Trails for everyone, forever
In a period of turmoil, time outdoors was both respite and reawakening | by shon't savage
My computer stared at me blankly.. The question on its screen was simple: “Anyone want to go on a hike this weekend? I’m thinking Otter Falls.” In half the time it took to process this ask, I typed, “YES! I WILL GO!” In a cry of absolute desperation, I surrendered to the impulsiveness of my response.
At the time, I was in the midst of turmoil from a failed marriage, everyday work stresses and the challenge of parenting a 3-year-old. It had all rendered me depleted. I was desolate and pathetic in the churn of despair, needing some form of respite. My paradigm for normalcy was gone, vanished with the “’till death do us part” portion of my wedding vows.
Despite my lack of hiking experience or knowledge, the inquiry — posed by my dear friend Onion — jarred my spirit alert. Little did I know the resolve awaiting me on the other side of this journey. The sense of adventure, the peace prancing gleefully through my mind, the exhilaration of being in my body, regaining awareness of its strength and abilities, the overstated beauty of the trail: Everything rejuvenated and peppered color back into my bereft life. As it does for so many others, the outdoors awakened — or dare I say, reawakened — my connection with nature and rebridged the connection to myself. But what sustainable reasons could justify spending more time outdoors, especially in the context of other life responsibilities and motherhood?
Flashback to November 2006 when I learned of my pregnancy. I made two promises to myself. The first, that motherhood would represent one self-identity in a repertoire of others. The second, to gift my son a blueprint for living a passionate life through my example. In order to fulfill both, I knew I must somehow maintain a measured sense of self, direction and purpose. Nothing and no one would interfere with this balance, but such is the case in only the most idealistic situations.
Shifting with the direction of my then-husband’s needs, I blindly fused my identity to the essence of his. All elements of my assured self were lost, a proverbial mistake made by the best of us, even those with the strongest intent of remaining consciously grounded. One hike, 4 years later, is all it took to expose the tattered reins of my life and to heed the call for change. Ironically, the source of destruction was also the culprit of my liberation: divorce.
Sharing my son Sam was, and still remains, the greatest adjustment of the whole ordeal. Leaning into the discomfort of his every-other-week absence reconfigured my relationship with parenting. Both a detriment and a gift, my twice-a-month “mommy-free” weekends created idle space for me — a problem not experienced by many of my parenting peers. To curb the pervasive silence and new feeling of being alone, I delved heartily into hiking thanks to Onion’s stream of invites. Each venture became a quest to recapture the euphoria of the Otter Falls outing. Each outing was an opportunity to learn, reflect, project and construct a new way of being while in the haven of nature.
Aware of my inexperience, Onion served as both logistics manager and creative director of our adventures. He chose our destinations, the degree of strenuousness and which of my hideous body contortions and goofy faces to capture as photographic evidence of our exploits. My unintentional teacher provided basic education about trail etiquette, ideas on ways to further educate myself to be a good steward to the outdoors, camping 101 instructions, and an overview of ways to research, review and select hikes that complemented my current skills (a thru-hike of the Enchantments was a firm “no” in light of my apoplectic response to my first 7-mile, no-real-elevation hike). Only after my trusty sage was sidelined by a knee injury was I left to my own enterprise. In this moment, I set the intention to expand the scope of my wilderness competency and to build a network. I wanted a community of like-minded folks with whom I could explore and learn. I wanted the confidence to trek alone when my introversion warranted it. And I wanted to plant and nourish a love for the outdoors in my son.
After much contemplation and at the suggestion of a colleague, I swallowed my pride (some would call it fear or trepidation) and joined an online site in search of hiking meetups.
Not wanting to engage in any aspect of the pheromone-driven culture I heard permeated coed gatherings, I selected a group specifically for women over “a certain age.” Geared with my 10 essentials, three layers of warmth, trekking poles and snowshoes (yes, in what was the best premature move ever, I purchased snowshoes), I drove to the designated spot for the scheduled backcountry hike up Humpback Mountain. Unaware of what awaited me, clueless about these women, I walked into their circle — and in this circle, 8 years later, I remain. These women are pillars in my hiking world, some of my dearest friends and an avalanche of dynamism. Their example — in hiking, backpacking, trail running, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, etc. — employed new, expanded versions of myself that incorporate my love of the outdoors with my love of self and my brand of motherhood. The only element lacking: a reflection of myself in the form of representation.
I often wonder about the impact on my tenure as an “outdoor adventurer” if more women of color, more African-American women to be exact, had the opportunity to portray the role. Would I encounter more brown women like me on the trail? More brown mothers extending this measure of self-care to themselves or sharing the experience with their children? Would our presence register as normal as opposed to an anomaly? Hiking-related conversations with my very Southern grandmother often lead with her asking, “But why are you out there? That is not where you belong. The woods are home to the bears, not you.” Would these sentiments exist for her if African-American female explorers were projected, perceived and lauded as real actualities? My guess is no. When a possibility is not modeled, a vacuum of oppression prevails. Ongoing endeavors for equity and social justice in the outdoors are paramount in drafting a new constitution, one that respects and honors our wealth of diversity and that manifests safe spaces for us all to enjoy nature.
Myriad publications cite the benefits of hiking on the mind, body and spirit. For me, hiking — spending time outdoors — is a necessary component of life. What originally was meant to be a form of exercise inadvertently became an avenue of personal reconstruction and therapy. I often can be overhead saying, “Hiking is my religion; Mother Nature my temple of worship.” In the comfort of nature, I learned to embrace my new reality while aligning the tone of my voice to the pulse of my heart. The intersection of circumstance and opportunity has the tendency to create the most serendipitous of moments when we allow them to show up and birth something new.
So, you’re a parent. And you need to enjoy the riches of a Pacific Northwest hike. It seems simple enough, but a vortex of questions arises. How do I make time? Who will care for my child? Should I bring my child? Do I limit my invite to adults with children? Is this even feasible? To the latter, I scream an emphatic YES! Of course it is possible to enjoy the beauty of nature as a parent. For the rest, keep in mind these three things.
Honor and respect your current phase of parenthood. Each phase is different. The independence of a parent with an infant is different from a parent with a teenager. You only have one opportunity to grow with your child; welcome the rewards of each stage.
Avoid comparison — it truly is a thief of gratitude. Your child is unique, and so are your parenting and adventures. Celebrate their originality.
Designate self-care as a necessity. We often undersell the importance of self-care; it is an integral ingredient for growth and balance, not a luxury. A whole, healthy you begets a whole, healthy parent.
While much of this guidance is catered to the particulars of “opting outside” as parents, it’s imperative to foster wider connections and community as well. A bulk of my outdoors knowledge is the result of my hiking community. Start by inviting a friend you already know, or join affinity groups to help you find the right community.
Recent activities to amplify diversity, equity and inclusion in the outdoors have worked to enhance accessibility for minorities and people not typically represented in the narrative of the outdoors. Groups like Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers and Fat Girls Hiking host regional hikes to forge communities and inclusive safe spaces for people from under-represented communities. Hike It Baby is an excellent resource for families with babies and young children; Adventure Mamas Initiative offers outdoors activities catered to moms. Clubs like The Mountaineers and the Washington Alpine Club are community-based organizations that help with development of an assortment of mountaineering and survival skills; both endorse advocacy of land conservation.
For more information on hiking groups,go to wta.org/hikinggroups.
You are a mom longing to explore the outdoors. To satisfy this craving, you 1) ignore the call of the wild; 2) find a less-gratifying outlet; or 3) locate other like-minded mothers willing to indulge in outdoor activities with you. If you are Stephanie Feller or Justine Nobbe, the creators of Adventure Mamas Initiative, the latter is your only viable option.
Stephanie and Justine set out to redefine their experience as parents. In place of the rigid, traditional role of “mother,” they opted for self-defined, multidimensional versions of themselves. Stephanie and Justine, both avid outdoorswomen, aspired to nourish their thirst for adventure while navigating the trail of motherhood.
They started Adventure Mamas Initiative as a grassroots effort to connect adventureseeking mamas. AMI is a national nonprofit that supports maternal wellness by facilitating access to nature and challengebased experiences, educational resources and a dynamic community of mothers. The agency’s vision is to redefine motherhood by empowering women to prioritize their own wellness.
With 13 collabs (local chapters) located throughout the United States — including the Pacific Northwest — AMI encourages mothers to develop sustainable active lifestyles. Mamas within each collab create and coordinate an array of adventurefilled events for their respective region. Hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, and rock climbing are a few of the regularly scheduled activities available for the interested mama. Collab administrators promote engagement in these planned activities and empower mamas to become grassroots leaders who further build and enrich the AMI community.
The organization also hosts global events for self-care and adventure. A few examples: an annual adventure family festival (Dirtbag Family Bash) and multiday backcountry expeditions. Also, for the first time this year, AMI offered a 10-day Wilderness First Responder course designed specifically for mamas.
shon’t savage is a mom, public health professional and perpetual adventurologist. She lives in Seattle with her life partner and her son, both named Sam, and sits on the board of Adventure Mamas Initiative. Follow her at instagram.com/thatgirlshont.