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Benje Williams
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Searching for the Mountaintop in Upstate New York

Silhouette of man holding hiking poles against a nature landscape of mountaintop with pasture areas
Illustration by Carolyn Wells

Benje Williams | Longreads | March 2022 | 15 minutes (4,077 words)

We’re on the Appalachian Trail: 2,190 infamous miles, stretching like history itself, from Georgia to Maine, across 14 states and up roughly 16 Mount Everests of elevation gain. 

My parents have been hiking for much of that history — backpacking across the high peak wilderness of Sequoia National Park, trekking through the Tetons for their cross-country honeymoon, cross-country skiing along Rocky Mountain glaciers that have since nearly disappeared, day hiking through the American River Canyon in their own Sierra Nevada foothills. But they’re approaching the AT for the first time. It’s early September and fall dapples above and below us, in the translucent beech canopy coloring the sun lichen-green and in the carpet of clay-red sugar maple leaves. 

My parents take their inaugural steps.

“Welcome to the AT,” I say, pushing through my fatigue to evoke the energy of a highly anticipated debut. 

“Thanks,” my mom says with a smile, summoning enthusiasm from a stream that has run dry.

Even the AT doesn’t seem to be itself. Back in the car, we had listened to The Appalachian Trail: A Biography. The route is known as the green tunnel, Philip D’Anieri writes, because of its infinite canopy coverage. Unlike many Western trails, the AT wasn’t designed for horses, who can usually only manage up to 20% grades, so the path is usually straight up and down, without any switchbacks. And there are hardly any people of color, with roughly 95% of AT thru-hikers identifying as white.

And yet, only minutes into our debut, we’re switchbacking up the bare face of Bear Mountain — the unfiltered sun weighing against our backs — and two Latina women are walking quietly behind us, as if the AT refuses to squeeze into the definitions others have given it.

Mom is still unimpressed. She falls behind by the second switchback. Dad waits for her as I climb on, feeling a restlessness that I tell myself all hikers feel at some point. And yet, it’s deeper than that, heavier, more complicated, and I can’t make sense of it. Why, with the one person who has been waiting for me in some way or another almost my entire life, am I so impatient? What type of son have I become?

By the last set of switchbacks, my dad has decided to go ahead without her. “Is everything okay?” I ask when we both reach the summit, looking out at the miles of trail that still lie ahead.

“Yeah, I think her hip is hurting.” His voice trails off, as if there’s more that he’s not saying. But he doesn’t have to. The pieces have been silently falling out since the beginning of their New York trip, and I’m finally starting to put the picture together.

***

On our fifth day, the day God made creatures in the sea and birds in the sky, we migrate upstate to the High Peaks, located within the six-million-acre “forever wild” forest preserve that is Adirondack Park, the largest publicly protected swath of land in the lower 48.

We spent the first four days in New York City, packed with coffee shops and chai dhabas, wine bars and bookstores, film premieres and park tours, jazz shows and hip hoperas. There was barely time to breathe, let alone to breach the questions I’ve been waiting to ask. Questions about race, ancestors, belonging, place. Questions we’ve avoided all of my life.

But my parents seem willing to try. 

We spend our first upstate morning lounging in Adirondack chairs around our cottage’s outdoor fire pit. Dad laughs through his nose at Barack Obama’s biography. Then he dozes off. Mom taps her foot as she stares into a novel. I make my way through Maya Angelou’s collection of poetry, a book I’ve been wanting to read ever since my visit to Eudora, Arkansas. The southeastern-most corner of the state, about three miles west of Mississippi and seven miles north of Louisiana, along the great Mississippi River Delta Basin. My dad’s parents grew up there, spending their mornings picking cotton as sharecroppers and their afternoons studying at Eudora Colored High. Eventually they became valedictorian and salutatorian. Then they left and never returned. No one has returned. Until my visit in January.

What is left behind when you leave your place of origin? What is lost when you never return? These are questions I’m trying to explore with my parents. And I’m hoping Maya Angelou — who grew up on the same blood-red Arkansas clay — might be able to get us started.

“Should I read one of these poems?” I ask. Dad’s awake now. He sets his coffee down, while Mom leans towards the warm coals.

“It’s called ‘My Arkansas.’”

There is a deep brooding 
in Arkansas.
Old crimes like moss pend 
from poplar trees.
The sullen earth 
is much too
red for comfort.

Sunrise seems to hesitate 
and in that second
lose its 
incandescent aim, and 
dusk no more shadows 
than the noon.
The past is brighter yet.

Old hates and
ante-bellum lace, are rent 
but not discarded.
Today is yet to come
in Arkansas.
It writhes. It writhes in awful 
waves of brooding.

Mom leans back in her chair and I read it again. Today is yet to come in Arkansas. It writhes, it writhes in awful waves of brooding.

Dad nods his head in that knowing way, but none of us have the words to say more. Our final beech log collapses into the coals. The sun climbs above the hemlock stand. Mom asks if we should start on breakfast.

***

In the afternoon, we ascend toward Mt. Marcy, the highest of the Adirondacks’ notorious 46 High Peaks. Bright orange newts dot the path, tall pines and heritage hardwoods fill the forest, and a wobbly footbridge stretches over the blue Marcy Brook. It’s our first hike, and Mom’s leading the pack. Or at least pacing alongside us, as if her morning California walks and weekend hikes have prepared her well.

Towards the end of our six-mile out and back, we approach two women in the distance, walking through a cluster of cabins. “Hello there,” one of them yells out, as if she hasn’t seen a human in weeks. And maybe she hasn’t, at least not a human like me and my dad, who are both black. She’s the campground host, she says, a native to the High Peaks. As she talks and answers all of my parents’ questions about the Adirondacks that I’ve been unable to, I think back to a work trip I had here last year, with the SUNY College of Environmental Science of Forestry, when we explored how they could improve the number of people of color in their program. We toured the Ranger School, the oldest continuously operating forest technology program in the U.S. At the time, there was only one black student, of the nearly 60 enrolled. After the tour, I met Nicole Hylton-Patterson, the director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. “It’s a deep-rooted problem,” she said. Rough estimates put the year-round Adirondacks population somewhere around 130,000, and “you can guess how many of them are black,” she continued.

I guessed less than 2%.

“Probably even worse,” she responded, and then told a story about a “Go back” sign that was hung from a bar after a black family from the city moved into a house across the street.

But they’re talking about it, Nicole said. People are finally talking about it. And perhaps this is the first step.

***

Back at Lake Placid, I try to take another step with my parents.

We’re at a restaurant eating barbeque — soul food, that keystone species of the American South, of places like Arkansas. My mom is talking about my brother’s plan to eventually adopt kids, rather than have his own, and I’m trying to figure out how to ask about her own experience, as a white woman with black children, without ruining our dinner. 

“What was it like for you, Mom, having so many kids that didn’t exactly look like you?”

She looks up at me, a little surprised, then down at her grilled Brussels sprouts. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, “especially with Karlee,” who was the darkest of us. “Black women would stare at me in jealousy, like they knew I had taken one of their good men.” She sets her fork down. I feel something in my stomach curl.

Jealousy?” I ask, reaching for the baked beans, searching for a diplomacy my family has never been good at. “I’m sure it was probably a range of emotions, maybe even anger at Dad.” She nods her head, but says no one ever looked at Dad.

“Oh, they definitely did, honey,” he says, leaning over his collard greens with wide eyes. Eyes that often say more than the rest of him does. Mom tilts her head, unconvinced, and tells us about two women who once stared at her when she was having lunch with Uncle Ricky, who’s black. “He warned me they would stare at us, thinking we were together, and that’s exactly what happened.”

I want my dad to counter with his own story, to prove it’s more complex than just jealousy. But I know he won’t. He’s not the type of person to counter. He’s not even the type of person who would think of this as something that needs to be countered. And he rarely remembers his own stories, as if he forgot them along the way, subconsciously believing there wouldn’t be anyone to tell them to.

But Mom remembers her stories. And now she’s telling us about the time we went hiking without Dad, and several white women told her how beautiful her kids were. “I got so mad,” she says, “because you guys were a lot more than just pretty.” I nod, but feel surprised that it made her angry. 

I lean forward to ask how often this happened, but she launches into another story, about a man who came up to our campground once, when there were four of us kids, and complimented her on how well-behaved we were. 

“And you finally have one that looks like you,” the man said to her, pointing to my younger brother, who had light skin and blue eyes and blondish hair. 

“Finally?” I ask my mom, as the waiter sets our dinner plates down. “Why would he say ‘finally’? Did you know him before?”

“No, no, we never met.” She pauses. “I guess he didn’t say finally.”

We are a people who have never grown old with our loved ones. There’s no path that has been laid out ahead of us. We’re stumbling forward together.

Now I’m the one with wide eyes. But she’s biting into her sandwich and doesn’t notice. Doesn’t find anything surprising about this admission, that my brother, who was by far the lightest of us all, was the kid that finally looked like her.

I take a long sip of my Old-Fashioned, as if to soften all the things I want to say. Like how fucked up it is for a random-ass white dude to praise a group of four black kids on how “well-behaved” they are, in any place but especially when camping outdoors. Or how “your kids are so beautiful” was almost definitely soccer-mom codeswitching for “are they really yours?” Or how there might be other reasons, besides Dad being shy or introverted, for why he rarely shares his stories or expresses his opinion or says much at all. Internalized and subconscious and tired age-old reasons.

But I don’t say any of this. I don’t know how to say any of this.

Instead, I look out the glass walls, at the sun that has disappeared now. Everything is black. And even though I can’t see them, I imagine the millions of stars shining above it all. Stars that existed long before any of this. Stars that led thousands through the dark oceans of southern wilderness into the northern plains of the open grass valleys that lie just beyond us now.

***

In Catskill Park, that younger park sibling made up of nearly a million forest preserve acres, a flash flood warning pops up on our phones as rain falls above our cabin, conjuring memories of Hurricane Ida, which had killed over 50 people in the Northeast just a week ago. The storm calms by morning, and we move forward with our plan to hike a segment of New York’s 358-mile Long Path, towards Kaaterskill Falls, as a final warm-up for the AT.

The going is slow: We navigate through muddy vernal pools on the forested shores of North and South Lakes; through the satiated oak hickory woods of Kaaterskill wilderness; up the beech roots climbing towards the top of South Mountain.

Mom is doing good, using the poles that she’d neglected to use on our first hike. Still, she’s falling behind. I slow my pace, stopping to admire makeshift streams falling over glaciated sandstone. A barred owl swoops through the understory, landing silently on a hemlock branch.

We regroup at the crest of our first pass, as the trail flattens. The brush is thin now and we walk together on top of a cliff of sedimentary rock, carved out by a massive glacier that made its way down New York some 15,000 years ago. We step towards the rock’s edge and the complete glacial masterpiece appears below us: hundreds of miles of green deciduous hardwood forest, patches of fields and pastureland and meadows, three million acres of the great Hudson Valley, pulsing with the bloodline of the Hudson River.

“Oh, wow,” Mom says, with the benevolent sun now warming her face. 

“I know, right?” I’ve seen this masterpiece before, but through my parents’ eyes, I feel as if I’m seeing it for the first time.

We sit in the light for a few minutes as a breeze rises from the Kaaterskill gorge below. Mom sips her ice water. Dad reaches into his secret jelly bean stash. I’m thinking about my dad’s parents.

None of this mattered, or mattered enough. He was still a black man.

As we continue, the trail is mostly flat, the mountain ridge giving us a chance to walk together before the ascent ahead. “I wish we knew more stories about Grandpa Benjamin,” I say to my dad, as we pass a generation of mushrooms — fruiting bodies that have grown out of a massive invisible network of mycorrhizal fungi beneath us, connecting and nurturing this entire forest. 

“Me too, Benj,” he responds. But his dad was gone so much, he says, for Air Force assignments in Vietnam and the Philippines, and then in Okinawa, where his body was found in five feet of water. 

The forest falls silent: I hear what I think is a sparrow in the pines above. Water flowing through the canyon below. The soft soil compressing as we step forward.

“He was the reason why I loved the outdoors,” he continues, walking over fallen pine needles that line the path. “He took me fishing and shooting arrows and hunting on the Air Force base.”

“Was he a good guy?” I finally ask, admitting to him that the only stories we heard about Grandpa Benjamin were of his Playboy magazines and his diving death. And that my dad was never sure if he was in heaven or not. “He wasn’t exactly the villain,” I say, “but he definitely wasn’t the hero of the story. He wasn’t even Grandpa Benjamin to us — he was just your dad. I’ve barely even seen pictures of him, other than that grainy and somber black-and-white Air Force portrait.”

Dad lets me finish and then stops at the end of the ridgeline. “He was a good guy,” he says slowly, nodding his head. “He drove me every weekend all the way to LA for wrestling tournaments. He worked very hard. And he loved my mother very much.”

Mom agrees with him. He presses his lips together, leaning slightly into his hiking poles. “He was a good guy,” he says again.

I exhale. “I think I needed to hear that,” I say quietly. “I think we all need to hear that. To know that we came from somewhere, that we came from someone. And that that somewhere and someone was good.” 

“I think you’re right Benj,” he says, and we begin to climb up the hill. I walk next to him in silence, thinking of how Grandpa Benjamin died when Dad was nearly still a kid, barely 20. How Grandma Ollie died a few years later, in Dad’s late 20s. How Dad’s sister — his only sibling — died when he was in his early 30s. How all four of Dad’s grandparents died before they were able to see their children become adults. 

We are a people who have never grown old with our loved ones. There’s no path that has been laid out ahead of us. We’re stumbling forward together.


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***

We’re en route to the AT, and I’ve found a way to ask Mom about her parents, two of my all-time favorite people. The ones who helped me collect sand dollars along the Pacific and held my hand along the Grand Canyon rim and helped me search for Roy Rogers across New Mexico and never told me it was a crazy idea to want to become a cowboy who lived in the great American wilderness.

But things weren’t always so smooth, Mom says. She’s looking out our Jeep’s window and talking quietly, which she rarely does. 

Since I was in high school, I’ve always known that my grandparents had reservations. “They were worried about how difficult my life would be,” was always Mom’s narrative. But there’s more, she admits now, after 42 years of marriage. “Nana was concerned with what her sorority would think,” she says. “And also her church. The community. If her daughter married a black man.” Even a black man their daughter had been in school with since fifth grade. A black man who was an Olympic athlete, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon in residency, and an Air Force child, just like their daughter. None of this mattered, or mattered enough. He was still a black man.

I squint my eyes at the semi-truck in front of us. Everything is frozen and clear and full, as if I’m looking at a picture of my life. As if I can see all the way down Interstate 87, through the Catskills and over the AT, across the valley and down through New York City, all the way to where the Hudson River empties itself into the cold and rough waters of the Atlantic, into the dark and vast abyss that my dad’s grandparents’ grandparents were shipped across in chains and shackles. I should be shocked. At least in denial. But I’m none of these things. I’m not even surprised. Somehow I knew. Somehow I’ve always known. Although I don’t know how.

There was barely time to breathe, let alone to breach the questions I’ve been waiting to ask. Questions about race, ancestors, belonging, place. Questions we’ve avoided all of my life.

Here’s what I do know. That when I was in junior high, misbehaving in the ways that junior highers misbehave, my mom said that my dreads were the reason I had a bad attitude and cut them off. That when I was in high school, my mom confiscated my hip hop collection and cut the uncensored CDs in half. That since I was in college, there have been all types of black shows and documentaries, including a Broadway play this past weekend, that we won’t watch because they’re “just too much” for my mom.

But here’s what else I know. That when my elementary school decided not to give us MLK Day off one year, Mom took us out of school anyway. That even though I only had one set of black cousins, Mom made sure I went to their house every summer in Texas so I could be with them. That even though there was only one black woman in our church, Mom made sure to invite her (and her daughter) over for Thanksgiving and Easter and birthdays and Sunday brunches.

Which is to say that we didn’t always get it right. That Mom and Dad didn’t get it right. But also to say that they tried. That we tried. And that we still made it pretty far, given everything I’m learning that we started with: the sororities and the churches and the communities and the backgammon clubs. The odds were against us. We were never going to win. But we still made it pretty far.

***

Which is more than we can say for the AT, as Dad and I look out from the top of the pass and realize we’re not actually at the summit. We’re at a false peak. The real summit is still miles ahead. 

Mom is barely in sight now. Perhaps it was our discussion. Or her hip is worse than she’s letting on. Whatever it is, the AT isn’t going to be the mountaintop experience I was building it up to be.

“I think we should turn around,” I say. Dad nods his head and we wait for Mom, who is unmoved by the announcement. And then suggests we take a selfie.

As we head back, I think about all the potential the AT holds, and how little of it we’re realizing. 2,190 miles connecting disparate parts of the country: the Northeast and the American South, with its scars from slavery and sharecropping and unfulfilled reparations and white supremacy and economic deprivation, but also its rich black history and culture and folklore and poetry and soul food and land. Especially its land.

Did I think the AT could connect these disparate parts of my life? The Midwestern homes my parents left as children and the Southern home my paternal grandparents never returned to as adults? The biracial black family my maternal grandma pushed against and the Sierra Nevada home I now live 3,000 miles away from?

Maybe I did. But we’re only walking a tiny portion of it. Even if you count the miles we hiked upstate, that’s still less than 1% of the AT. How much progress could I really have expected to make?

What is left behind when you leave your place of origin? What is lost when you never return? These are questions I’m trying to explore with my parents.

After a few minutes, I pass the two Latina women, who are further behind than I expected, and we exchange smiles. “We’re inching our way ahead,” one of them says. 

“You’re doing great,” I say. 

On the final descent, where the AT folds into switchbacks, a pain shoots up my left knee, through my IT band and into my left glute. It’s a familiar pain, one that I’ve been running away from, quite literally, for years. When I turn the corner and it jolts up again, I wonder if this isn’t why I’ve been so impatient with my mom — the person I most want to be patient with — even as I cheerlead for two strangers on this trail. Because Mom’s struggles say something about me. Her mortality is a reflection, a glimpse, into my own.

And as I reach the next switchback, I realize her whiteness is also my own whiteness, at least in part. Her unreconciled — or ignored — racial past has now become my own to carry.

I look back at Dad, who is now a few switchbacks behind me, adjusting the straps on his backpack as he rounds the corner. He has spent his whole life trying to climb above this racial past — not ignoring it completely, but turning the other cheek. It was what he needed to do to survive, which has inadvertently left behind mounds of unprocessed discrimination and racism. All the conversations he never had, the anger he never expressed, the sadness he never showed are now my weight to carry and unpack.

I exhale as I round the last switchback. I see our Jeep. The trail is flat, and the pain in my leg is gone — for now. Our Williams-family-debut-AT-hike is almost finished. And yet, there are nearly 1,500 miles of trail still ahead, all the way down to Georgia, towards the direction where my grandparents were born and the place they ultimately fled. And there are nearly 700 miles of trail behind us, all the way up to Maine.

My parents are still behind me and I know that, in some ways, they’ll never catch up. The work is on me now. They’ve already given me enough: these legs and shoulders and eyes. And the determination to figure it out, the strength to keep going, the attention to delight in everything around me — the warmth of the sun against my exposed forehead, the sound of rustling beech leaves above, the padding of red-clay maple leaves underneath me as I approach the end of the path.

***

Benje Williams is co-founder of Understory, a nonprofit with a mission to restore forest landscapes. He studied at Berkeley and Stanford and is currently working on a nature novel. He can be found at benjewilliams.org.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact-checker: Nora Belblidia