National Forest Foundation

We’ve Always Yearned for the Outdoors – Recounting Love in National Forests

The National Forest System

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My “great outdoors” was in the backyard of Grandma Erma’s house as a young child with my sisters and first-ever adventure partners. Our imaginations ran wild as we played out there for hours; creating our backyard into any part of the world that we wanted to be in, and constantly exploring the woods that we thought was a forest.

Since I can remember, I have always loved and felt deeply connected to being outside, and sharing in that pure joy with the people I care about. Today, I still feel so whole when I’m outdoors, and such a deep sense of longing to get out in any way that I can. I am so blessed to now be able to experience the outdoors in our National Forests and public lands while climbing, hiking, laughing, learning, and healing.

I owe an immense amount of credit, gratitude, and inspiration to the absolutely amazing women of color that I climb, adventure, and discover with. Our public lands were not always public to black, indigenous, and people of color; and to this day BIPOC* are constantly breaking down barriers to ensure access, justice, and visibility for us all.

I’ve spent many hours of pure elation outdoors, specifically in my National Forests with these women. They have uplifted me, educated me, and have been such an integral part of my identity within this space.

I wanted to learn about how they discovered their love for the outdoors; a love that helped pave the way for me in further connecting with this land. So I asked them! These ladies then shared their stories, recounting their climbing experiences in National Forests, adventures around the world, and even experiencing the outdoors in their backyard.

How did you discover your love for the outdoors?

Pictured: Maribel Wong (left) and Gabrielle Dickerson (right)

This is a difficult question to answer because I cannot think of a time in my life where I wasn't yearning to be outside. From when I was a small girl in Panama, exploring our backyard, climbing trees, playing in the rain to a bratty teenager not wanting to be cooped up inside buildings, the outdoors have always been a source of energy throughout my life.

Whether I'm in search of calming and grounding energy or a reinvigorating experience to gain the confidence to face challenges in my everyday life, I know I can always escape to the outdoors for a fresh perspective.

As an adult, I point to my experience as an intern living in Montana where the breathtaking landscapes ignited my passion for the mountains. From that stint in the Rockies, I became an avid backpacker and was fortunate to discover that my best friend, my mom, shares this passion with me. The outdoors have brought us closer and added a new dimension to our relationship.

I can also thank Montana for my love for rock climbing, as that's where I was introduced to outdoor climbing and my life has never been the same since. I am now always scheming a way to get back outside. What I love most is that outside, not only do I receive healing energy, but I am challenged on a physical, mental, and emotional level, always growing and better for it.

Maribel Wong climbing in Monongahela National Forest

While I now spend less time recreating in the outdoors through "outdoor activities", I instead focus on ways I can maximize my time outside and still get grounded. The outdoors do not need to be a huge time or money investment; for me it can be as simple as walking to the park during my lunch break for a date with a book, enjoying my bike commute, or spending some time after work de-weeding my tiny garden bed.

I feel extremely fortunate to have discovered my love for the outdoors early on and my wish is for everyone to get an opportunity to discover theirs. The outdoors are as diverse as us and there are infinite ways to connect and experience them, and if we're open to it, discovering our love for the outdoors can truly be a life enriching experience. - Maribel Wong

Photo by: Otto Wiblishauser – Christy Nguyen climbing in Daniel Boone National Forest

I went on my first ever camping trip over Labor Day weekend almost two years ago! A friend and I decided last minute to fly to Colorado Springs to climb with some friends at an area called Shelf Road. I had just gotten into indoor rock climbing and had absolutely no idea what to expect taking that outside.

That first day out, we only climbed two or three routes. It was mostly trying to find friends in what seemed like an endless maze of crags, getting lost in washes that looked like trails, and a lot of chasing shade. That night, we sat atop the cliffs star gazing and listened to the wind howl. It felt so surreal—I had never been somewhere so remote and still.

I’ll never forget waking up to that sunrise the next morning (my first in the wild). As a city gal, I had never really understood nomadic, “dirtbag” types. But for the first time, I could see how one would crave views like this every morning. I felt the appeal in spending every possible moment exploring all the nooks and crannies of this strange rock.

Although we didn’t end up ticking off a lot of climbing routes that trip, I gained so much more: a love and insatiable thirst for outdoor adventure. It was my first time descending into a canyon. My first time on the lookout for cactuses and snakes. My first panoramic views of nature after climbing 100 ft cliffs. Not to mention all the other firsts that come with being self-sufficient in the outdoors for several days.

Photo by: Otto Wiblishauser – Christy Nguyen climbing in Daniel Boone National Forest

It was all I could think and talk about when I got back to DC. That year alone, I took trips to the Red River Gorge, New River Gorge, Red Rocks, and Zion National Park. I took off a month of work to travel from Portland up through the Cascades into British Columbia and over to Banff. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was just making up for lost time, since I discovered the great outdoors as a 26 year old. Perhaps my enthusiasm would decline… but here I find myself making plans well into the future and getting outside every chance I get. Current and future plans include backpacking and canyoneering in Arizona, summiting Kilimanjaro, and figuring out how to get into mountaineering while living on the East Coast, hah! - Christy Nguyen

Pictured: Sara Mehr (left) and Pauline Nuguid (right)

Nature and the outdoors has always been a way of connecting with the people around me. When I was a kid I was obsessed with animals. Be it fish, snakes, dogs, cats, chickens, if it was alive I wanted to play with it or stare at it from a “safe distance” as my mom would say.

My dad and I started bonding over this. Growing up it was one the few things we both got excited about: nature and cars. He has always been an avid hiker and outdoorsman. He taught me how to hike, camp, build a tent, build a fire, and scout out a good place to put that all. We spent our time in the woods talking about the flowers we saw, what kind of mushroom that was, or what animals probably lived around there.

As a middle easterner immigrant it wasn’t easy joining the sports teams or getting involved. This became that much harder when I moved to another school in 4th grade. Thankfully my parents recognized that I sorta liked all that nature stuff and plopped me in a summer camp full of canoeing, ropes courses, swimming, fishing, and just generally being outdoors. That experience really helped integrate me into this new life. I could just be part of the group, with nature as the common thread that we all shared.

Sarah Mehr climbing in Talladega National Fores

There were times during college that I’d have doubts about my future. I remember one time where I just decided to go for a hike. Nothing hard but just to clear my mind. I walked around for hours just taking in the sounds and lack thereof. Watching the light fall through the trees and the sun begin to set. When I got back to campus I felt like a crushing stone had been lifted off my chest. I felt back in control of my life and remade a connection with why I was there.

Nature has always been a steadfast part of my life. It’s an experience that’s so vastly different for everyone but unifying at the same time. It has helped me connect not only with the people around me, but as cliché as I sound, with myself. – Sara Mehr

Pictured: Pauline Nuguid (left) and Gabrielle Dickerson (right)

"This girl is a wild child"- is something I've heard a majority of my life. Thinking about my childhood, it was filled with running around outside with no shoes on (with my Filipino parents l’m not sure how I got away with this), climbing trees for hours, collecting rocks + shells + sticks and burying them as hidden treasure, creating cricket and firefly sanctuaries, holding the occasional cricket funeral for crickets like poor Pete who didn't survive being attacked by other bugs RIP Pete he was a good one, exploring the forest near my house, and the like.

My parents and older siblings always encouraged me to be outside- maybe it was to give them some relief from how hyper I was which is probably true, but really I think they always had such a deep sense of appreciation for nature. They always knew that being outside meant discovering new things and it being a place for me to explore the depths of my creative imaginative adventures. So does this mean that I got in trouble for playing in local streams in the woods because I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself and trying to build a massive fort out of sticks? Yes, yes it does. But I digress. Those are stories for another time.

Growing up, we spent a lot of time driving around visiting local orchards, local farms, beaches, forests, parks and the occasional trip to the Philippines to visit family. Wherever we would go, my parents would encourage us to pause, observe, and soak it all in. Take in every detail whether big or small. Every moment was worth savoring.

Think about it for a moment. Think about the might of the ocean as waves roll in, the sheer height of a massive mountain, the expanse of the sky as it seems to go on forever, the sweet smell of pine that can overtake your sense of smell, the warm embrace of summer sun as it kisses your skin, the cool crunch of autumn leaves as they gently fall to the ground, the kaleidoscope of colors that seem to burst during spring, the unique textures of rocks or shells that are scattered about, the sound of gravel or grass under your feet as you walk, the low hum of stillness as you take a moment to breathe, and the steadiness of your heartbeat. Just pause. Do you feel it? It’s the symphony of life.

Pauline Nuguid climbing in Arapaho National Forest

The outdoors can instill a sense of awe and wonder about life if you let it. It can remind you of how wonderfully alive and human you are. Isn’t it amazing? It's one of those things that can humble you when you realize there are such beautiful and wonderful things that are grander and meeker than you are.

So my fellow wild child, stop for a moment and breathe.

Quiet your thoughts.

What do you hear?

Inhale deeply.

What do you see?

Listen. Look. Lean in close.

Do you feel it?

Soak in all of the beauty that is all around you.

Every moment is worth savoring. - Pauline Nuguid

*BIPOC means black, indigenous, and people of color

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle Dickerson is a full-time graduate student, cyber security engineer, and avid rock climber based out of Southern Maryland. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Cybersecurity, and additionally is a rock climbing instructor for Earth Treks Hampden in Baltimore, MD. In discovering her passion for rock climbing and the outdoors, Gabrielle could not help but notice that her experiences as almost always the only black woman within these spaces were very different than her friends and climbing partners. These experiences pushed her to connect with affinity spaces present in the climbing community and become an advocacy leader within them; while also using her platform on Instagram (@gabbyplainandsmall) to educate, share stories, and uplift the voices of under-represented communities.


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