From These Prodigious Hills

How New Hampshire’s open spaces helped Ben Bacote feel free as a Black man
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Ben Bacote enjoys the evening autumn light where he and his family like to cool off on hot summer days.

Where I am from, a story like mine is rare and generally represented by class, race and wealth that I do not have. This is not a story of where I was from, or about what I don’t have, but a chronicle instead of what I do have, and a story about where I am now. This is a story of success, a story that takes place outdoors, and ultimately, this is a story about how New Hampshire’s open spaces helped lead me to feel free as a Black man. 

I am from the central foothills of North Carolina where the farmland undulates gently and produces animals that outnumber the people. It is mostly chicken and pig country. There, one hides how close their relationship to the outdoors may be. I peacocked (dressed brightly) to hide my tan. Others wouldn’t be so lucky to effectively hide; or would be so lucky as to be proud. It depended upon the space you held onto and on what type of land. Shining on industrial lands, the sun would brand exposed wrists, necks, heads and the workers’ hands, marking the labored time and accumulated grime. On recreational lands, the suntans revealed where bikini lines and goggle tans spanned — vacation badges honoring time leisurely spent. I lived on a farm, the son of a son of a sharecropping son from an almost interminable line of farmhands. I moved to New Hampshire with my family when I was 10 or 11.

I look up to the hills from whence my health comes; if you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough. 

Like me, maybe you’ve also lived with those two phrases running free in your head. Because my life, here in New Hampshire, has felt like being the ball between two paddles on a rigged pinball machine with these phrases buffeting what I decide and framing what I choose. Be grateful, keep looking up; be grateful, keep looking up; be grateful, keep looking up — it has become my mantra. I admit, it is a lot to carry sometimes — with a positive attitude, despite it all. Within the long stretches of lonely quiet mixed with anxious chaos and the ever-present sorrow, there’s — wham! — that damn paddle: “I look up to the hills . . . if you’re lucky enough. . .” There’s only two ways to escape this looping mental track for me: submission or futile resistance. 

So, I go outside, and I look up to find some damn hills.

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Ben and his partner, Elizabeth, out for a peaceful paddle
exploring the islands and shoreline of Squam Lake.

New Hampshire has long been known to attract people of all stripes. Its outdoors are resplendent in fall and intoxicating in spring; they can also offer alternating moments of pure ecstasy and terrifying sublimity during the winter. These emotions — of ecstasy and sublimity — can be simultaneously present here in the outdoors. Yet, to me, the summers of New Hampshire are the closest I’ll ever get to heaven. You see, it was heaven that brought me here. Well, at least the idea of it.

It was a late summer day when we finally arrived from North Carolina. I will never forget what the air felt like as I elbowed my brothers to be the first to step onto our driveway and gawk up at our house: white with black windows, a split-level ranch, perched on top of the sloping hillside, across the street from the lake. “It feels like the perfect temperature,” I said with all my young earnestness. I began to feel part of the continuing New Hampshire saga, another family of transplants arriving full of ambition and dreams.

Almost 30 years later, my family remains here. This place gets in your bones. It makes other places seem foreign. It’s like the air is charged with restless ions that make relaxing seem improbable. I live 25 minutes from the mountains, and an hour and a half from the coast. I live surrounded by lakes, hedged by three rivers and bordered by national forests. Bears, moose, deer, rabbits, foxes, moles, voles, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, coyotes, raccoons, porcupines, skunks and whole hosts of birds share the woods with my family. On early warm summer nights, you can find my daughter and me hunting with a single flashlight for frogs and toads to name, ID and classify. She’s only eight but already has a naturalist’s eye.  

I teach high school kids humanities but have always been an outdoor enthusiast. I learned to paddle lakes here and master the “j” stroke. I found my haunts during hikes. The Pemigewasset’s wilderness trails are like love-lines across my palms and have become maps to pockets of joy. And, by God, there’s a shortness of joy these days.  

It was May when I started planning this article — and now October’s vista has replaced the neon, vermillion and other shades of green, making my scene toned with an impressionist’s flair, something like Manet’s. Stately stanchions of evergreens still represent the greenery; but now, the hillsides flicker like flames colored with the yellows, the oranges, the pinks and fiery reds, all according to Nature’s diverse plan.

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Late fall harvesting in the garden, Ben and Elizabeth fill up baskets of carrots and tomatillos.

There was a time when going outside like this to mark the seasons — or even staying inside while the seasons passed by my window — was vital for me, essential for my safety. There was a time when I was taught to be afraid of having any relationship with the outside. I hid my tan skin and wished my time spent in the sun would only make it lighter. It wasn’t that long ago when I was sternly told to stay inside — “if I knew what was good.” In some places today, this sentiment remains true, especially for Black boys, Black men, Black people, like me.

I’ve grown up and moved away from those places, but that world still follows me, clinging to the forgotten caverns of my brain like some repressed mantra. There is a pervasive attitude that I carry because I knew it was true, then, and I know it’s sometimes still true, today: There are places outside unsafe for anyone Black, like me.  

Most of my childhood development happened or was noted by steps I took outside. I was the oldest boy in a family of six; my younger siblings shadowed me and, for a time, my older sister dogged my every step. But it wasn’t just because of my siblings that I felt a bond outside. 

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Ben Bacote with his gear ready for another winter of snowboarding.

At school, at work, out on the town, I noticed that eyes watched — and they recorded. I couldn’t find escape in the streets, but time got easily lost in the woods. I never lost my footing in the fields, my fleet feet fleecing time, turning moments into eternities. But that rupture of the temporal, when time and space, in dual constant flow, rippled and spiked, and a neuron was coded creating a record, creating memories to be ticked backward and forward, backward and forward, in times of reflection like these, and then back again.

It’s silent around me now but for the breeze; and even the breeze seems to blow gentle, warm, knowing I’m alone.

I’m outside, and the angle of the sunlight grants me knowledge of the time, while the pen’s shadow leads my hand left to right. The sun still throws warm punches through dappling leaves, a punch that weakens daily as winter approaches. I’m excited for winter; it’s a mixture of elation and dread — part childhood wonder, part learned adult angst. As for now, today, only an airplane’s contrail mars an otherwise perfect blue-bird day. Aster’s lavender and pale purple catch my eye, complementing goldenrod yellows. Changing raspberry bramble leaves color the ground.

It is as if each color, each splendor of nature’s complex quilt, cries to the shadow of the pen in my hand, insistent for its song to be sung. What is here in this open space that can be synthesized from my head to my hand? Can I truly capture it? Grasp its phonemes and command its language, trust that its essence can be delivered from my pen? I feel it calling me, sometimes, in quiet, to try and relate its plan. Whatever sickness that started this obsession must have happened to me when I was young.

My first official job was at Ragged Mountain. I was 15 teaching snowboarding lessons to mostly full-grown men. The skiing legend Dan Egan hired me. He would later hire me again, and it seemed like déjà vu to be teaching snowboarding for him four years later, this time at Tenney Mountain. For 19 winters since, I have been riding at Waterville Valley, more recently including my partner and three children. What started as perhaps novelty — a Black kid strapping his lead foot in — became, in time, a family tradition. It was here, in New Hampshire, that I was the snake’s head slithering down the slopes, leading mostly other races of men. Only later was it to become my career. Today I mainly work with other races of youth to draw their understanding of the humanities to intertwine with their passions. I work with teenage winter athletes, and together, we get to live, learn and play in outdoor spaces, mastering some of the pathways to understanding ourselves and our sport, in harmony.

I remember that first time I saw someone who looked like me outside, simply outside, succeeding in a recreational space. I found it odd that, like me, he seemed to harness joy in the outdoors even as others found it peculiar. I was watching snowboarding on TV. It was in the basement of the home I shared with my parents in the ’90s, with black windows and white siding, across the street from Lake Sunapee. The rider was Black, like me. In competition he landed a double backflip. It might seem insignificant, but I believe seeing yourself reflected in success stories is absolutely crucial.

Restoring our Personal and Communal Connections to Nature: Mardi Fuller

To better illustrate this point, I went and found a familiar face, Mardi Fuller, to help me. As an essential configuration of New Hampshire’s values and diverse society, the stories — and outdoor experiences — of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) must be told. Stories like mine and stories like Mardi Fuller’s are threads that coil into our state’s tapestry; they strengthen the connective tissue that grounds our diverse experiences and expectations of the natural world and, in turn, help preserve New Hampshire’s outdoors. Without different voices telling their stories, the tendency to do the same traditional “thing” will always be what is — and will be perpetually rewarded, both materially and financially. I sought out Fuller to tell part of her New Hampshire story, not only because it is linked to mine but because it corresponds with all stories told of the outdoors. The joy Fuller finds in nature coalesces with my joy and yours, here, to share in and enjoy.

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Mardi Fuller looks back toward her hiking partners along the trail to the summit of Mount Osceola.

Like me, Mardi Fuller was also a transplant to New Hampshire. Her parents immigrated to New York from Jamaica and there, outside New York City, she had her little patch of green. Both her parents, having left their natural and comfortable “outside” in Jamaica, with livestock and crops that felt familiar to them, knew what they wanted for themselves — and for Fuller — here: a little patch of green. It wasn’t until backpacking through the Green Mountains of Vermont during her college years that hiking in New Hampshire inspired her.

Fuller has long been intimate with the “formal categorification of outdoor activities, the branding and the selling,” as she says, adding, “Walking in the woods got turned into hiking and backpacking.” And when a grizzled AMC caretaker in Vermont advised her to check out the White Mountains, the idea stuck.

“I think they were referring to the amount of terrain that we have above tree line,” Fuller says, “and the relatively high peaks — at least East Coast-high — and peaks of prominence compared to the number in Vermont. I don’t really believe in comparing beauty that way, but I knew it was a place I wanted to see.” That planted seed was tended carefully until germinating during an overnight on Mount Liberty in October of 2004. Just below the summit, and in sight of the Presidential Range, the idea rooted firmly; Fuller knew she would be back to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and would need to experience them during the starkness of winter. Still, now, that feeling keeps her coming back.   

Walking in the wild winter backcountry is not traditionally where Black people find enjoyment. I had to ask her: Why winter?

“I’ve always loved winter,” Fuller says. “Snow is my favorite weather. And I think there’s some residual nostalgia of childhood and getting to have a snow day to play, sled, make snow people, drink hot chocolate, hang out with the neighbors — all of it. I remember when someone put the idea in my head about winter hikes. I loved the challenge of being in the backcountry far away from roads and cities, having that experience of myself as nature.”  

“I am a very busy person,” she continues. “A multitasker; I have a lot of relationships and I’m always on my phone. I have trouble slowing down, and I really need the rhythm of walking and the simplicity of being away from devices and modernity to feel my feelings and know myself. I have a hard time even focusing to do my work. Just being in the woods and moving in a rhythmic way helps me slow my mind down, simplify and rest.”

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Fuller and friends get close to finishing off another 4,000-foot peak in the winter at Mount Osceola.

The direct delights in observing the intricacies of nature are an essential part of her creative process. “I feel really inspired by natural processes that I observe,” Fuller says. “I love colors and flowers and mushrooms — these expressions of nature that feel improbable — like alpine flowers, cryptobiotic soil, rime ice. They help spark my creativity in ways that sitting at my computer cannot. I can’t always identify how it happens, but when I’m outside I feel like I can let go and be at peace, which allows the creative space.”

Fuller is bold — bolder than me. She completed all 48 of the 4,000-foot peaks here in New Hampshire during the winter. But rather than her physical accomplishments, it’s how she calls out the white supremacy baked into outdoor recreation that makes her truly bold. Specifically, the way the outdoors have been “mediated for Black people, and for all people of color, furthering white supremacy ideologies,” she says.

To her point, unconventional joy can be found in learning the names of ordinary things. In tropical environments, her father can name the common plants, explaining their uses and where they’re found. 

“I don’t know the names of many of the plants here,” Fuller says. “I’m still learning so much. We’re cut off from this land because of how the country treated Indigenous people. We lost or erased an abundance of knowledge and injured the land egregiously. We toxified the land in so many ways that something as simple as my lack of knowledge of the vegetation is not a priority to the education system. That connection is broken, and I’m trying to personally and communally restore it. 

“I grieve for the disjointedness the Black community experiences in our connection to nature. I hope, in the future, we can self-determine what our culture and expression look like in outdoor recreation, rather than having to be approved by white gatekeepers.”

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On her second-to-last 4,000-footer, Fuller and friends head from Thunderstorm Junction to the summit of Mount Adams.

It’s not always easy, but I hope my tale, and my adventures in the outdoors, are messages of warm winds: a love story told to tend and mend this space we all share whenever we tackle a winter adventure, or observe raspberry brambles on a mercurial fall day — or simply step outside, hoping to clear our heads. Meanwhile, I look up to the hills from whence my health comes; and if you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.

Categories: People, Winter Sports