Growing up in El Monte, I never knew the name of the mountains outside my mom’s car window. Like a cardboard backdrop for a movie, they seemed distant, hard to reach and almost two-dimensional. In fact, for the first 22 years of my life, I never even stepped foot there.
When I was young, my concept of the outdoors was simple: I ventured in my backyard and the grass fields at school. That was it. But that was enough for me at that time. My love for the outdoors blossomed thanks to my grandma. Oftentimes, the two of us would sit on a swinging bench under our jujube tree as she shared stories about her life in Cambodia and Vietnam. It became a space for storytelling, our small and cozy backyard. When she arrived in America more than two decades ago, she planted several fruit trees as a form of good luck: kumquats, oranges, lemons and more. Starting as small shrubs, they’ve grown alongside us and still stand today, reaching toward the sky with branches outstretched.
The connection was obvious: without enough green space to play in, how could youth lead active, healthy lives?
When I moved back home after college, I found it difficult to immerse in nature like I had as a kid. I had studied environmental science and public health, learning the importance of public green space. Suddenly, home didn’t feel as hospitable as I’d remembered. Instead, home felt like a case study I’d read about in a research paper in college. El Monte, like most cities in the San Gabriel Valley region, is park-poor, which means that there are fewer than three acres of open space per 1,000 residents. El Monte is also a predominantly working class immigrant community, and it suffers from one of the highest childhood obesity rates in LA County. The connection was obvious: without enough green space to play in, how could youth lead active, healthy lives?
Eager to address these health disparities in my hometown, I started working for a local public health non-profit called Day One. As part of my work, I educate high school students, or youth advocates, about the importance of nutrition and physical activity. During a meeting, one of our students suggested hiking. And after a quick online search, I saw a huge area of green merely a half hour’s drive away. I had finally discovered the name of the mountain range always in the background of the car window, the San Gabriel Mountains. And I was determined to go there.
Last November, my friends and I decided to hike with our youth advocates in the San Gabriel Mountains. None of our students had ever explored the mountains before either. The timing could not have been more perfect—President Obama had just declared the mountains a National Monument that October. What better way to celebrate than to hike the mountains? Carpooling up the winding one-lane highway to the mountains, we watched the landscape transition from a concrete city to luscious greenery and mountainous peaks.
Breathing in fresh, crisp fall air, we gradually made our way to the top of Vetter Mountain. Along the trail, we enjoyed seeing bits of frost melting on fallen logs and identified native plants like yucca and white sage. Our youth advocates expressed genuine excitement throughout the hike, and as we took the final steps toward the top of the peak, we all felt a strong sense of accomplishment. We took a moment to soak in glorious 360 degree views of the San Gabriels—away from busy
highways, smoggy air, billboards and the commotion of the city. It was just us, the mountains and the blue sky. Simple.
We all visit the outdoors for different reasons: as a place to tell our stories, as a place to escape from city life and as a revolutionary act of reclaiming our roots. Experiencing the San Gabriel Mountains can be a cathartic remedy for park-poor, low-income communities of color in the San Gabriel Valley who don’t have local parks to relax in. By increasing access to these open spaces, residents can enjoy an improved quality of life, health and happiness. Now that the San Gabriel Mountains have become a National Monument, I hope there will be ongoing education and outreach to our communities, so that future generations can create their own meaning of the outdoors. This way, our children’s children can grow up knowing the name of, and hopefully stepping foot in, the mountains outside their car windows.
Amy J. Wong is a first-generation Asian American passionate about the intersectionality of public health and environmental justice, follow her on Twitter: @sunlightleak.