Wild Child(ren)

Fotor_152668338438682

      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.

To Disappear

Fotor_150087272431458

Last summer I thru-hiked the Northville Placid Trail with my father. It was 133 miles of mud and mosquitoes, storm-ravaged bridges and swollen lakes. The trail only crossed four major roads (except for a several mile road walk at the end), and my dad and I could walk an entire day without seeing another soul. It was isolated wilderness at a local, accessible level, some of the loneliest forests you could experience on the carved up East Coast.

A 2016 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society predicted that there will be no globally significant wilderness in the next 50 years, and, in a separate study conducted by Peter Potapov, 20 countries will lose their large forests entirely within the next 60 years. The disappearance of wilderness has been happening for a while, debatably ever since industrialization and large-scale agriculture emerged. In the last 25 years alone, though, the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial wilderness had vanished, which is the equivalent of half of Australia disappearing.

The Adirondacks doesn’t count as “globally significant wilderness,” but when I read statistics and articles like the ones mentioned above, I have to find a way to relate to it personally, otherwise it feels too distant, too big, too easy to dismiss. It’s overwhelming to think that over 250 million people live in these vanishing forests, but when I remember my own time spent in the dappled sunlight, a beaver swimming in front of us as we lit up our backpacking stove for dinner, the crisis feels pertinent.

What does it mean for places to disappear?

I don’t remember when the woods I grew up in were thinned, trees torn down to make room for office buildings. One autumn the forest was thick, and then I left for college and the next time I looked out my best friend’s window I could see screaming light for the very first time. My friend said her mother cried when the trees were cut down.

I don’t look out that window anymore.

Vanishing places destroy our sense of permanence. Natural places encompass a type of forever that we don’t ascribe to humans. But they too can leave us. They too can break our hearts. And unlike fickle lovers, destroyed wilderness will never return. What is gone is gone and will not come again. The creek beds will stay dry despite our tears.

We often go into the wild to be lost and alone, to find something within ourselves that cowers in crowds and fluorescent lighting. And there’s a shapeless irony that we are losing places where we want to be lost, places we want to disappear inside of, as if moss and mud could swallow us whole.

What would it feel like to always be known, to never be able to vanish when your body cries for solitude?
What parts of humanity are we losing when we lose these vast and lonely places?
What are we really leaving behind?

 

 

/arrival/

IMG_20161016_093340707_HDR (2)

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. –C.S. Lewis

There are things that bring you comfort. The familiar weight of your backpack hanging from your shoulders. The peppermint scent of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Curled pages of poetry that have kept you company around the globe. These are the things that you haul from place to place. These are the things that help you feel like you when the snow globe world has shaken once more and the particles have settled.

Here’s how it goes: You pack your bags thoughtlessly, and then you drive. Roads unspool like ribbon. Music holds you tight. In Montana you listened to Harry Styles on repeat as you drove into plumes of smoke, your hand outstretched beyond the window bobbing up&down up&down in the hazy air. The wildfires were calling you home, and you listened. You burned.

You wear the same three rings, the same five necklaces, the same four pairs of wool socks. You feel like a liar when you fill in your parents’ address on your I-9 form. You are doing your best to call this body home.

After your parents dropped you off as a freshman in college, you threw on a sundress, filled your backpack with notebooks and pens, and ran outside into the arms of the city. I think I’m lost, you texted your then-boyfriend as a nature trail ended at a row of dilapidated houses, beer cans and cigarette butts posing as lawn ornaments. You ignored your boyfriend’s concern and continued onward.

There is so much world to see.

Your nose was pressed against the car window as you wound through the foothills of the Himalaya for the first time, eager smudges on the glass. Bodies swung like pendulums around the curves, colliding in the backseat. You drove higher. Your body thrummed. The mountains felt endless, and your heart burst with sunshine and everything inside of you felt lighter and more radiant than it had a heartbeat ago.

There’s a restlessness that inhabits your bones, that invites you onward, pushes you to new places, into the arms of new people. You don’t fight it. Not anymore.

But that wasn’t always true. There was a time when all you wanted was to stay, when forever felt like something to strive toward. But those days are over, those memories  stitched up and haphazardly healed, and stability is no longer something you dream of.

You wander.
You burn.
You are too much for a single person to hold.

You are in Ohio now. You drink chamomile tea, and listen to conspiracy theories, and you wonder if anyone is thinking of you in that very second, if you’re more alive, more cherished in memory. You sit in a coffee shop in New Philadelphia and remember sitting in a similar one in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the barista complimented your necklace and then fled to the bathroom to vomit. You loved that place.

Someone mentions the phrase “twin flame,” and you realize how much you’ve left behind, and how you don’t regret any of it.

There is so much world to see.

Leaving/Left/Gone

Fotor_15196722644902.jpg

Bilbo: I’ll be alright. Just let me sit quietly for a moment.

Gandalf: You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long! Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He’d stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would’ve liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do… you will not be the same.

You left. It started with a dream, a fragile wisp as light as a daffodil petal. You sat at your office desk and planned, and schemed, and imagined a world covered in blue pines.

You are always leaving.

They told you that you could have adventures, but they never told you that there was a price. You could have your wildness, but you’d lose the sense of comfort you’d feel when you’d walk down the sidewalks of your old neighborhood, dogs barking, children laughing, garbage men waving as you pass by.

No one ever told you that adventure is accompanied by loss.

People will talk about their jobs behind desks and debate the meaning of business casual, and you will feel alone. They will say, did you know Tory Burch is having a sale, and you will respond, one time I burned a hole in my jacket while making tea in the shadow of Mount Shasta. 

You will sleep in your childhood bed, you will visit the offices of your first job, you will meet up with your ex-boyfriend, and even though your jeans still fit, even though the pantry is still stocked with your favorite cereal, this life is no longer yours. You left, and you changed, and there is no going back.

And that’s OK.

That was the point, wasn’t it? To change, to become, to tap into this life you knew existed if only you tried a little harder, drove a little further, followed more stars. You started drinking seltzer water as an excuse to leave your desk at work, and you knew that if you didn’t run, your lungs would always feel this tight.

So you left.

You are always leaving.

One time in Idaho, you sat with your feet propped up on your back tire, coloring in an adult coloring book. A guy approached you and asked about your journey, gesturing to your New York license plates. You told him. He was impressed. Not many people actually do it, he said, and you thought that was the greatest compliment you’d ever heard.

Because you did it. You left, and it was worth it.

Home doesn’t mean what it used to. You’re not sure what it means these days. A place, a person, a feeling you get when you’ve hiked all day and the wooded valley ripples outward below you, like you were the single tossed stone that set everything in motion. You think it’s OK that home is nameless and undefined, a specter instead of a solid presence. You think it’s OK that your skin is restless. You think it’s OK.

A man at Mount Rainier stopped you as you passed him on your descent and told you that you looked strong. You smiled. He was right.

You are gone.

 

What You Share With The World

Fotor_151512463559311

The outer temple wall is in the background, and the holehole stone, where human flesh was separated from bone, is on the bottom right.

 

What you share with the world is what it keeps of you. —Noah and the Whale

 

Situated on the northern coast of the Big Island overlooking the Maui Strait is Moʻokini Heiau, said to be the first temple built on the Hawaiian Islands. Legend says that the temple was built in a single night in 480 A.D. by the Menehunes–dwarf-like master builders who never worked on the same project twice. They stood in a line 12 miles long and passed rocks one by one from Pololu Valley to Kohala. Later, in 1370 A.D., Moʻokini Heiau was converted into a luakini heiau, a war temple, and was dedicated to the war god Ku, thus beginning a new era of human sacrifice.

After walking three miles in the wrong direction, my family and I finally found the torn-up strip of road that led to the temple. The guidebook hadn’t lied when it’d said some of the puddles were large enough to have their own ecosystems. The water was vermilion  and reminded me of the turmeric latte I’d had the day prior. Who knows what was at the bottom. Waves crashed to our right, while the road snaked along the coast and then jutted inland to the remaining temple ruins.

We walked and walked and suddenly we arrived, a dilapidated sign the only prelude to the monument. There were no signs telling us the history of the temple. No labels at the holehole stone where human bodies were stripped of flesh. No placard with numbers explaining when, and who, and how many. All of that had to be scrounged up later. The only sign present was a bronze plaque recognizing this as a national historical landmark with the words “United States” and “U.S.” symbolically pounded out.

Fotor_151512443877197

Different landscapes conjure different feelings within us. I’m always shot with eagerness and a touch of ferocity when I barrel down the sidewalks of NYC, while all I feel is reverence when I stand in Yosemite Valley at sunset, dwarfed by sun-splashed granite walls. Standing there at Moʻokini Heiau with rain clouds scattered in the distance and a broken rainbow clinging to the air, I didn’t know what to feel. Awe and sadness and beauty all wrapped together. But this wasn’t my culture, these weren’t my people whose lives were given to the gods, and without context, without information to orient myself, I didn’t know how to carve out the distance between myself and these ruins.

There are different levels of public access in Hawaii for historical monuments and ecological wonders. It ranges from sacred burial grounds marked with crossed sticks and a sign reading Kapu, keep out, to national park visitor centers that are open 365 days a year. Although part of the U.S., Hawaii has its own history and culture, and the people there don’t share everything with us. They don’t have to.

Moʻokini Heiau wasn’t always accessible to the average person. The temple was only open to ali’i and kahuna, chiefs and priests, until 1978 when Kahuna Nui (High Priestess) Leimomi Moʻokini Lum lifted the taboo and rededicated the temple to the children of the land (Hawaii). She later rededicated the temple again in 1994 to the children of the world. Since then, Leimomi Moʻokini Lum and her family have hosted a variety of visitors at the heiau, including many school groups and curious children.

“I invite everyone to visit,” said Mealani Lum, a direct descendant of the Moʻokini lineage, in an interview with Big Island Television. “I like to talk to people. Especially kids. Hawaiian kids especially because if they don’t know where they came from, they won’t know where they’re going.”

Fotor_151512451136178

Knowing that the heiau welcomes outsiders–at least by the family that runs it–perhaps I would’ve felt differently as I stood in the rays of slanted sunlight, staring at green carpeted rocks, trying to imagine the textures of life that had existed in their presence. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I still would’ve felt like an intrusive outsider peeking behind a door meant to be locked. Maybe that’s the point.

“For anyone sensitive to the colonial environment which has rendered this ancient cultural site into a quaint and isolated scenic adventure often taken by non-culturally affiliated tourists,” write Peter Mills and Kathleen Kawelu in their paper Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i, “the very act of visiting Mo‘okini evokes an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation.”

Monuments like this resurface the complexity of our bloody, tangled history. We are no heroes. No nation of this world has ever been strong or great without carving their name into the backs of others. Every victory is a scar. So in places like this, it’s a gift to be invited in to witness and learn. A gift to feel uncomfortable and think about cultures that are not ours, that we haven’t respected in the past, that time and time again still allow us to partake in their rituals and private histories. It’s a gift.

“The Indigenous person occupies a world of tradition in a sense that is generally unknown to a western generation,” writes Chris Ryan. “It is the clash between a sense of eternal relationship of self and place versus the culture of the 15 second sound bite.”

I think this is why we–white, culture-deprived people like myself–like to visit places like Moʻokini Heiau. They feel unfamiliar, and we long to tap into something greater than ourselves, something that brings us closer to divinity or death. In the era of the 15 second sound bite, it’s easy to feel untethered. But places like Moʻokini Heiau remind us that things can endure. That art and history and culture won’t disappear if we drop our phone into a puddle or lose our external hard drive. The collective memory of the world will outlast us all, and sometimes that feeling alone is reassuring.

Fotor_151512483190946

 

Sources:

Chapman, Dohn. “The Eerie Aura of Mo’okini.” Earthstonestation, 29 May 2015, earthstonestation.com/2015/05/22/the-eerie-aura-of-mookini/.

Mills, Peter R, and Kathleen L Kawelu. “Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i.” Scientific Research, Aug. 2013, file.scirp.org/Html/35283.html.

“Mookini Heiau and Kamehameha Birthsite, Kohala.” Big Island Television, Hawaii, 29 May 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdPost_3Q0I.

Ryan, Chris, and Michelle Aicken. Indigenous Tourism the Commodification and Management of Culture. Routledge, 2007.

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

IMG_20170828_133527689.jpg

I met a guy in Moab, and I can’t remember his name. He told me about how he was airlifted off Mount Whitney  along with the body of a dead girl, a girl who went hiking with her fiancé and came down with AMS, but instead of following her down, her fiancé chased the summit and she wandered back alone. They found her in a frozen waterfall, crashed through the ice.

I can’t remember his name. The guy who told me that. I can’t remember his name.

He had a dog, and a Subaru, and worked at a bike shop on the main strip in Moab. He’d moved from Vegas two weeks earlier, leaving behind a wife and a pile of debt. Her pile of debt. I didn’t know about her loans, he told me as we sat in the desert, his voice whisky strong. I didn’t know.

I can’t remember his name.

I can’t remember the name of the guy from Québec I met at the Grand Canyon whom I talked with for two hours in the parking lot. He showed me his renovated van, and we discussed Trump, and California gas prices, and where the hell the closest showers were.

I also can’t remember the name of the woman I met at Lake Tahoe. It was the only time on that trip that I got lost while hiking, and we stumbled our way back to the correct trail together. She was mid-50s with a sparkly blue nose ring and a daughter about my age. How do I become like you, I thought as she talked about rowing on Lake Tahoe in the early, sun-bitten mornings. Her nose ring caught all the light. How do I become like you?

Maybe it’s OK that I can’t remember. After all, names only mean so much. Words too have shortcomings. Because when I say, I loved every minute of it, what I mean is, I’m a different person. And when I say, I’d do it all again, what I’m actually telling you is, None of that’s behind me. 

I think about that guy from Moab often. Is he back with his wife yet? Is he still sleeping in his car? How hung over was he after his night of confessions? I think about him, and everyone I met, and how even the bad days were amazing, and how my skin and muscles felt like home.

This is just the beginning. The adventure continues. I’m chasechasechasing the life I want, and I hope you are, too.

Putting Price Tags on Parks

Fotor_150855514918430

Canyonlands National Park in Utah is one of the parks with a proposed increased entrance fee.

Once upon a time, a man named Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before that books were copied by hand, making them expensive and rare, available only to the societal elite.

And then along came Gutenberg and everything changed. There were more books in circulation. More people began to read. The worlds of ink and paper that had existed for a small minority exploded into existence for the masses. Mankind was changed forever, not by the existence of books but by their sudden accessibility.

It’s not a unique situation. Accessibility is always an issue in technology, but it affects other spheres as well, such as art, food, education, and yes, public parks.

The Trump administration is considering increased entrance fees to 17 of the most visited national park. It’s not a mere $5 or $10 hike in price, however. The proposal would double, or in some cases triple, entrance prices to $70 per vehicle. An entrance pass gets you access to one park for up to seven days.

On the front, the administration says this plan is intended to create more revenue for the parks, which they desperately need. These increased rates would raise an additional $70 million for the parks.

But the government is also proposing steep cuts. The president’s 2018 budget cuts nearly $400 million from the parks budget.

Even a non-mathlete like myself can see things don’t add up. It’s not about increasing funding to the parks, it’s about shifting the burden of responsibility for who pays for that funding.

Our national parks are underfunded and overcrowded, and yes, raising entrance fees theoretically would help alleviate these issues. But the deeper issue at debate here is who has access to these spaces. National parks already have a diversity issue–most visitors are white, wealthy, and middle-aged–and raising fees would be yet another barrier of entry for people with less money or who don’t live in communities that place as much value on natural spaces.

I wish I had something funny to say about all this, some witty Bolshevik quip about Russian elitism or something, but I’m empty handed. With Trump’s recent approval to shrink Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante Monuments in Utah, it’s clear that this administration cares little about public land.

In a way, it’s a circular problem. The current administration doesn’t care about protecting public lands, which then impedes the public from experiencing and enjoying them. Which then creates people who also don’t care about wilderness because they had little exposure to it.

I can tell you that big trees are amazing and important,  but until you stand in front of General Sherman yourself and try in vain to capture the towering sequoia in a single frame on your iPhone, craning your neck to see its broccoli-like branches way up high, it won’t mean as much to you.

When did you last visit a park, national or otherwise? Where did you go? How dirty were your shoes? What did the sunlight feel like on your skin?

The government is accepting public comments about this proposal until November 23. So if you’ve ever visited a park or been touched by nature in any shade or fashion, take a moment and share your story and why you think public spaces should remain as accessible as possible.

Click here to comment.

Of Mice and Mountaintops

 

Fotor_150551463778836.jpg

Bernard and I breakfasted together the morning after our introduction. Honestly I would’ve kept him around longer, but he had boundary issues and tried to run up my leg while I was driving, a major no-no.

I am writing this at 10:09 PM on a Thursday night in a WalMart parking lot. My car smells overwhelmingly of curry. My car doesn’t normally smell of curry.

When I committed myself to a solo road trip—a mini foray into the shallows of vanlife—I was ready for the Big Stuff. Mountaintop vistas. Sunsets on beaches. Sitting in the woods with my feet propped up, beer in one hand, book of Rilke’s poetry in the other. I thought everything I Instagrammed would also be the most profound, enjoyable moments, as if the physical grandeur of the landscapes around me would reverberate at the same internal frequency of awe.

And they do.
Sometimes.

But sometimes I hike 10 miles, look around, shrug my shoulders, and head back down. Sometimes I don’t leave my car to take a picture and it remains only that—a photograph with no backing behind the veneer. Empty.

What I didn’t prepare myself for was the Small Moments. Like when I forgot my garbage outside my car for a couple of hours and then discovered at four in the morning when I felt something scurrying across my sleeping bag that I’d accidentally brought a mouse in along with my empty Pringles’ cans. It wouldn’t leave, despite me opening all the doors and asking nicely and waving a spatula about. My tent smelled of onions and peanut butter the next night as I curled up in the woods with all of my groceries, hoping the mouse traps in my car worked. (RIP Bernard. In the words of Fall Out Boy, thanks for memories even though they weren’t so great.)

Similarly, I was under prepared for the curry disaster of September 21, 2017. Knowing the tupperware was prone to leaks, I’d wrapped my flannel around it and stabilized it with my pillow. And then, because I’m an idiot, I forgot about it, only to suddenly remember it when I came back to my car after brushing my teeth in WalMart and wondering why my car smelled so weird.

It wasn’t even good curry, mind you. I’d made it myself on the bank of the Sol Duc River in the Olympics with coconut milk, spices, and WalMart-purchased vegetables. So it was very mediocre curry. And it smelled not great.

It had seeped into my flannel, drenched my pillow, and pooled onto my air mattress. It had been a long day of driving, and all I wanted to do was sleep. My body tightened in frustration at the mess before me.

But I had soap and a sponge. I had a towel. I cleaned up the mess, rolled down the windows, and ate an entire bag of gummies in the driver’s seat to make myself feel better.

My car regained its normal smell about three days later.

When you go out into the world things will happen to you. Yes, there will be beautiful mountaintops and sunsets, but there will also be field mice and mediocre curry in your sleeping area. And the mountaintops will give you better pictures, but the mice will give you better stories. And that feeling of overcoming an unexpected crisis—even if it’s mouse-sized, even if it’s in the WalMart parking lot—may feel more rewarding than that 10 mile slog.

So say yes, go out into the world, see what’s there, cry a little, feel inspired, feel proud, wash your hair in rivers, sleep in your car, say hi to strangers, see what the world hands you when your eyes are closed.

Curry-tinged dreams are better than no dreams at all. Even if they involve mice.

 

Women of the Wild

grizzly sign

I didn’t get a picture of the actual grizzly because I was busy getting the hell out of there. So here’s a sign.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” a man asked me on the summit of Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. It’d been a bad week, so I’d left work early that Friday and escaped to the mountains, my go-to move when the world’s feeling extra heavy. This was my third summit of the day, and I was still feeling great.

The man wasn’t alone. Both him and his male friend were in their late 40s and donned expensive hiking gear. They went on trips together as frequently as they could. The Presidential Traverse, Devil’s Path, most of their hiking was in the East, but they hiked out West and abroad when they could.

“Who do you hike with normally?” one asked as we hiked down the mountain together.

Sometimes my dad, I answered. Occasionally friends. Mostly myself.

“Someday you’ll find a boy who can keep up with you. Shame you live so far away. We’d invite you to hike with us once and a while. Take you under our wing, you know.”

Men and women approach my outdoors aloneness differently. Women are instantly supportive. Even if they don’t understand why I want to forgo showers and porcelain toilets for several months, they are excited and proud that I’m doing it. Good for you! cheer the older women with a nostalgic gleam in their eyes, thinking, perhaps, how this reality wasn’t available to them 40 years ago.

Men approach me with questions. Why are you here? Why are you alone? They see my aloneness as an aberration, a question in need of an answer. They look for explanations when I don’t offer one. Maybe I’m a slow hiker. Maybe I’m really fussy and no one wants to put up with me. Maybe I’m running away.

I’m not sure why women alone in the wild makes men uncomfortable. But I have a few guesses.

Flash forward a year from my encounter with the two men in the Catskills and I’m hiking alone in Glacier National Park. Copious signs warn about bear activity in the area. Hiking alone is something they strongly advise against, but besides that, I’ve taken every other precaution. I carry bear spray in the side of my backpack. I clang my poles together. I sing the new Harry Styles’ song as I walk. Noise, the signs and videos and brochures tell me. Make noise.

So I do.
And then something stirs on the path ahead of me.
It’s small and brown. But then it moves and it gets bigger and bigger.

A grizzly!

It had been sleeping with its head on the trail and its body in a copse of bushes. I know it’s a grizzly because of the distinctive hump between its shoulders. I also know it’s a grizzly because I’ve seen black bears before and ohmygod this is not one of them.

It’s massive.

I keep making noise and backing away slowly, not taking my eyes off it as it continues moving. My entire body has gone cold and my heart races. Slowly, slowly, I creep back the way I came. Not running. Never running. I walk ten minutes until I encounter the family of four I’d passed earlier. I tell them about the grizzly. We decide to approach it together and see where it has moved to. We’re only three miles into an 18 mile hike, and neither of us wants to turn around and call it a day. Between the five of us we have two cans of bear spray. Just in case.

The bear has moved off into the bushes, but we can still see it from the trail as we approach. The little boy in the family threatens tears. We make noise and can hear it moving through the undergrowth. Toward us or away from us, it’s hard to tell. All of us keep our eyes peeled for cubs. No sign.

Eventually it disappears completely.
We hike onward.

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a half now and my encounter with the grizzly was the scariest moment I’ve had so far. But it’s also the one that makes me feel the most pride.

There are countless valuable lessons for girls and women to learn from the wild, but there’s something unique to be learned by being alone. To feel empowered by your own mind and within your own body. To believe you can survive no matter what the world throws at you. To taste, even if only briefly, what the world is like with no fear, only strength.

There is no shortage of things to be fearful about—spiders, darkness, creepy campsite dudes—but we can’t let that stop us from exploring and getting our hands dirty. It’s OK to be scared, and there’s a fine line between actions that are bold and actions that are stupid, but instead of teaching girls to be afraid, we need to teach them to be brave. To face the darkness, the grizzly, the guy who tells her she shouldn’t be here alone.

Toward the end of my hike in Glacier, I meet a park ranger who is guiding a private backpacking trip for a family of three. The girl isn’t older than five. Her parents carry all of her things.

“You did the whole loop by yourself?” the ranger asks me as we make small talk.

“I did.”

“I’m very impressed,” he says.

As I turn to finish the last three miles, I hear the ranger say behind me, “See that, Mariana? You’ll be just like her someday.”

I beam.

In Their Own Words

IMG_20151020_164840

With over 2,500 acres, Mendon Ponds Park is the largest park in Monroe County. It’s only 25 minutes away from downtown Rochester, New York.

“One of the things I think that Rochester is lacking tremendously is a connection to the multitude of green spaces and natural gems in the bioregion that we have here. We have over twenty public parks that are all within fifteen, twenty minutes driving distance; we have the Adirondack Park, which is a state park that’s bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined; we have the Finger Lakes region; and that’s just going outside of the Greater Rochester area. There are so many places to enjoy and so few people understand them.” —Lindsay Cray, Co-Founder and Executive Director of EarthWorks Institute