2017 – place yourself directly in the trash
Every Day Was Bad News. If you survived 2017 with a modicum of good mental health, my hat’s off to you. If you tragically asked me at any point, “how are you?” I’m sorry. My blank, wide blinking eyes and mouth trying to fix itself into words that wouldn’t come out was not cute. I really tried, y’all. We are not even going to talk about The Circus Peanut, but white nationalists and sexual predators were a regular part of daily U.S. news and if that’s not enough of a synopsis of where we’re at as a country, I don’t know what is. I think depression, anxiety and terror are reasonable responses. In 2018, I will do everything in my power to not be taken down by the news of the world. I’m not going to duck behind privilege and stop paying attention either, but I’ve got too much work to do. Too much to give.
2017 was my own personal blooper reel in its own right. This time last year, I tore a meniscus in my left knee that left me unable to walk for weeks and living in poverty for most of the year because there is no paid leave in food service and my expensive health insurance hardly covered anything. I’m still in a lot of pain. Then both of my cats died. There were more bad things. Hiking is my therapy, it gets me through and I couldn’t hike for three months.
There were good things, too. It’s been humbling and confusing processing it all. I dug deep.
Who am I as a writer? And why can’t I just let myself have nice things?
I’ve always felt a call to share my process of figuring myself out through writing. I started keeping a journal at age six, graduated to LiveJournal like a good on-the-cusp millennial, made zines, started this blog, I say that I’m working on a book, etc. A few things nag at me about this. In the least, but okay, sometimes most, self-deprecating way possible: why would anyone care what I have to say about anything? What is my angle? Who am I in the world?
I am a naturally introspective person, but my trauma brain, ego and I are in a constant grudge match. It makes me lose my way as a writer. I forget what my intentions are and it turns into some wild self-loathing. We live in a time where many people, especially women, feel compelled to write about and share their lives, even on a daily basis thanks to the encouragement of social media, which is both comforting and confusing. Where am I in this sea of voices? What do I have to offer?
Everyone has a story and they should be able to tell it if they want to. Women and marginalized peoples voices are commonly and historically erased and, currently, more contentious than ever (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc.). We’re fighting back with more platforms to be heard. This is enough of a reason to keep telling my stories and I need to grab onto this entitlement and stop questioning myself into quicksand.
In 2018, I will allow myself to tell my stories. I will allow myself to be a writer.
An Unlikely Hiker turned Unlikely Businessperson
I got lost with my writing last year, so I poured that energy elsewhere and things happened. Six years ago, I never would’ve guessed I’d become a hiker, start a blog about it and create some instagram community that would lead me to purpose. I was an adult well before social media became a thing and I still have a filter that finds these words strange. Instagram community? Social media platforms? This is life in 2018.
Hiking has taught me how my brain works and how to love my body. It’s the only thing that gives me enough clarity to keep moving through my days, so why wouldn’t it be the thing that helps me figure out What’s Next? I never thought about the future. I’m a fat, queer, high school dropout with chronic PTSD and depression. Every day is a survival. I know plenty of people have been through horrific things and still Dreamed Big and achieved. I deeply respect and admire them. Their stories are the ones I like best. However, I simply do (did?) not possess that strand of hope or entitlement or maybe imagination they have. There are many things I could’ve done, I should’ve done, but I was so tired and truly, I was giving my all.
I always knew Unlikely Hikers was special. I’ve told the story many times now, but I called myself an “Unlikely Hiker” in something I wrote early on in this blog and though I had few readers, it sparked. I knew seeing the same narrow definition of a hiker on all of the outdoorsy media I followed was harming me and it must be harming others as well. June 1, 2016, I made my first post as Unlikely Hikers (UH) on Instagram with the sole purpose of reflecting what was missing from my outdoors feeds. People of color, fat, queer, trans and gender nonconforming folks, people with disabilities and mental health issues, all benefiting from the healing power of nature. The response was bigger than I could’ve imagined. It gained 6,000 followers the first year, which felt like a lot. It was bubbling with potential and the question of what do with it started answering itself. Six months ago, REI got wind of it and asked me to partner with them on their Force of Nature campaign. A few days later, Portland Monthly published an article about me including a one-page glossy photo taken by an actual photographer at the summit of Wind Mountain. This gained a lot of local attention for UH, but it also got picked up by Huffington Post where it went viral-light. UH and I have since been written about in dozens of publications, spoken at conferences, did a few podcasts (I hate speaking live, why do I keep doing it?!) and led hikes in Oakland, California and D.C. sponsored by REI. Without this sponsorship, I wouldn’t have done most of these things. My well of gratitude for REI is an ocean. Currently, Unlikely Hikers has more than 28,000 followers in just a year and a half of existence. A lot has happened in the outdoor industry in this time. Not because of UH, but I, and many others, caught the kite string at a crucial point in time. Dozens of similar outdoorsy social media efforts have been created since. The conversation about diversity, inclusion and representation in the outdoors is happening in articles published by nearly every outdoor brand and project. It is amazing to witness.
I’ve been in a constant state of dumbstruck awe… on top of a lot of anxiety. The learning curve of going from a person who has no idea what they want in life to an accidental businessperson is complicated and counterintuitive to my nature. I’ve fought myself every step. I have to repeatedly tell myself this isn’t all simply happening to me. I wrote things, I created things. There was a trajectory. I deserve it. I can figure it out and when I can’t, I have people in my life who are so generous with their advice, perspective and love and it’s not only going to be okay, but I’m doing a great job. Mistakes and wrong turns have been made, but why wouldn’t there be? There will be more. It’s how I respond to them that matters. Knowing this is so freeing. The possibility that I have been successful because of my lack of knowledge or savvy has not missed me.
Understanding the value of my work and worth and learning how to ask for it have been huge challenges. I’m using my time and energy to create culture and resources for others. It is a service and people are using it. I am learning to expect compensation. Without it, I can’t spend all of the time on this that I do. I’m learning that it is okay to say “no” or even not respond to certain opportunities. In the beginning, I thought I had to say “yes” to everything or possibly lose it all. I’m now saying “no” more often than “yes,” and it’s made a huge improvement in my mental state and output. It’s empowering.
Another thing, sponsorship and brand partnership look glamorous and sometimes it is, but just because a company has money does not mean I am getting a lot of money. I can’t even begin to entertain the thought of quitting my day job. (Hey sponsors, get at me!)
In 2018, I will continue to figure out good boundaries with my time and worth. I will get over myself and regularly ask for donations from followers. It is so hard to ask, but it’s even harder to not have the resources to do this important work. If you are reading this and enjoy or use my content in any way, please consider making a donation.
A reluctant public figure
Social media is the worst of the best. There are major downsides to a mostly social media based project or job. All of the impression management is such a boner killer. Most of us are addicted and it isn’t our fault or about being weak-willed. The “likes” and attention create little chemical pings in our brains, so we want more and more. The immediacy of modern communication is addicting in itself. There is always something to check. And there are a lot of opinions.
If I post something about a brand I’m wearing or working with, I’ll get tons of comments about how that brand has failed someone in some way, or worse, they’ll want me to answer for it. Um, Karen, I’m not about to ask you to answer for the U.S. government because you work for it. Sally, I don’t think you’re guilty for Walmart’s sins just because you’re trying to get a check. I know it isn’t actually about me, but it gets me down.
I am honored that people feel moved to share their stories with me and I answer most of the messages I get. Don’t stop contacting me! However, just because I share my life online, doesn’t mean one knows me and it doesn’t make one entitled to my time. Emotional labor is REAL! I don’t always have a lot to give, especially when the negative correspondence comes in waves. We aren’t even going to talk about the endless comments and messages I get about why I have to bring politics and identity into things when the outdoors is supposedly for everyone. It’s exhausting and disheartening.
What’s next in 2018?
This all feels so new it’s hard to say. I’m still trying to claim my seat at the table and many things remind me of its fragility. Being a big brand will never be the point. I want to lead more hikes across the country, create merch, keep normalizing diversity and representation in the outdoors and continue my efforts to make all that I do as inclusive as possible.
I want a lot of things for myself, too. I want UH and my writing practice to be my full-time job. I want to write a book and update the blog more. I want to hike longer, harder trails and backpack for the first time. I want to read so many books, travel and visit more national parks. I want to make plus-size outdoor gear more accessible and cute. I want to keep showing people how to get outdoors and find the healing, place and peace nature provides. There are many ways to do so. Hiking is only one of them.
Yesterday was New Years Eve. It was an elusively sunny day in Portland. I led a hike in my beloved Forest Park with a group of people who truly exemplify Unlikely Hikers’ mission. All of us together, sharing space in nature at the intersections of our experiences. I can’t think of anything better than this as I greet 2018.
Oh, and a few weeks ago I got kittens!
Love, luck and nature healing to all of you. Thank you for being here with me.
Photo re-cap of 2017 and some of my favorite hikes: