“Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”
Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns moved me in ways few books have. Reading Caste, her second book, was a different but no less profound experience. While the former was about the past, albeit a past that is all too resonant, Caste is a challenge to the present and the future. She challenges all of us to find stark parallels between the racial caste of the United States with the grave injustice of India’s historical caste system and the systematized anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. While I originally raised an eyebrow from an amateur social science perspective at some of the parallels she draws and how she choose these two specific examples to pair with the United States, it didn’t take more than a couple chapters for me to go, “I get it.”
This is more than just a work of non-fiction and it’s more than a challenge. Wilkerson’s message is transcendent. Her writing is lyrical and it is penetrating. It has the force of music. It is a tone poem weaving the melody of fact with the harmony of analysis; with the chords of social imperatives and the syncopation of structural racism. The vivid notes of her own life strike the reader as profoundly as the resounding gong clash of the historical references she employs.
One such reference stands out with such profundity that I ended up slowly coming to my feet while reading it. Once I came to, I remember looking around the room with revulsion. With intimate, in-the-room detail she recounts Nazi Germany efforts to study and incorporate legalized Jim Crow racism into mid-30s anti-Semitic laws. Most harrowing were the pieces of American racism too extreme for Nazi Germany. This is a good example of historical record somewhat known and previously published that Wilkerson expertly wends into her overarching narrative with precision.
This is a necessary work at a necessary time. There is appropriate destiny in its release after the onslaught of racially cruel COVID-19 and the resounding call for equality and equity unleashed following the murder of George Floyd. She had already been researching and writing for several years, admittedly against the backdrop of the race-baiting, dog-whistle blowing recent U.S. politics. Her attention to detail and her power of the English language serves not just her but everyone who experiences her writing and thoughts well. This is a book that is far from a rehash of well-known anecdotes and critical race theory. It is fresh. It is grounded. And it is important.
If you are reading this and find your hackles raising in internal defensiveness, I suggest you examine that closely. I greatly appreciate that Wilkerson gives us new vocabulary to confront an old evil. She even deftly discusses the use of the word “racism” itself, noting that it does not serve society as a lobbed end to a conversation or career but rather the basis to start talking and delving deeper to actually effect change. I get all too well how awkward and daunting it is to read, confront, and discuss racism from any demographic perspective — personally as a white cis heterosexual eldest child middle class male. But I sure as hell also know it’s much worse for those who are defined by it against their will. This is on all of us. Reading is the least we can do.
Warning: This post requires some knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying to understand its myriad references.
I can’t remember the exact year. Probably 1993. I do remember the basements, however. Plural. We were forced into multiple dark corners for this particular hobby, it being the time when some parents still worried that we were enacting satanic rituals. These were the places where epic fantasy came alive and we got to star in it. It probably goes without saying that we were all fantasy nerds back then. In those days it was a steady diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan. George R. R. Martin came along for us a little later. I distinctly remember trying to hide a copy of Game of Thrones under my jacket in the high school hallway so my junior prom date wouldn’t see it in passing as she walked past my locker. Lord, I wish I could tell 17 year old me that in 20 years it would be the coolest damn thing around.
Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying brought the epic fantasy we read to life. Several of us dabbled in creative writing and being DM (Dungeon Master — the story architect and rules tsar who runs the game for their friends, a role that is both inspired and confrontational) but in those days it was our buddy Brian who had the mind to make it all work. We still remember those early player characters fondly. Heck, Brian revived them as ancient heroes in a current campaign he has run for over five years. I can say that the wild mage I played then, who had a penchant for using a Wand of Wonder to create elephants out of thin air ten feet above adversaries, still rankles him as a rule loop hole. (You should never have given me that wand, Brian.)
Part of the fun back then was that there were a couple rule books and maybe an adventure setting guide or two to build off of, that’s it. No internet to search and double check rule debates. No Reddit to get lost in the weeds. No Twitter to directly ask the game developer what they had in mind for a certain spell. We were left with our imaginations and the need to argue out any rule differences ourselves. 60 foot Fireballs and katanas that could attack six-times a round were a memorable result. As for those books, it turned out acquiring them was an adventure itself. In a memorable moment, Brian and I fell $1 short (taxes!) when buying our first Player’s Handbook and resorted to begging strangers for a buck in the mall. It worked, though I remember the benevolent donor following us back to Waldenbooks to make sure we really did intend to spend it on a book. (You can say we made our Persuasion check.)
Fast forward 20 years to 2015. The old crew was now in our mid-thirties. We had outgrown Dungeons and Dragons around the time Bill Clinton was reelected. But a new, fifth edition of D&D had just been developed and released by Wizards of the Coast. Fantasy, thanks to Hollywood, was cool in a mainstream way we had never seen before. All of a sudden, folks of our age cohort were playing again. Not just the nerds this time, either. Spouses, significant others of all stripes, and straight-laced acquaintances joined ad hoc groups of old school gamers. DMs were recruited or anointed. Recurring game nights became standard. And for those of you who don’t really comprehend what I’m talking about, this is a commitment. Most games last months if not years. Some are weekly game nights, others monthly or even less frequently — though usually hours long each time. All involve the unique backstory and particulars invented by the player of a character created who joins with others in a quest that sees them grow from a newbie adventurer to a world-conquering hero — or anti-hero, as murder hobos go. It is collective story telling and requires all the “authors” to do this together. The stakes are trivial and monumental at the same time. Characters face death; their players are often heartbroken to have to create a new one after calamity strikes the campaign.
I personally went from not playing in decades to 1) playing a Human Barbarian with a group of DC UL Backpackers and friends; 2) DMing a monthly wine-infused Friday night campaign with a few couples whose nerd men taught their ladies the roleplaying ropes (with Jay and Colin added to the mix for good measure); and 3) playing — I kid you not — a saucy female Halfling Pirate/Fighter in a weekly group of “Ambassadork” men with female player characters we nicknamed the Spicy Girls (Sergio put up with some crazy stuff from us as DM; and Marcus, god bless him, brought us into his lovely home each week to host these antics; and Gary, god bless his soul, played with us as one of the last joys of his life before passing unexpectedly).
Over the years other groups came and went, including a memorable crew of wife/work friends/backpacking friends/HS friend/and cousin who joined me on a year plus campaign using Roll20, an online platform, when I moved to Haiti. A group emerged in Haiti itself, appropriately nicknamed “Dungeons and Voodoo.” A later group, DMed by Jerome, even allowed me to recreate my childhood wild mage as a sorcerer in the last in-person crew I was part of . . .
Which leads me to the crescendo of this story: roleplaying in 2020 and the COVID-19 era. What was already a mainstay in my life — and many others too according to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the USA Today — exploded as a virtual game night in households worldwide. I’ve never played more in my life, almost exclusively on Roll20. We couldn’t go out so we made the best of staying in.
My friend Jay leads a gallant weekly crew through the vampire horrors of the Curse of Strahd. He even got us up to 9th level already. My original crew of high school friends has joined up for not one but two regular weekly sessions. On Friday nights the OG early 90s crew gets together, Pete – a sharp witted lawyer – DMing, to take on a pirate-themed quest set amidst the Ghosts of Saltmarsh while we talk about wives, kids, work, and whatnot, and another midweek game night, Pete also DMing, involving a few extras, like my wife Cheryl, Pete’s sister Josie, and Justin’s friend Andrew. In one notable week both crews unrelatedly decided to take on — and lose dramatically — to two different dragons. We now know not to mess with Pete’s dragons.
Roleplaying is spontaneous. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s also acting and escapism. Most of all, it’s a great way to spend hours bonding with friends. What could be more necessary in 2020?
Hats off to the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. None of this would have happened without a well-crafted and balanced set of rules and background to create vivid player characters set amidst fantastical worlds. And it wouldn’t have worked as well virtually without Roll20 (and Pete’s Zoom account). But it definitely wouldn’t even be possible in the first place without great friends with creative minds.
You might ask how I accidentally ended up with a DC UL Backpacking crew. In this case, what started as a Purple Lizard map hike that I intended to do as yet another solo adventure in this time of socially distancing ended up being shared by email to a few backpacker pals just in case someone wanted to join me. The OG plan was to form a “pod” and car shuttle together for a point-to-point 50 mile trip along Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek gorge, the so-called Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Brian said, “Sure!” Sophie too. Michael and Jen were all of a sudden free for the weekend. Heck, Kylie and Karan decided to stop by to camp Friday night. Claudio planned to join for Saturday. Things went from solo to a pseudo-DC UL group outing in the blink of an eye. Turned out that Pine Creek Outfitters preferred to shuttle our cars for us — rather than physically transport us as hikers. This meant we could all ride up on our own, keep our distance in the woods, and not even risk proximity by cramming in a van together. We just needed to have faith our cars would magically be transported . . .
(Once I thought of “Accidentally DC UL” on the trail, I couldn’t get my Gen X ear worm of Counting Crows out of my head. You’re welcome.)
You might also ask what a Purple Lizard map hike is. The amazing folks of Purple Lizard stepped into the information void of the Mid-Atlantic by producing detailed trail maps, mostly of Pennsylvania and West Virginia so far. With exhaustive maps like this, it’s easier than ever to creatively link established trails and notable areas to form extended outings. The first such trip by me was our June “Mid-Stone Loop.” For this trip, I realized that the 10-mile Golden Eagle Trail could be connected to the 30-mile West Rim Trail by hiking 11 scenic miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail. Et voila, a Purple Lizard map hike. We joked about calling it the Eagle Pine Rim Trail. Trademark pending.
On Friday evening we made our way separately after work to a campsite Jen reserved near the Black Walnut Bottom camping area along Pine Creek. It was just a short drive from the Golden Eagle Trail parking area, where we would leave our cars for Pine Creek Outfitters to deliver north the next morning. Brian and I arrived late and randomly shared a beverage with a dad in the parking lot who happened to be biking past me as I offered a beer to Brian. (“I’ve had a few already but why not!” said Chris, our new friend.)
With the DC UL crew snoring already amongst the pines, Brian and I successfully roused Karan for a night cap before bedding down. Karan broke the news to us that he had recently suffered a freak shoulder injury and would not be able to do the whole trail with us, just the Golden Eagle loop in the morning.
We got up early and parked our cars with keys carefully left according to instructions negotiated with Pine Creek Outfitters. Claudio appeared after having driven overnight. In true Tarzan fashion, he had already made himself a full breakfast in the back of his pickup with a portable grill and shook off his two hours of sleep. He laughed when he saw me and realized I didn’t have any phone signal overnight. He had — now ironically — left me a stream of messages over whether or not he would make it. We all set off on the gorgeous Golden Eagle Trail, a ten mile loop known for being one of the best of its kind in Pennsylvania — thanks no doubt to views extending into the Pine Creek gorge. We met a day hiker who joined our group for the morning and encouraged her to become a DC UL regular. Sadly, after completing our ten miles it was time to say goodbye to Claudio, Kylie, Karan, and our new friend. But not after a beer together in the parking lot! Our cars had yet to be whisked off.
Jen, Michael, Sophie, Brian, and I started north on Pine Creek Rail Trail, a 62 mile former railroad along Pine Creek. Our 11 miles on it took us past lovely scenery, sandwiches at Wolfe’s General Store (where Kylie, Karan, and Claudio yet again stopped by for lunch), and the Cedar Run Inn. Bikers passed on with smiles every few minutes. Though 60 miles of flat terrain would be a bit much to backpack, sharing this short segment felt perfect. We like deep woods but we love Pennsylvania rustic hospitality. In the late afternoon we finished on the rail trail and hiked into the forest to camp for the evening and start the West Rim Trail the next morning. I grabbed some water from Pine Creek itself. Seemed appropriate to drink some of it if we were going to be either walking along it, staring at it from lofty heights, or otherwise experiencing its geological impact all weekend.
Our campsite was spacious beneath a thick grove of pines. Sophie had a bit of a shock, however, when she realized her tent poles had begun to snap. Jen and Brian helped her MacGyver a fix for the evening with some tape and a trekking pole. We got a little roaring fire going and enjoyed our whiskey supplies whilst catching up with each other. Come the morning, Sophie realized our fix had made things worse: her rain fly was now punctured. Expecting some rain for our final night on the trail (thanks to Cheryl, who relayed the weather report to me through my Garmin GPS satellite connection) we made notional plans for Sophie to sleep under Brian’s hammock tarp if we couldn’t patch her tent up.
The West Rim Trail, one of the jewels of Pennsylvania’s hiking crown, is a 30-mile point-to-point hike that follows the Pine Creek gorge. On a long holiday weekend in peak foliage season, we anticipated it would be crowded. It was. But by us starting it northbound on Sunday rather than Saturday with our unique itinerary, we both smiled at other southbound groups on the trail as we passed but otherwise still felt as if we had the place to ourselves. The only folks hiking our direction were a pair of day hikers who started at 7:00 a.m. with us and kept catching up with our crew when we took breaks. The five of us enjoyed grand vistas of autumn gold and orange. All of the red sugar maple leaves, unfortunately, had just fallen. I guess this is what was meant by “starting to fade.” The red forest floor was pleasant enough of a contrast.
At our mile 14 for the day, we regrouped at the Bradley Wales Picnic Area, a spot that promised a water pump and bathrooms. The two day hikers finished up behind us and were done for their day. When I walked up to the picnic area, Sophie was chatting with two other backpackers waiting for a ride. They had accidentally left their keys behind and needed a friend to come shuttle them. Despite their mistake, they were friendly and full of smiles as we hung out together and discussed living in Pennsylvania. Sophie informed me glumly that the water pump was locked. I was a little sad — even mad for a second. I thought it irresponsible for the forest service folks to lock a water pump during such a dry time of year in which water sources on the trail were few and far between. I walked over, noted the lock attached to a side pipe on the rusted pump, and then started to pump. Oh hey, it wasn’t actually locked after all! The pump itself, pulling water from 250 feet below (per the sign), was a doozy. My little arms weren’t quite up to the task on their own so I had to do a little jumping action to put my weight into it. The water was delicious.
Sophie decided to use the serendipitous meeting of the two backpackers waiting for keys to call an early end to her hike. She was worried about her shelter in the coming rain and would simply hail a ride and go back to her car to drive home. We said goodbye and the four of us finished out our final four miles for the day to camp at a high and dry vista site. I was now the only ground shelter of the group. I set up on a nice patch of moss. Michael, Jen, and Brian slung their hammocks in the trees. In no time, a fire was roaring again. Twilight fell in the lovely Pine Creek gorge. Sadly, our lengthy evening the night before had drained our whiskey reserves a little more than desired. Michael declared it “The Great Whiskey Shortage of 2020.” I felt personally responsible as the party member nicknamed Whiskey Fairy. Usually I bring a lot so folks can share. But in this time of social distancing I took half my normal amount and was unable to provide golden libations for our crew.
As Cheryl had accurately relayed through my Garmin, the rain started up in the middle of the night. Though threatened as Hurricane Delta remnants, all that reached northern Pennsylvania was a light drizzle. We packed up in a pleasant mist and enjoyed the clouds throughout our final 12 miles of the day. Near the end we had a little dance party at Barbara Rock.
We met a couple pairs of backpackers from DC on the final stretch. Turns out the DMV is well represented in the north woods! We finished out our hike with a road mile or so from the northern terminus of the West Rim Trail to Pine Creek Outfitters itself. We were relieved to see our cars right where they were supposed to be.
I would say that this was yet another Purple Lizard map hike for the win. I think all of us took turns perusing our maps during breaks and dreaming up other trail combinations in the area. The Mid State Trail, Black Forest Trail, and other notable day hikes are resplendent in greens and blues on the high quality map. We got a great lead from a local trail maintainer (hi Peter!) for a side trail to a little gem of a backcountry spot nicknamed “Little Italy” to inspire some future ideas. Next time, PA.
“Come on, come on Hike a little faster Come on, come on The world will follow after Come on, come on ‘Cause everybody’s after trails . . .”