A large part of what is making this trip I’m on interesting is the people I’m meeting along the way. For today’s read I’ll ask you to imagine a campsite just outside of Moab, Utah. Big red cliffs tower on one side while the Colorado River sputters slow and dirty on the other. I pull in as the sun sets, set up my camp space, then head over to the Camp Steward’s trailer to introduce myself. These Stewards are generally volunteers who make sure the camp is kept up to spec: they clean up the fire pits, keep track of payments, put toilet paper in the latrines, etc.
I knocked on the door of this massive trailer and out came a very cute looking old man, well into his 70’s, with fluffy white hair hanging over gigantic ears. His thick bulbous nose was speckled red as a desert wash after a rain. He was wearing an old flannel shirt and beat up hiking boots. He was so adorable I could’ve sworn I’d seen him on a bag of cookies in the grocery store.
I’m looking for the man in charge around here, I said.
He nodded my direction. That’s me, he said. You can call me the camp nigger.
The barometric pressure across the entire SouthWest changed in that moment. Electric charges snapped through the air. A bird fell from the sky. To my right the Colorado began to flow faster so as to bypass what was happening on its shores.
I shook my head, as if doing so would somehow remove that statement from my ears. I’d been imagining an idyllic, peaceful evening swapping tall tales with one of the Bartles and Jaymes Gang and yet here I was, face-to-face with…, this.
I puckered my lips and tried to think. In an effort at generosity I let me mind try out his suggestion, and imagined running into a fellow camper who had a question. Oh, just head on over there to the camp nigger’s trailer, he’ll help you out!, I’d suggest with a smile and a wink.
For some strange reason that just didn’t sound right.
In truth, this was a tough position. I’m not trying to defend or justify his blatant racism, and yet, for a little context, was I really expecting something different from a single old white man whose main accompaniments in his life were his dog, his trailer and Rush Limbaugh?? I didn’t see a lot of value in escalating things to an argument right off the bat, and yet not-calling him out seemed kind of wussy. Finally I looked him in the eyes.
Why don’t I just call you by the name your mother gave you?
In that case you can call me Jim, he said, and held out his hand.
I shook it and we began chatting. It was typical stuff, mostly involving his life as a Camp Steward. He told me about his daughters, his winters in Arizona, his childhood in Canton, Ohio, and his summer plans working as a Steward at a site further north near Canyonlands Park.
The barometer slowly began to steady. Reality shook its feathers and re-situated itself properly on its perch.
Jim noted that the camps get a lot of Europeans in the summer. He expressed great admiration for the Germans because, as he noted, they begin teaching their kids English as a second language starting in the fourth grade.
I only wish the Mexicans the would do the same, he added, and gave me a complimentary jog on the elbow, as if already assured of my agreement.
I sighed. The count had just dropped to 0-and-2.
Well Jim, I said, you’re right that it is really useful when a person can speak more than one language. I’m curious how many languages you learned in school when you were growing up in Ohio?
Well, only English, he said plainly. In that moment he seemed genuinely unawares of where this conversation was headed. Part of me actually felt a little bad for him. But it wasn’t that big a part, and I continued.
And wouldn’t it have been really useful if you’d been taught Spanish starting in the fourth grade? I mean, just think how much easier it would be for you to talk with the Mexicans if that were the case.
He avoided my eyes and looked down. He shook his head in a manner that resembled something that might have been a nod of agreement.
I suppose that’s true, was all he could muster. I didn’t press for more.
We chatted a few moments more then I walked back to my camp site. Later that evening I found a charming couple from New Zealand at the other end of the park with whom I swapped a beer and some tales. The following day I left Moab. I imagine Ol’Jim is out there still, stewarding the sites and envying the Germans.