Black to Nature

Bill Gwaltney wants to see more people like him at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Along Elkhorn Avenue, parents with kids in tow pour out of candy stores and T-shirt shops. They fight their way through the crowded sidewalks, quieting the little ones with caramel apples and saltwater taffy. A shiny new black Toyota Solara emerges from a parking lot and pulls out onto Estes Park's main drag, cutting off a line of drivers eager to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the visitor center, carloads of tourists have stopped to pick up trail maps and postcards. One man tries to figure out how to open a bear-proof trash can but eventually gives up. Four kids pile out of a new cactus-green Ford Explorer and run ahead of their parents. They reunite inside the center, where it's cool but cramped with people waiting in line to buy bird-watching books and guides to the state's fourteeners and noisy with kids begging their parents to buy them mountain lion puppets.

"I don't know which one to get," says a woman, referring to two calendars, one of mountain shots and one of wildflowers.

Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
photo courtesy of James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Educ
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.

"Get both," her husband says.

"We only need one," she answers. As she gets closer to the cashier, she nervously shifts her weight from one leg to the other.

"Get both!" the husband insists in a harsh whisper.

After they stock up on mementos, families and retired couples return to the parking lot, which looks like an SUV dealership. Before reaching the alluvial fan or Trail Ridge Road, though, the sightseers must lurch along, bumper-to-bumper, until they see the American flag billowing at the park entrance. There they pay a $10 fee that allows them entry to all of the park's hiking trails, horseback riding paths and picnic areas. The line is reminiscent of Disneyland, but instead of Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, the attractions are glistening mountain lakes, unencumbered views of the Continental Divide and deer so tame they prance across crowded campsites in search of leftovers.

On the road to Bear Lake, families stop at the Moraine Park Museum, where they wait their turn at the interactive displays designed to help children understand how glaciers move and mountains form; kids turn a wheel that slides a replica of one piece of the earth's crust beneath another. But the boys and girls are more interested in the taxidermied squirrels, beavers and birds.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," whines a little girl, dragging her feet while her mother pulls her along in the museum.

"Okay, honey, we'll eat now," the mother replies, leading her outside.

Back in the city, it's a sweltering day, but LaGayle Hobbs is keeping cool on a shaded bench in Curtis Park, where she watches her niece and nephew swing. Mothers on the other end smile as their children splash in the pool and run through fountains. Hobbs picks up an empty forty-ounce bottle of Budweiser that someone left on the ground and tosses it aside. Kids run around the crumpled candy wrappers, pop cans and glass shards that are a natural part of the landscape.

On weekends, Hobbs likes to get out of the city, away from the wail of sirens and the thumping of car stereos in her neighborhood east of downtown Denver. She, her husband and their two children go up to Rocky Mountain National Park at least twice a month.

When they get there, everyone notices.

"People stare at me like I have no right to be there. It's like they're thinking, 'What are y'all doing here?'" says Hobbs, whose dark skin stands out in Rocky Mountain National Park like a storm cloud in a blue sky. "We're doing the same thing they're doing; we're looking around and enjoying ourselves."

Hobbs, who moved to Denver from Dallas six months ago, first went to the park when a white co-worker suggested that Hobbs's family join hers on a weekend camping trip. "The first time I went there, I felt out of place," says Hobbs, adding that most black people she knows won't visit national parks because they've heard how white visitors stare. Others don't go because they simply don't know the parks exist. "This side of town needs to be more educated about Rocky Mountain National Park. They need to do more advertising. They've got to let it be known that it's a park where everyone is welcome.

"If a white person comes to our park, we wouldn't look at them weird," Hobbs says of the blacks and Hispanics who live in the neighborhood surrounding the park at 30th and Curtis streets. "It's open to the public, and anyone can come here. It's only fair that we go up to Rocky Mountain National Park. We can all get along."

She understands why her friends aren't among the throng at Estes Park but says a lot of people assume they won't enjoy going there, even though they've never been. "They have got to get over that and just go. People look at me like I have no business being there, but I hold my head up high. I'm going to keep going."

But, she adds, recognizing that she's an exception, "people always want to go where they feel comfortable, and if they don't feel comfortable, they won't go back."

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