In the winter of 1993 I purchased three books. One changed my life forever. More than 20 years later just as I returned home from my latest series of talks and lectures based on a book of my own I sat in a coffee shop across the table from the author of the third title who may have most directly influenced my desire to become a writer. At the very least Eddy Harris was for me a role model who helped me to define my place in the world as a modern black man in search of adventure. And as we talked together as unequal peers, sharing our aspirations for the future I seemed to find that my life had come full circle.
It was my first season as a sales rep in the Midwest territory working for The North Face. I was 25 years old, an aspiring athlete, a reluctant scholar and eager to see the world. I had never lived anywhere outside of my home state of California. But here I found myself in Madison Wisconsin, all alone tasked with managing almost 200 wholesale accounts across six states of the western plains, an area roughly the size of the Louisiana Purchase. My sales manager was a seasoned road warrior of many years in the outdoor industry by the name of Michael Burns. With more confidence in my abilities than I deserved he sent me out in to wilds of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois with little more than my wits, charm and a smile. He believed in on-the-job training, trial by fire.
“Get yourself a place to live, a reliable car and a fax machine,” Mike advised in our final meeting at the Berkeley office of The North Face. “You’ll need a Day-Timer, all six Rand McNally road atlases, a book on marketing and a book on merchandizing. You should also read South of Haunted Dreams by Eddy Harris.”
Each of Mike’s recommendations made perfect sense except for the last. Two weeks later I found a perfect second story apartment with a heated garage. I leased a new Ford Explorer and had it installed with a mobile telephone. In the days before wireless communications it was hardwired into the center console. I purchased a fax machine that accommodated an extra large role of paper with an anti-curling feature. And I bought a leather bound Day-Timer my initials J-E-M stamped on the cover in gold letters. The books I found at Barns & Noble.
The first two were titled simply, one Marketing and the other Merchandizing. Part of a series I believe they were written by the same author. I recall they had almost identical covers that may just as well have read “…for dummies”. But the third I found in the memoir aisle its sepia toned cover facing out. The image depicted the spoked wheel of a motorcycle and a stretch of asphalt highway fading off into the distance. In an instant I recognized it as a travel narrative and as I read the title I immediate suspected Mike’s purpose in this particular recommendation.
In the opening pages the prose drew me in with a style and tone that struck my very soul. Despite my privileged upbringing and my parents’ best efforts to protect me from the racial oppression of mind or spirit I was amazed by how easily I could related to the author’s experience. As a descendent of slaves in the continuing struggle of post reconstruction America I could imagine myself enduring similar circumstances.
“I have crossed into the South,” Harris wrote on page one. “Instinctively my hand locks tighter around the grip of my motorcycle and twists open the throttle. The engine roars. The bike -a blue BMW- quickens. I hold on tight…These many years later, the South still owns my nightmares and haunts my memory. Like links in the heavy chains dragged by ghosts, the images form one by one and rattle around me, weighing me down, terrifying me…The knife edge of terror would slice into the backbone of even the bravest black man, as indeed now it slices into mine.”
As I stood there reading in the aisle the words and imagery sent a chill down my spine. In that moment I was certain that Mike had recommended this book as a cautionary tale. As the first African-American sales representative ever hired by the North Face I believe he aimed to inform how I might begin my career in an industry and a part of the country where I would likely find myself alone to confront the disparities of race that even today plaque our society and culture. Though the communities of Iowa and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan certainly didn’t have the violently charged and divisive racial history of the South I suspect that Mike wanted me to read this story so that I might learn from Harris to confront my fears and venture into the unknown.
Through his experiences I would come realize that I cannot allow my apprehensions of how I might be treated by strangers to prevent me from traveling to and visiting anyplace in the world where I have every right be. From Harris I had also learned that I would find kindness and compassion where I might least expect it. And I came to understand that if like him I were to carry myself with confidence, grace and style I could shatter many of the barriers that might stand in my way. Thanks to this book and Harris as my role model I enjoyed many years on the road without fear. Today many of the wonderful people I have met as colleagues and customers in the outdoor industry are my life-long friends.
Now looking back after a two-decade career of travel and adventure I have much to be thankful for from Harris. Just as he had inspired me, through my work as writer I have taken it upon myself to encourage others to follow our respective examples. Introduced by a common acquaintance we arranged to meet as our paths happen to cross while he was in Madison conducting research at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Sitting across from him as we chatted over coffee I was delighted to hear that he is working on not only a new book project but a feature documentary film. This 21st century narrative details his latest experiences following the path of the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota all the way to New Orleans Louisiana where it meets the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Retracing a trip he had taken 25 years ago in his first book Mississippi Solo Harris had once again paddled alone in an open canoe along one of the great waterways of this continent and into the beating heart of America.
“It has been said that if you want to know and understand this country,” Harris says in a film clip, “its beginnings and divisions, its powers economic and cultural, its history and its glory, and its ability to transform itself and in fact its entire story, its racism and its resilience and all its potentials then you must come to this river and know it as I have done and as I am doing again.”
On a course parallel to my own work reporting on the restoration of urban rivers across the United States I am pleased to find that Harris and I now share a common mission. Through the power of storytelling today as colleagues we are both dedicated to revealing to the American people the glorious, though often flawed, legacy of our past and the necessity to learn from our mistake so that we might create a more promising future, no longer haunted by fearful dreams of the South, the Midwest or otherwise. While traveling by motorcycle or canoe, by bicycle or on foot across the many pathways of this great nation each of us must come to realize that we are not alone.
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