It’s a Thursday afternoon, and I’m hunched over my desk at work, squinting at my computer screen, trying to remember what I need to do before the day ends. I open up one of my Gmail accounts, and before I mass delete everything in the “Promotions” section of the inbox, a subject line catches my eye from an online outdoor enthusiast community I subscribe to, “2017: The Year of the Outdoor Woman.”
I click through and see a photo at the top, a group of blonde white women with backpacks on, huddled on a ledge, overlooking a river that snakes through a canyon. “Damn,” I think. “Not a single brown face in there.” I sigh deeply and continue reading the email.
I consider myself an outdoor woman, and even though I rarely see myself represented in outdoor culture, I still believe I belong in it. I keep scrolling through the email as there is a generous gear giveaway reeling me in. Free gear. As any outdoor enthusiast knows, that shit ain’t cheap.
I started hiking seriously five years ago. Anything that happened before that just wasn’t serious. Jaunts through Griffith Park and Elysian Hills in my hometown of Los Angeles were more like leisurely walks. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, five years ago, I wanted to be a serious, rugged hiker and outdoors person. It was an identity I wanted to immerse myself in that I just couldn’t do back home in L.A. Although California boasts some of the most gorgeous natural landscapes on the West Coast, getting to them usually involves a traffic-ridden haul on several freeways. In Portland, I’d be able to wear Chacos in the summer and neon-colored Patagonia puffers in the winter. From certain spots in the city, I’d see a snow-covered mountain all year long. I knew I could hike every weekend without having to drive super far and sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I bought my first pair of hundred dollar hiking boots a few days after I arrived in town.
At that moment, at the top of Lookout, seeing all these mountains in states far away from where I was standing, I felt like I had accomplished something big, something new and powerful.
During the rest of that first summer in the Pacific Northwest, I broke in those boots. First, I hiked to the top of Lookout Mountain—the second highest peak in the Mount Hood National Forest—where there’s a breathtaking view of the tops of Mount Bachelor, Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and the Three Sisters all at once on a clear day. All of these mountains are in the Cascade Range, one of the West Coast’s most notable mountain ranges. The Cascades extend 700 miles and include mountains in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia. At that moment, at the top of Lookout, seeing all these mountains in states far away from where I was standing, I felt like I had accomplished something big, something new and powerful.
I tried all the popular hikes in the Columbia River Gorge, squeezing past head-to-toe-Nike crews and families with kids. I bought all of the books by Oregon hiking guru William L. Sullivan and looked for steeper, more unpopular hikes with higher elevations nearing the 6,000–7,000 foot range, like Black Butte in central Oregon. I ventured out to the hills of eastern Oregon, and to the Oregon Coast where the top of Neahkahnie Mountain puts you in the clouds and gives you a view of the crescent-shaped coastline.
Living in Portland made it easy to indulge in microbrews, happy hours, and rich comfort foods. Hiking made it easy to burn it all off and feel clean again. I never thought about the color of my skin, or my hair, or the shape of my nose when I was out hiking and camping. Passing through eastern Oregon and heading into the high-desert towns to camp along the John Day River, I held my head high when it was time to stop and get out of the car. I never felt threatened, but instead, proud.
I feel an energy that is coming from women of color who are hungry to be outside, breathe fresh air, and clear their minds of the world’s noise. They’re here, and they’re moving here.
When you’re out in the wilderness, and the closest town has one grocery store, one gas station, one restaurant, and a population that may have lived there their entire lives, you wonder more about them and less about how they perceive you. At least I did, and I think that’s how I was able to confidently camp and hike in rural and rugged areas where women of color are rarely seen. The more hikes I went on and the more nights spent camping, the more confident I felt going into these towns.
Although I established my own sense of confidence and self in the outdoors, I still yearned for more. On many of these trips and experiences, it was usually just me and one other girlfriend or boyfriend. I didn’t have the outdoor community I longed for. I haven’t really found a community of other women to hike with, but the deeper the connections I make in Portland, I can feel one beginning to form. I want to find other women who look like me—curly-haired, brown-skinned Latinas—to camp and hike with me. As I form new friendships, I am learning I’m not alone in this wish. I see and talk to women of color here that are curious about hiking and making the outdoor terrain their home for a full week. I feel an energy that is coming from women of color who are hungry to be outside, breathe fresh air, and clear their minds of the world’s noise. They’re here, and they’re moving here.
I think maybe there’s hope for me yet, back at my work desk as I keep reading through the email about 2017 being the “Year of the Outdoor Woman.” My version of the “outdoor woman” doesn’t look like what I’m seeing on my computer screen, but I know that’s changing. I know I’ll find a group of curly-haired brown girls to hike with, and we can all bitch about how wack our hair looks when we hike, what spots we’ve camped at and which we’re dying to check out, how much we love our hiking boots, and how much we love being outdoors in nature.