FORT LAUDERDALE — Frank and Audrey Peterman decided years ago that they would relocate from South Florida to Belize and purchase a bed and breakfast.
But before moving, they planned to visit the Central American country to scope potential business prospects. On their last day, Frank, over a beer with one of the locals, began to discuss cowboy movies and their typical setting in the badlands.
“What do the badlands look like?” the local asked Frank.
“When Frank said that he didn’t know,” Audrey said, “he then asked about the Grand Canyon, and again, Frank had no answer.”
According to the Jamaican-born Audrey, when Frank returned home, he announced that they would not leave the U.S. to live anywhere else because “we haven’t seen enough of our own country. I said, “Sign me up!” and that’s how it all started.”
In 1995, the Petermans embarked on a 10-week 12,000-mile journey across the United States, visiting 14 national parks from Acadia in Maine to Olympic National Park in Washington State.
The couple, who moved from Plantation Acres to Atlanta in 2003, shared stories from their trip at a book signing on Wednesday, Jan. 6 at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale.
The Petermans’ book, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, journals the couple’s travel experiences and historical discoveries.
To date, the couple has visited 153 of the country’s 392 national parks.
“The natural formations in national parks are mind boggling,” Frank said. “You are literally seeing the face of God.”
The couple moved to Atlanta when Frank accepted the position of southeast regional director of The Wilderness Society, a longtime advocate of wilderness protection. He serves as the director of public and political awareness for the organization’s Eastern Forest Program, and leads many initiatives that are geared to increase the involvement of the racially diverse public.
Audrey described the first trip as “a tremendous adventure” and likened entering Acadia National Park to “driving into a painting.”
The trip, Audrey said, cost the couple about $3,000.
Before the trip, the couple admitted, neither had ever gone camping.
“Many of our friends thought we were crazy,” Audrey said. “Several brought Frank guns and said, ‘You are black, and black people don’t like the woods. And white people won’t like you either.””
But Frank, who was born in Alabama and raised in Georgia, said he was comfortable in the woods.
“We liked sleeping on the ground,” he said. “And as far as safety goes, well, you just don’t eat a rib sandwich if you know there are bears nearby.”
Audrey added that, “You don’t have to rough it. Most parks have hotels on the grounds and others have them very close by.”
When the couple reached Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, they realized there were no other people of color on the grounds.
“There were no blacks, Latinos or even American Indians, and we decided to do something about that,” Audrey said. “National parks are simply beautiful places; something set aside for all Americans to get to know.”
In 1995, the Petermans began publishing Pickup & GO!, a quarterly publication that provides information about national parks, showcasing them as inviting and affordable destinations for African Americans.
When Audrey visits black schools and asks the children about their favorite park, she said that some of the children may mention a nearby city park.
But when visiting a white school, she said, “I can ask the same question, and hands will go up and we end up really having a great discussion.
“That too is something that needs to change,” she said.
Melissa Brown, who attended Wednesday’s book reading and signing event, said she has what she described as “a horrible fear” of visiting any national park or forest area.
“It’s the feeling of not enough security,” she explained, “of being harassed or hurt by whites who don’t want to see me or my children there.”
Brown shared that her 8-year-old son saw a TV program about the Everglades. “Fascinated with alligators, he asked if we could go, and I said ‘no’ without hesitating.”
After hearing the Petermans talk, Brown said, and learning more about places she “really want my child to see, I’ll consider the group trip.”
Frank shared that neither he nor Audrey has ever been harmed or attacked in any national park.
“We go and see beautiful places,” he said, “and the people are friendly.”
In an effort to connect visitors to the national parks, the Petermans, through their organization, Earthwise Productions, Inc., organizes group trips to both national and local parks.
Earthwise’s mission is to increase awareness and involvement in safeguarding the environment, specifically among underrepresented segments of America’s culturally diverse population.
“We attract families and seniors; blacks and whites, and visit places like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park,” Audrey said. “And by the end of the trip, the group bonds like one family.”
The Annual March for Parks, sponsored by the South Florida Community Partners, enables the couple to expose people from urban areas to Florida’s parks.
“It’s the best way to get started,” Audrey said, “and it’s free.”
For more information about the Petermans’ group trips to parks or to order a copy of Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, visit http://www.pickupandgo.net. For information on the Annual March for Parks, e-mail Audrey@legacyontheland.com.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Frank and Audrey Peterman pose Jan. 6 at the Broward Main Library in Fort Lauderdale at the reading and signing event for their new book.