About two-and-a-half months before the deadline for her inspiring new coffee table book She Explores, Gale Straub’s editor, Rachel Hiles, reached out with a question. She’d been listening to Straub’s podcast (also called She Explores) and was riveted by the story of marathoner Sarah Attar, the first woman to run for Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. Hiles wanted to know if Attar lived in a van—a perfectly reasonable request if you know that Straub was commissioned to write a book about women pursuing nomadic lifestyles. When she answered that Attar didn’t live on the road, Hiles responded, “Oh, that’s a shame. Maybe we should expand the book.”
Straub is far more comfortable talking about Attar and other women featured in the book than she is talking about herself, but her story is also the story of She Explores. She grew up in tiny Barnstead, New Hampshire, a small town tucked between the White Mountains and the North Atlantic. Straub, her twin sister, and their brother shared a large backyard with the family’s chickens, sheep, and pigs, frequently stealing away to the barn to let their imaginations run wild.
“I think it’s why I’m so motivated to share other people’s stories, because I know how it feels to not have a lot of confidence or to be able to articulate what I need.”
Though they never ventured far from home, Straub recalls fond memories of family trips. There were long Sunday drives with her father, which always featured pit stops to visit local farms. “One of my favorite things was to go and sit in a sugar shack and just smell sap boiling into maple syrup,” she says. “They would give us a little taste and we’d run around with a sugar high.” And when she was older, hiking in the White Mountains. When Straub was in college, it became tradition to tick off the state’s four thousand foot peaks during her summer breaks.
After school, Straub landed an accountant gig at a venture capital firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also met her partner, Jon Gaffney, and in time, the two decided to explore the idea of living out of a 2004 Mercedes Sprinter van. Even though they spent over a year saving and planning, Straub still worried about telling her dad, thinking he might be disappointed in her choice to leave her job after he’d spent decades at his before retiring. But that wasn’t the case. “I felt really happy when he was supportive and proud of myself for speaking up, because that’s not always been my strong point,” she says. “I think it’s why I’m so motivated to share other people’s stories, because I know how it feels to not have a lot of confidence or to be able to articulate what I need.”
Before leaving home, Straub launched the original iteration of She Explores, a blog platform that invited women to share their stories of outdoor connection. One of the site’s earliest features was called Women on the Road, which has since morphed into a separate podcast of the same name hosted by Laura Hughes. Straub originally designed the segment as a way to glean tips from other women who lived nomadically—especially those who did so with a partner.
Straub and Gaffney spent a year traveling around the country on what they now refer to as “The Trip.” They visited a slew of national parks, including Yosemite, where Gaffney acquired such a nasty case of poison oak that they needed to leave the park so he could get shot up with steroids. They hiked Oregon’s 10,358’ South Sister, more than twice as tall as the peaks Straub used to climb with her family back on the east coast. And she marked her first Thanksgiving away from home as the couple decamped to BLM land in the Mojave desert, trading turkey for a “really cheap steak” seared on a camp stove propped in the dirt.
Since that year in the van, Straub has gone on to expand her connection to the outdoors (Gaffney’s been trying to nudge her into trying some winter bodysurfing), something she attributes less to her own experiences than to listening to—and being inspired by—those of others. It’s no surprise given that over the past few years she’s interviewed over 300 women for her podcast (including this writer, who talked literature and storytelling with mountain guide Charlotte Austin in Episode 56), and shared stories from hundreds more through her website. When her editor rang, then, Straub was more than happy to switch directions and broaden the focus of She Explores.
The only problem? Choosing just forty women to highlight. While there are many familiar faces splashed across its pages, Straub didn’t want a book that was only full of people who were “Insta-famous;” she also wanted to represent lesser-known women who illustrate the diverse range of experiences that women have outdoors. Pulling cues from her accounting days, she drew up a spreadsheet, stuffed it with names, then began the work of whittling it down. The result is a mixture of intimate first-person narratives, gorgeous photos, and captivating artwork, an especially aesthetic blend of inspiration and aspiration.
There’s plein air painter and park ranger MaryEllen Hackett, who considers the scale of her small paintings—and herself—in the greater landscape. Skier Kristen Ales explores the way time outdoors helps mitigate her experience with an eating disorder. The Musical Mountaineers—Anastasia Allison and Rose Freeman—share the delicious magic of scheduling alpine starts so they can haul instruments across the Cascades to perform sunrise concerts for the wind and the trees.
Even though the book is divided into categories—Creatives, Enthusiasts, Nomads, and beyond—there’s a fluidity here, a reminder that none of us is confined to any single box we might easily fit. Motorcyclist Amanda Zito documents the experience of other female bikers with her drawings. Vanlifer Morgan Brown carves out time on the road to record people’s thoughts on death and dying. Runner and archaeologist Ashleigh Thompson uses her camera almost as a form of meditation to ground herself in the present.
While the stories in She Explores are told by women, anyone can take away its greater message—that “adventure” comes in many forms, and that there’s no one way to define that experience. “I hope people walk away with a bit of motivation to try something that’s a little bit outside their comfort zone,” says Straub. “Something that’s going to make them have a deeper relationship with nature and the outdoors—and ideally themselves.”
You can purchase a copy of She Explores here.