"Brown Girl Goes Hiking"
by Gowri Parameswaran
Brown Girl pulled into the parking lot a little before 6 PM. She rolled her windows down and shouted politely to the one man she could see among the sea of gleaming cars. He was speaking into the rolled down window of one of the cars parked there. He looked up as Brown Girl drove by.
“Is this the community center?”
The man’s face showed a hint of relief, “You’re here for the hike?”
Brown Girl nodded. The man motioned to her to park her car. Brown Girl drove her car into one of the spots in the lot, her brows furrowed and her mouth quivering ever so slightly. She was not sure what to expect with this stranger. She was hoping there were others beside herself on this hike. She had lived in the area for 15 years and she had never once been out hiking alone or with strangers. She would occasionally go walking with friends but that summer she was determined to trace all the different paths that crisscrossed their way around the beautiful hills of the Hudson Valley. She had recently read a report that said that white people spent the most time being out in the wilderness and people of color had not quite caught up to the benefits of it all. It was not fair that white people were not only so privileged in society; they were also nature’s favorites.
She stood in the parking lot, very unsure of herself. The man, who had been talking to a young woman sitting in the driver’s seat next to an enormous dog, patted the dog and waved a goodbye to the woman as he walked towards Brown Girl. Brown Girl eyed him cautiously. He had a straw hat with a colorful rim that he slung loosely over his face. She had contacted the man after a friend recommended him as a great guide. The friend said that the guide’s family had lived among these bucolic hills for generations and were deeply involved in the local environmental politics. All of this information made him very attractive as a guide.
“The man must must be in his late fifties” Brown Girl thought, “though really he could be any age”. She had become recently single and had looked at hundreds of men in their 40s and 50s on dating sites. She had become quite the expert at telling a man’s age from the square-ness of his jaw. Men in their forties seemed just a little surer of themselves. Their chins had a determination and a tautness that seemed to give way as soon as they turned 50. She had not quite learned to spot the signs of a man who had turned 60. Her stated cut-off on the dating sites was 55.
As the man in the straw hat neared her, his right hand stretched out in front of him, she could see that he must have been very handsome when he had been younger. He had big blue eyes that were partially obscured by his hat. He had a flat open face and a strong jaw, all very nicely pulled together and arranged by his shiny white skin with just the barest of wrinkles. The man had a small gold stud on his right ear lobe. He wore sage-colored khaki pants and a khaki shirt. The shirt seemed to have pockets everywhere. She could see he had stuffed things in all of his pockets.
“I think it’s just you and me today,” he said in a disappointed voice. “I’ve tried advertising and it’s annoying that no one wants to go on these evening hikes. I don’t know why people would want to spend a beautiful Friday night getting drunk.” Brown Girl did not know either. White people are supposed to love hikes and the Hudson Valley was crawling with white people, those who lived there and the Wall Street types who came up on the weekends. She was afraid the man was going to cancel the outing altogether. She might have to spend her evening nursing a glass of wine and looking out at the bustling hippie crowds in this bucolic Hudson Valley town. Some white India-worshipper or a recent convert to the Hugging-Amma brand may even sidle up to her and tell Brown Girl she looks like the goddess Durga with her wild hair and eyes. Brown girl would have to have a long conversation about how she is an atheist and how the history of Hinduism is not as blemishless as the recently converted Hindu might think. The Indophile with her batik shirt and her Oum pendant would look disappointed and then crushed before walking away at the earliest opportunity.
Brown Girl gave a little shudder. She was woken out of her reverie by another voice, a female one.
“Is this the hiking party?”
The man in the straw hat brightened considerably. His handsome face seemed like an open book that Brown Girl could read. It’s amazing how emotions can crack open a person’s soul like parched land softening with a gentle rain. Brown girl thought that the man had experienced and seen things he should not have. She could see the man had suffered and had clearly spent years under the influence of psychedelics. He had the air of one who had been squeezed by all that he had been through but who had still come out raw and beautiful.
The woman who had joined them was carrying a huge red backpack. Brown Girl remembered she had forgotten all the essentials of hiking except her flashlight, which she had tucked in her jacket pocket. This was just like her to have forgotten everything except the most useless of objects. The sun rarely set before 9:30 PM these days and she would never need to use the torch. The girl had opened her backpack by now and was pulling out random articles of clothing. She had been wearing a tank top and a torn short skirt. She had now retrieved from her backpack a pair of tights and another shirt, which she proceeded to get into as if she were in her private bedroom. Brown Girl looked at her admiringly. The way the woman was throwing off one item of clothing and slithering into another item, she could be in a thriller movie set racing against time to get the bad guy or gal! They must teach this in gym class in high school in this country. Brown Girl could not imagine anyone having this talent naturally.
The woman was finally finished and declared nonchalantly, “I’m all set. I have water and stuff.” Brown Girl shifted from one foot to another deciding if she should announce that she had no water and no snack and whatever else this other hiking enthusiast seemed to have in her enormous backpack. Before she could say anything, the woman noticed that Brown Girl was not carrying anything with her and offered to share her homemade berry and nut mix with her fellow hikers. Brown Girl, not to be outdone, did one last rummaging of her car. Her children were always leaving stuff behind in the car and her car between the monthly cleanings resembled a pigsty. There must be something there. The man looked on impatiently. After a few minutes Brown Girl retrieved a misshapen plastic water bottle that looked ancient and quite a bit dirty. It had to do; perhaps at least these self-sufficient, totally prepared hikers would not judge her all that poorly.
Now that all three were supremely prepared for the walk, they set off spending a few minutes acquainting themselves with each other. Brown Girl had a chance to look at the woman carefully. The woman had a youngish face but her hair was almost totally grey. She had colored it jet black through which the white roots were uncomfortably making their presence known. Brown Girl could not assign an age to the woman. She was so used to seeing men’s faces, mostly white, with their ages right next to their photos on dating websites that she had made an art of looking at and judging men’s ages. She was lost with women. Clearly, this woman was fit. She was walking with great ease in spite of the load of the backpack.
“I live in the city,” she said. “I’m here for the week.”
They had left the parking lot behind and were walking along an unnamed, unpaved path. The man with the straw hat halted in front of a rusty gate that announced that people were prohibited inside. Brown Girl noticed the sign but politely waited for the man to direct her actions. The man briskly walked in through a little gap to one side of the shut and heavily bolted gate. One of the unstated rules of using a guide in a new place is that you accept them as your lord and master and trust that they know everything important there is to know and that is pertinent to your existence at the moment. Brown Girl felt a little tremor of excitement at the thought of breaking the law. The trio had walked a few steps in when the woman wanted to go back and take a picture in front of the sign that specifically stated that it was private property and the people who did not own the place were not allowed to be there. Several selfies were taken after having spent a considerable amount of time trying to arrange the people around the sign. It was an especially complicated venture because Brown Girl was smaller than the other two.
The hikers began walking again, with the woman now busy looking through her cell phone and tapping on the screen. In between her interactions with her cellphone she spoke about herself. She was an artist who was spending the week modeling for an artist who lived in the area. Brown Girl was amazed at the woman’s capacity to engage with her cellphone and interact with her companions all at the same time. She had seen her relatives back in India pull out their cellphones in the middle of family dinners with one hand carelessly breaking the pappadum and dunking it into the sambar rice and the other hand stabbing at cellphones with the greatest of joy. The woman from the city seemed to have the art of engaging seamlessly with her cellphone and the rather rocky road she was treading on.
The path ahead was beautiful in the evening light. There were purple, yellow and white wildflowers that carpeted the uneven meadows on both sides. Tender green leaves were bursting out of white birch bark and dark vines crept up the tall trees. The visitor from the city would occasionally take photos of things large and small around them sometimes placing her in the middle of the photographs as a selfie and in others, zooming in on an object intensely. With no warning she would stop dead on the tracks and look through her digital stash of photos all over again. Brown Girl wondered if she was posting them on Facebook – the large maroon and red mushrooms, the wet snails creeping along silently, the dead caterpillars, the gold and black monarch butterflies, and the strange shapes of the twisted and gnarled tree branches.
The light of the evening sun struggled to come through the tall crisscrossing branches. The trio passed by rows of piled up flat gray-blue slabs that lay silent and majestic a bit away from the path. The man explained, “I want to make sure you not only get to enjoy the scenery but learn a little about the area as well.” He swept his hands in a grand gesture towards the stone mounds and proceeded to tell the women about the heady days of the mining industry in the area. He asked the women to picture carts filled with stones from the quarry making their way towards the big cities and the sheep and the goat grazing in the meadows so that the miners can be fed. Brown Girl imagined this beautiful landscape barren and grey, ravaged by grazing cattle and blasted by dynamites. It seemed impossible that this pristine landscape had such a somber past. The man added, “My forefathers were part of all this mining activity. They were hard workers and made their life here under impossible circumstances. I am so proud of them!”
Brown Girl could see that his blue eyes were now moist – perhaps with tears of pride. Brown Girl thought about her own Brahmin forefathers who officiated at marriages and births and her foremothers and the endless rituals that marked their days. Even as a young girl she had never taken to them, just like all the pomp around American rituals bored her. She was grateful to be an outsider in a space between two such different and immensely similar spaces. Many of the Indians in the USA carried their rituals with them and Brown Girl regarded them with a mix of admiration and scorn. The woman, who seemed lost in her cell-phone earlier, jumped in and asked about where the man’s forefathers were from. Brown Girl could never understand Americans’ interest in their ancestry. One coworker had once declared to her with great pride that his heritage was Irish, French, Italian and Polish – does it even make a difference if there is so much mixing? It’s hard enough dealing with the conflict between one’s singular ancestral heritage and the one that people are uprooted into, which itself has lots of tentacles that one must understand.
The guide enthusiastically launched into an explanation of all that came before his birth. Brown Girl was only half listening. She could hear the usually litany of European origin stories. His were mostly Irish. Her ears perked up when the man mentioned the Esopus branch of the Lenape Indians as one of his ancestral roots. He came to a complete halt in the middle of the narrow path they were on and rolled up his sleeves to show a faint red and black tattoo on his upper arm.
“This tattoo was my first vision. I promised myself my first tattoo would be a message from my Indian ancestors”. He paused for a moment and continued with emphasis, his blue eyes earnest “I am so proud of my Indian heritage. I am proud of both of my heritages.”
He then took off his hat, turned it upside down and traced his long fingers on the edge of the lining which had the same red and black lining as his tattoo.
“The vision from my Indian ancestors.” He emphasized earnestly.
Brown Girl interjected weakly that it was just so strange that she was ‘Indian’ too and then realized she had not quite articulated the sentence – only thought it! Brown Girl always bristled slightly when she heard people refer to the native people of the Americas as ‘Indians’. She felt that somehow her identity as someone from the Indian subcontinent had been violated. She wondered what else the Indian-Irish man with the straw hat with a patterned tattoo did to connect with his Native ancestry besides seeing visions. Did he get angry when football teams used native images as mascots? Did his heart bleed at the high rates of suicides and drug use in reservations? What about the killings of unarmed Native men and women? The guide had pulled out a silver chain that hung around his neck by this time. On it hung a circular pendant, which enclosed an intricate pattern of twisted lines and angles.
“Celtic.” The man announced. “Our most holy symbol.”
The woman seemed animated by the turn the conversation had taken. She interjected enthusiastically.
“I’ve been on vision quests! Several times. You learn so much about yourself.”
The man not to be outdone, “Nothing like being in a sweat lodge to awaken your deepest spirits.”
“I’ve done those too – and fasting!” The woman added, “I was raised Jewish but I’m a nature worshipper. It is really the spirits around us that count. The world would be a better place if people respected the spirit inside trees and plants and animals”
The man must have agreed because he laughed and nodded by turn adding, “Peyote and ayahuasca! They are a gift from the gods. My best visions were when I was on them in the Amazon jungle.”
The woman looked a little disapproving as she retorted, “I don’t do drugs of that nature. Never felt the need.”
The side of the mountain that the hikers were on now opened out into a valley with more wildflowers fluttering around which were tiny butterflies. The ground was covered with soft thick bright green moss and there were plants growing in a tumble everywhere. Brown Girl was breathless with excitement. She thought that it was true – white people were so privileged to be able to have all of this for their taking. She could hear her two companions exchanging stories about their adventures with otherworldly characters that seemed to come straight from the mythological stories that her grandmother would tell her when she was young, coaxing her to eat her rice and yogurt under the banyan tree behind the house in her little village in South India.
They must have walked about half a mile when Brown Girl could hear falling water. The Jewish agnostic had now gone back to her cellphone and the Irish-Indian man walked with renewed energy in the direction of the waterfall. Then they came upon it! Brown girl could barely wait and she ran ahead. Waterfalls did something for her. Perhaps it was a childhood spent traveling the Indian wilderness with her father or perhaps it was that there were few forests where she last lived in India. She folded the edges of her blue jeans and hopped from stone to stone until she got close to where the waters cascaded across ledges into the limpid pool below. The water was cold and she shivered lightly. She could feel the spray moisten her face. She looked back and saw that her fellow hiker was at the edge of the pool taking pictures. The woman was now speaking to the man in a pleading little-girl voice, “let’s take a dip in these beautiful waters. You’ll allow that, won’t you?” Brown Girl would have liked to say that the water was unpleasantly cold but she thought the better of it. The other two might be just fine with biting cold water and the woman clearly had tons of clothes in her backpack. She often read about all the dangerous exploits of Americans deliberately putting themselves in danger. Cold water should be nothing to these two!
The hikers walked to a dry spot where the man quickly got out of all his clothes. Brown Girl watched first in horror and then in fascination as he peeled off his shirt and slid out of his pants. She watched as his tattoos revealed themselves in all their glory. The tattoos probably included all of his ancestry and more. Brown Girl would have loved to touch them and allow them to speak their stories to her, but she stayed rooted not knowing what she should be doing about now. She turned her attention to the woman who was taking her clothes off with abandon. Once more, Brown Girl could not help but admire white people. Brown Girl could expound on sexual liberty and the exploitative nature of marriage but she reflected ruefully that she did not have the courage to take off her clothes in front of strangers. The Irish-Indian man and the Agnostic-Jewish woman were now totally naked.
She could now see how strong and sturdy both their bodies were – and oh so white. She was imagining the two splashing about in the lovely pool that nobody knew about right in the middle of the beautiful Hudson Valley. If the water wasn’t so cold she might have joined them. Maybe she would have finally had the courage to fling her clothes off in front of absolute strangers in a place that seemingly was private property and barred to everyone but a chosen few. Brown Girl decided she was going to vicariously enjoy the water through these two free souls.
Brown Girl could see the man close to the falls and the woman followed him. Suddenly she saw that the woman who was by now standing on a rock by the edge of the pool wildly gesticulating to her. She was pointing to her cell phone and was shouting for Brown Girl to get it. Brown Girl rolled her eyes a little – did this woman have to talk on the phone in the middle of the waterfall? When she got to where the woman was she noticed that the woman was standing on the only dry spot close the waterfall. The woman asked Brown Girl, “Could you take a picture of me, please?” As she made her request she reached out her hands towards the falling water touching the water with the tips of her fingers. Brown Girl had never taken a picture of a naked body before but there’s always a first time. She looked at the cellphone screen zooming in on the woman’s figure standing on the only dry spot in the area. She clicked a couple of snaps trying to capture the woman from different angles, admiring her strong, non-tattooed white torso. She tried to keep the man out of the frame because she was not sure if he would mind. He seemed oblivious to the two women, walking around in the shallow pool to the side of the waterfall. As soon as the pictures were taken, the woman backed away from the falls without having wet a single part of her body. She must have sensed Brown Girl’s puzzlement because she said apologetically, “I am just so self-conscious about my body, I wanted to get over it. The water IS cold!” The woman added, “I am working on this with my therapist, see.” Brown Girl’s puzzlement turned to bewilderment. She wondered what was there to work on. Brown Girl, and in fact, most Brown Girls who could afford to, would think it is wise to think about who you want to discard your clothes in front of. It seemed like a rather unnecessarily dangerous thing to do, especially if it was not leading towards sex or the pleasure of a bath. But perhaps this was due to Brown Girl’s own lack of imagination.
The layers of clothes back on, the trio walked on through more rocky paths that were interlaced with soft moss. The Irish-Indian guide talked about cairns and Indians and his dog Hermes who he had buried in one of the cairns strewn in the area. The woman laughed so hard that the man’s dog was named for a trickster god. She looked at Brown Girl and enquired, “Who is the trickster in Hindu mythology? Is it Hanuman?” Brown Girl always felt stripped and vulnerable when people asked her questions about Hindu mythology. They were part of her past that she had tried to leave behind, not that they evoked bad memories. She had not quite worked out her relationship with the stories and preferred not to think about them. She racked her brain for who the trickster might be among the Hindu pantheon of gods. She could see that the others were looking at her eagerly. She remembered uttering that it was not Hanuman, maybe just to prove the nature loving Jewish woman wrong. She searched among the names of so many Hindu gods who shape-shifted and teased the faithful. Thankfully, the Irish-Indian man had lost patience with Brown Girl and had gone back to his own ruminations. He spoke about his deepest fears that he had never told anyone and remembered a time when he saw Hermes running behind him on these paths – AFTER she was dead. The woman spoke about her mystical experience atop the Machu-Picchu and the visit by Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god on the beaches of Goa. Taking off one’s clothes must have had some positive effect on feelings of community even if people had no intention of having sex or getting wet. The Brown Girl listened to the other two narrate their tales of encounters with other-worldly, pan-cultural creatures. She was determined that she was going to be better prepared in all manner of things the next time.
The sun was about to set as the three hurried to the top of the hill towards a clearing. The sky was a deep purple and one could see the entire valley from the clearing. The church steeple in the village down below, a sea of deep green now lit by the setting sun right behind, the wide expanse of the reservoir beyond, and most spectacular of all, the rocky tops of the ridges against the multi-hued sky. Brown Girl felt a great sense of calm and oneness with all that there was. The three moved closer as if they were one body. There was a moment of silence as they trained their eyes on the setting sun. Brown Girl felt a deep love for the man who seemed to have never quite recovered from the loss of his dog Hermes and the woman who had so many body issues to work through. It was the kind of love that one could only feel for strangers with whom one had no past baggage.
The woman reached into her bag, took out her cellphone and tried to click one last picture. She exclaimed in disgust, “Oh fuck, the battery is dead.” Her voice softened as she turned to whisper to Brown Girl “Are you on Facebook? Perhaps we can connect there.”
Gowri Parameswaran is a professor of Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In her research she explores the many ways in which culture, gender, race, and social-economic status affects cognitive development. She has published books and articles on social inequity and their impact on children's growth. More recently, she has been critiquing psychological research on parenting and the impact of 'expert' advice giving on mother's own sense of efficacy.