid, we would go there often. I would always remember the drive. Still there after all these years are these impressive horse farms with ginormous homes and barns and stables and acres and acres of white fences with horses dotted in the middle. Thirty years later, it looked exactly the same with the exception of the newer housing developments and strip mall type structures. In the car I felt like I was going back in time. No surprise, when we arrive at the park, we were not the only ones with this crazy idea to go outside, purposefully in the snow. There were a handful of cars already in the parking lot. A few people were just getting there like us. One young guy was there with his friendly dog that didn’t mind a few pets by strangers. However, the dog was more eager for his owner to throw some sad looking little duck toy for him to fetch. I think at this point it was obvious that we all wanted some freedom and sunshine, the animals and the people.

Only because my parents had been here so many times before, my father took the lead and we all marched into the snow and made a trail of footprints. It wasn’t difficult, but it definitely was not easy. There was still a lot of snow out there. This was supposed to be a shortcut instead of walking all the way around on the paved street. During one of the moments that we were trudging along, my father asked me if I remembered when I was a small child, at this same park and a group of men in a car drove by and yelled out “Nigger?” I was shocked. I didn’t recall it. In my mind, I only vividly remembered that happening once as a child during a vacation in Virginia Beach. My parents retell the story as if it weren’t over 30 years ago. They said that they informed a ranger when he drove past. Apparently the ranger was disgusted by what happened and immediately he was in pursuit of the occupants of the car. I asked if they remembered how old they thought the ranger may have been and the guess was most likely in his 40s. Not too soon after, they said the ranger was escorting the shouters out of the park. It seemed as though the ranger was truly backing up his words with his actions.

This conversation about this encounter put the focus back on why I am even doing any of this. I realize that sometimes, like myself, you too may be wondering why does any of this matter? What is the point of telling the story about the Grahams, my parents or my own travels and observations? Realizing at that moment, that experiences like this may have very well been one of the reasons why people of color did not go to parks or become mass travelers of this great country. Experiences like this is what makes the Grahams choice to travel at the height of the Civil Rights Movement even more exceptional. There is no derogatory term that has ever been used towards another race of Americans that has held such venomous history than the word “Nigger” has for African Americans. Therefore, it will be impossible for my non African American readers to fully understand how this one word, whether you choose to give it power or not, has been used. Perhaps it is possible to have empathy based on having the common knowledge of the history of this word, but it will never equal to being the victim of an unintelligible act such as being a young child with your parents and sister, in a public place and having men spew their hatred towards you.

As we continued to sludge thru the snow, we found some ski tracks to follow. We were trying to make it a little easier for my mother to traverse across the field since she does not have the advantage of having longer legs like my father and I. Eventually we met up with the maker of the ski track, who was a white haired gentlemen, whose swift movements allowed him to glide fairly quickly along. We all said, “Hello,” but he didn’t quite respond. Our assumption was that he might not have spoken English. His response was more a grouping of unformed letters instead of a word. My father felt guilty for tromping through the track that the skier was clearly trying to retrace. It was now muddled with our deep footprints.

Up ahead, we could see the set of pavilions that mark that we were on the trail towards our destination of the waterfall. Another clue was a man that appeared to have been returning from that direction. We stopped to speak in passing. Like myself, a camera was dangling from his neck. He claimed that his goal was to hike to the waterfall, but the snow proved to be too daunting and he had taken a breather at the pavilion and was instead, going to head back. Good luck was wished on both ends and we parted. It seemed like a good idea to take a break at the pavilion since we were all sweating with jackets tied around our waists. While we were catching our breath, we were forced to decide if we would follow the same course of action of our last acquaintance and head back or proceed. Being in snow covered woods made it difficult to tell the exact location of anything, but out in the distance, at the bottom of the hill was a small moving object, presumably a person. Also at the bottom of the hill was a shelter and some posted signs. All indications pointed to being on the trail.

The decision was made to keep going; we had come this far. None of this really made sense anyways, so what difference did it make. The only challenge was going to be coming back up and down the hills ahead. The decision was unanimous that we would deal with the consequences. Just like a strong nosing Beagle, my father lead the way by visual clues and memory. Somehow we fumbled our way to the waterfall. By this point it was a little easier to see portions of the trail. The snow in the woods was quite breathtaking. There we were finally at the overlook, edged with a wood post fence. Each of us soaked up the view of the waterfall, rushing over the rocks and into a pool of water barely visible under the soft layer of white. My parents sat down on the bench nearby and I trailed off down to the bottom.

By now it should be obvious that I am not satisfied until I explore. I took my time navigating the carved steps down the hill. At the bottom, you have direct access to the entire body of water. In front of the steps, there was a picnic table and a near guess to where the edge of the water started. Only feet away from the picnic table stood a sign posted, “No Swimming.” No problem. By no means was it enticing to take a swim. To the right of the steps, was the path to base of the waterfall. I would say that this path had the potential to be treacherous. It was one thing to walk in snow when you know that the land is flat underneath. In contrast, this path was made of precariously piled, snow-covered rocks.

With a watchful eye and careful steps, I made it to the edge of the waterfall. Once you are there, you can’t help but to feel like a magnificent piece of the Earth pie. During my Oprah, “A-ha” moment, almost out of nowhere, this couple comes walking along from another direction. I think they were just as surprised to see me, as I was to see them. We said hello and the guy asked me how I got down here because they couldn’t find the path. Based on where they came from, they were most likely nowhere close to one. This was a young, shiny couple. I assumed that they were in their 20s. Along with their big bright smiles, he had a large duffle bag and she did not have on the best shoes for walking in almost a foot of snow. In due course, my mother came down the hill, either to see the waterfall or to make sure I hadn’t gotten up to anything and joined me at the tail end my conversation with them. They began to take pictures and ultimately did the youthful thing and took a couple’s selfie. I can’t remember if I was thinking this is silly, I am going to offer to take the picture of them, or if they asked once they realized how silly it was. It hearkens back to the grand ole days of yesteryear when people asked others to take a picture instead of craning their arm out.

By this time, my father came down the hill and checked things out. The couple had walked back towards the edge of the water past the bench. My parents and I decided to take a seat at the picnic bench. While we sat we talked and enjoyed the view as we waited for my father’s socks to dry. It was quite sunny outside, so the idea didn’t seem completely futile. The sight of it all amused me, bare feet, socks on the table, all in the snow.

I noticed that the young couple had started to dig in the snow. In that little bit of time they created a place to nestle. I hadn’t noticed if they had a blanket or plastic to protect them from the wet ground and snow, but before I knew it, the two of them were sitting and laying down in their fox hole, almost disappearing in the ground. Next, they were pulling out their lunch of fruit, cheese, drink and such out of the duffle bag. What at first seemed very unusual became something quite sweet. I was desperate to take a picture but I didn’t want to invade their privacy during such an intimate moment. Somehow, I managed to sneak a picture. You would assume that most couples take inclement weather opportunities like this to stay at home to be close, but this brave couple decided to take their canoodling outside in the snow. They looked quite content. In my mind, I wished them well.

Another unexpected guest appeared at the top of the overlook. A canine companion came bounding down the trail steps as its owner took his time walking down with his skis and poles. The dog was very happy to be at the bottom to explore. Her owner had to call her back a few times as he made his way down; she was getting too curious about the edge of the water. When he finally made it to the bottom, in a few minutes, he had his skis back on and off they went. Not too long after, we did the same and headed back.

The endurance to get back up and down the hills in the deep snow is nothing to sneeze at. It was a lot of work. This was exercise but it felt good and I dare say rejuvenating. On the way back we passed two more couples, canoodled and hand in hand. Further up, we decided to take the road that was half cleared and we were in a head to head battle with a man on the snowplow, trying to remove the snow. Eventually we got the rhythm down and did our best to get out of his way. The parking lot was finally back in view. It was a failed attempt to find our original tracks back across the main field since there were so many others. We did however solve the riddle of our non-speaking ski friend. A woman, I am assuming was his wife, was coming across the same field on skis. The man was resting in a car. When she made it back, she joined him at the car and as she packed her skis, they were talking and it definitely was not English.

To me, the irony to this guesswork about the skiers is that I made a lot of judgments based on a few facts and observations, perhaps in a way others have viewed me. Originally, when we first spoke to the gentleman, I jumped to the conclusion that he may not have spoken because we were African American. I was thankful that my father made the suggestion that he may not have understood English. I thought I might have taken my assumption way too far by thinking the worst. Then at the parking lot when I heard them not speaking English, I was relieved. Unfortunately, people not speaking to or acknowledging me because of my race has probably happened. Ok, I think that I could say that without a doubt, whether I was aware of it or not, I have always been prejudged. Lately, if I enter a store and the sales associate does not greet me, I assume the worst and take my business elsewhere. That is the unfortunate reality of being African American. It is normal to have harmless judgments and assumptions about others, but the experience of Africans in the Americas began with prejudice the instant we were considered nothing but property. Although slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, the ramifications of this institution persist daily. For this reason, African Americans are playing catch-up on a lot of things. We are not out in the parks, or outdoors, or traveling by trailer or camping at the same rate of our peers because of the harmful actions people have taken against us based on preconceived judgments. There is a lot of work yet to do.

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