Column: High Above, Looking for Diversity

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Willem Lange

For the Valley News

Mount Washington, N.H.

I’ve been sitting here in the New York Grand Central Station atmosphere of the Sherman Adams Building on the summit of Mount Washington, leaning my hands on the head of my cane, and conducting a sociological survey. There are a couple of spots here to get some food; one’s featuring chili today (a good choice; the fog outside is dense, with the wind blowing about 50) and the other sandwiches and soda. There’s a pair of extremely busy public restrooms with baffled entries instead of doors (another good idea; the traffic would wear out a set of hinges within hours). There are stairs leading to a museum one floor below; a display of the current weather, time and temperature; and a large, mausoleum-flavored list of the names of the hundreds of people who’ve misjudged this mountain and perished on its slopes.

Every few minutes an announcer who clearly enjoys the sound of his enhanced voice (He’s an instant flashback to the 1940s Jack Benny radio show, where the announcer rolls around the names “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuuuucamonga.”) gives the departure times for the next downbound cog railway car. At similar intervals fresh batches of tourists, red-faced from the chilly ascent and short dash across the lot to the entrance of the building, stomp in through the swinging doors, looking about them, sniffing the chili, and wiping the fog off their glasses. It’s the last late-summer holiday of the season, and this place is some busy!

I mentioned, however, that this was a sociological exercise. I’ve been checking out the various types of folks who come through the doors. and keeping mental tabs on them.

The most obvious are the hikers, who’ve been tramping through really high winds and thick fog in which the trail cairns are barely visible one from another. They’re covered with condensation and obvious confidence and happiness at having made it. The women blow wet wisps of hair out of their eyes. There are also, of course, hundreds of American tourists — I’ve spoken with couples from Iowa, Oregon and Florida — and some New Englanders, given away by their flannel or wool shirts. A few stop to say hello and how they like our TV show; very gratifying.

There are probably at least a hundred Asians, all in families and most with a paterfamilias who nervously finds places for everybody to sit — not an easy job in here today — before he goes for food. Just about as many Indians, some with a bindi between their eyebrows, hold children, talk and grab quick lunches before heading back out for the train. And to my surprise and delight, at least a whole train carload of Amish and Mennonites. Many of my mother’s friends were Mennonites, and I can understand the gist of what’s going on in Pennsylvania Dutch. So they were not at all hard to engage in conversation, contrary to our mutual perceptions, and I found that a lot of them were from central Ohio, only a few miles from where I went to college. They, as well as everybody else up here today, were adequately impressed by Mount Washington’s weather. Many asked if this hurricane-like whiteout was typical; I assured them that it was.

But back to my research. What I’ve been doing up here today, besides waiting for some climbers, is looking for African-American faces. I haven’t seen one. This doesn’t mean there have been none; just that, trying hard to spot one, I haven’t been able to. The Mount Washington experience, tourist ethnicities aside, seems to be an essentially Caucasian one.

I’ve been newly sensitized to this fact. My climbing partners today, if I had felt up to hiking the mountain with them, would have been members of the Boston Chapter of Afro Outdoors. Never heard of it? Neither had I, till our producer somehow came across it and scheduled this get-together. I’ve since done some research, mostly on the national organization’s website, and learned that the program is intended to convince black people that outdoor activities, regardless of appearances to the contrary, are not the exclusive domain of white folks.

Chaya Harris is in charge of the Boston chapter. She gathered a bunch of members down at Pinkham Notch this morning. Lovely young people they were — students, teacher, hospital consultant, professor — with names that really made me feel my disconnect: Chaya, Cacilda, Johanny, Ayanna and Scott. Thank God for Scott! We chatted briefly at the trailhead in Pinkham Notch while scores of hikers streamed past, including many Montrealers. Then it was off up the mountain for them. I was seriously off my feed this morning, so bade them go without me; they needed all the time they could get to the summit before dark. I drove the big TV station SUV to the Auto Road and chugged up into the clouds and wind, feeling better every minute about my decision.

On the way up the trail, Chaya, the consummate teacher, planned to relate the story of Ona Judge (a story you really need to explore), one of George and Martha Washington’s 300 slaves, who slipped away from a family dinner in Philadelphia one evening and escaped. The Washingtons had learned that a slave held for more than six months in free territory was free, so were planning to ship her back to Mount Vernon along with some other house slaves in exchange for fresh ones. She lived the rest of her life near Portsmouth, N.H., pursued by slave-catchers and Washington heirs, but managed to eke out an existence by sewing and house-cleaning.

If there’s anyone for whom the slogan “Live Free or Die” should resonate, it’s Ona. And if there’s anyone for whom her story should resonate, it’s Chaya. She’s bound and determined to get her charges up Mount Washington today, and who knows what other day? I’ve asked her to call me.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.