I recently enjoyed my first run in about a month. The evening before, Good Shawnté set her alarm for an ungodly hour so as to avoid the worst of both a sudden heat wave and scores of fellow apartment-dwellers jonesing for some fresh air; that morning, Bad Shawnté slapped the snooze button five times.
By the time I hit the sidewalk, it was too hot to do much in the way of running. Instead, I cut a brisk pace through my neighborhood and wound into the hills of L.A.’s famed Griffith Park, where people could jog, walk, skip, cycle, twirl, or crawl to their heart’s content on a road that was temporarily closed to cars. Within a few minutes, however, I found myself annoyed: at the baking heat, at the mask stifling my breathing, at all of the people who were out that morning. Within a moment’s time, however, I recognized that—well, I was “the people.”
Truth is, we’re all feeling a little cooped up; stepping outside offers an opportunity to move a bit more freely for a while, if with caution. For some of us, these daily jaunts provide a chance to maintain our connection with the natural world; for others, this sudden urge for the great wide open might be the start of a brand new relationship with the outdoors. And this, I think, is an opportunity.
When I replay my admittedly embarrassing thoughts in that instant, it’s a reminder of how often I’ve witnessed social media posts, message board gripes, and real, live humans bemoaning the fact that “our” favorite trails, surf breaks, parks, campsites, crags, fishing holes, and beyond are getting too “crowded.” That other people have suddenly caught on to the magic, somehow tarnishing its allure, or at least, that sense of occupying your own private Idaho. But what if instead of pretending that we’re somehow rights holders to these wonderful places, we recognize the power in getting more people outdoors—and actually use our own experience for good?
As it’s long been with activities like hunting and fishing, I think that mentorship is key to getting more people outside, and doing so in a way that helps inspire, educate, and mitigate our impact on the land. I think back to my own childhood, spent in the less than Walden-esque confines of inner-city Milwaukee. That is, except for those occasions when I was able to bask in the pine-scented glory of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club’s Camp Whitcomb/Mason, located about forty minutes—and a world—away.
I can point to a lot of formative experiences from those summers: first time hiking, canoeing, camping, and—oh, lord—falling in love. But one of the most important memories I carry from that time is of my very first case of sewing-machine leg, my foot hammering against the plastic holds as I whispered a stream of expletives while frozen with fear halfway up the camp’s climbing wall.
It was my first summer as a counselor, and I wanted desperately to prove that I had the chops to accompany our campers on a weeklong “adventure” trip to Devil’s Lake State Park, where we’d haul ourselves up the real stuff. But I feared that I was in over my head, my mind scrolling back to the taunts spat out by disapproving suburban girls whenever my high school soccer team rolled up in our big yellow bus for that week’s match: You don’t belong here, ghetto girl.
Thankfully, my thoughts were interrupted by the calming voice of Woolly Bear, the counselor in charge of the ropes course, addressing me by my own goofy camp nickname: “You got this, Pokey. One hold at a time.” With his encouragement, not to mention extreme patience, I made it to the top—and I made it onto the coveted Devil’s Lake trip. It was my first time climbing on real rock, my first time mountain biking, my first time caving, my first time recognizing that not only did I really love all of this outdoor stuff, but also that I did belong in these places. And that maybe one day, I could be a Woolly Bear for someone else so that they could come to the same conclusion.
After that experience, I dreamt of becoming a park ranger, wearing a jaunty hat and taking people out on hikes to teach them all about bugs and trees and dirt. Instead, I became a school social worker, then a photographer’s assistant, and a non-profit manager, music licensor, and of course, writer. But I like to think that the spirit of Woolly Bear lives on in the way I choose to devote some of my precious time outdoors to helping others along their own path.
I’ve spent the last six years volunteering to teach an outdoor skills class called the Wilderness Travel Course. Leading up to the eve of the first class during every one of those six years, it’s easy to forget just how time-consuming it is to create lesson plans, teach evening classes, and accompany our students into the backcountry. But then I receive calls and emails, photos and notes from past students who’ve gone on to take their own friends and family members outdoors. Who’ve become more proactive in considering their impacts on the land by falling in love with it in a hundred ways. Who’ve unlocked a part of themselves in the same beautiful places that have done the same for me.
I think about the time I spent preparing a curriculum, then devoting a full day to teaching a backpacking clinic for an organization called Women Who Hike. And then I think about the woman who was subsequently inspired to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail the following summer, and another who still regularly thanks me for the experience two years later. My mind wanders to the days I spent in Bend last fall, teaching outdoor skills at an AdventurUs Women retreat—and to the heart-bursting note I received earlier this year from one participant who said that she felt confident during an outdoor-related job interview because of the material I taught.
Far beyond the rigid confines of structured experiences, however, I feel at my most Wooly Bear-iest when confronted with the impact I’ve had on those I’m closest to in life. A few years back, I took one of my best friends, Brooke, to the Eastern Sierra for her first backpacking trip. I was more nervous than I’d ever been during any class I taught or trip that I led; her backpack didn’t fit well, we hadn’t acclimatized, the grade was fairly relentless, and the weather had downshifted as it does in early fall. I just hoped she’d find something out here that touched her soul, even the tiniest bit.
But then we turned a corner, Brooke in front, and the alpine revealed a glorious display—a sparkling lake surrounded by a fortress of multi-hued granite. When Brooke turned around to face me, tears brimmed in her eyes. “Now I understand why you love this so much,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” And that was all I needed to hear; that in sharing the wonder, I’d somehow doubled its power.