Adventure is a Matter of Degrees

If you’ve looked at Instagram lately, you might be feeling a lot like I am: deflated and defeated. Although I keep my feed full of mostly outdoor and van life folks to inspire me, seeing thin, young, confident women standing on summits, scaling boulders or waking up in beautiful places in their van with wood paneled walls and a glass tile back splash behind the sink can sometimes make me feel really crappy about where I am. Sometimes I’m honestly a bit sad and bitter about not being their already myself (usually I’ve got at least 10 years on some of the people in these pictures), but sometimes I get kind of angry about it and just really want to scream. Where are all the 40-something and older ladies with a little extra around the middle who look exhausted from a full work week and are just trying to get outside and find some peace while maybe getting some exercise? Where are people just enjoying neighborhood parks instead of National Parks and BLM land? Where are the people of color, the overweight people, the LGBTQ people, the folks with  disabilities? What the hell kind of camera do these people use to capture these amazing shots and how in the hell do they get all these great selfies if they are doing this all by themselves? (Who carries a tripod or selfie stick in the wilderness? Really.)

Part of the reason this has gotten me so down lately is because I have been dealing with a hip injury, one that hasn’t stopped me completely but has made anything more than a 2-3 mile walk on flat terrain pretty uncomfortable. I can’t even think about stairs right now, so all those sublime vistas, even the great ones here in northeast Ohio, are pretty much out of my reach. And while I’ve been sitting here having traded by Merrells for cross trainers for a bit, although I recognize my privilege as a cis white woman and because I will eventually heal, it has really made me wonder how many other people see this lack of representation and just give up altogether on having an active outdoor life. I’ve found myself sitting here a lot of days not even wanting to try and finding all kinds of reasons why I can’t. It’s depressing and defeating as hell, and it also makes me want to rage against this unrealistic ideal that the outdoors only belongs to the thin, straight, extremely athletic and photo-shopped.

But I also am noticing this when I do go out on the trail. Especially where I live now, there’s not a ton of diversity. Even when I can get out and do things, I don’t see a lot of people like me, and that in itself is also sad and disheartening. Although I like to be alone, it sometimes makes me not say hi to others and try not to draw attention to myself and I want to hide and stay still like a frightened deer. I start to wonder some days why I’m even trying to hike and if I even belong there or if the trail and nature really belongs to someone else. Someone not like me.

The fact that many of us don’t match this unrealistic portrayal of life in the outdoors really is okay because it isn’t real. You know, right now I can’t climb mountains or wade to Havasupai Falls. I don’t have the physical ability or the financial means. And I seriously don’t know anyone who can. All the people I know that want to are a lot like me: limited to local places because of other factors in their lives or their health or hell, even just their fear because they don’t think they can do it or feel like they belong.

As frustrated as I am by my challenges right now, this injury has been a great reminder to me that being active outdoors really is only a matter of degrees. There are a lot of things I still can do. The only way I will ever see greater representation on the trail of the people who deserve to be there as much as anybody else is to keep showing up and, when I can, bring my friends. Another thing I can do is encourage others to just start, even if they are afraid they can’t do it or aren’t enough. That’s what I’m hoping to do with this blog, is to encourage regular women, not perfectly presented and airbrushed ones to get outside and get empowered, all of us who might feel like we can’t or don’t belong: women who aren’t straight, including trans women, disabled women, women of color,  beautiful women with bigger bodies.

Let’s show up and not be afraid anymore to be in nature. Let’s just begin, you and me, to find our confidence to be outside, even if that’s just in a city park 20 minutes from home, on a country road or camping at a campground alone or with friends. These are our spaces too and just because we don’t always match what we see on social media, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to connect with our wild selves.

(Stay tuned for more from me on some ways to ease into the outdoors if you need ideas on how to start small and locally now and as I recover.)

Five Amazing Places to Hike Near Akron

Looking for somewhere to start your adventures close to home? Here are some of my favorite spots to get out, get quiet and enjoy the scenery.

  1. Wooster Memorial Park, Wooster, OH:
    Photo: Through the Woods- Emily Speelman

    This amazing primitive park is made up of over nine miles of trails over a variety of terrain. There’s something for everyone, from ravines to streams to forest and even an incredible meadow to traipse through. The park began with donations of land by Paul Spangler, who started donating land to the city in 1961 to be preserved as a park. The city later purchased adjacent land to bring this park to a total of over 300 acres today. This gem is also pretty easy to find off of US 250, near Jefferson and Silver Roads, though the parking lot is small and sometimes rather busy. There is also lots of shade, so bring a picnic lunch and hang out and explore as long as you can.

  2. Worden’s Ledges, Hinckley, OH:
    Photo: Cleveland Metroparks

    This is one of the coolest and, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked parts of the Hinckley Reservation in Cleveland Metroparks. Located off of Ledge Road, some unassuming trails lead off into the woods and down the hill, where, after a bit of hiking, you will encounter the ledges. What makes this place unique are the carvings in the rock, done from 1944-1948 by Nobel Stuart, who inherited the Worden Homestead from his late wife Nettie Worden, whose family had settled on the property in 1860. (You can read more about the history of Worden’s Ledges here.)

    Not only does this park have these cool pictures to check out, it is also connected by trail to nearby Ledge Lake and the rest of the Hinckley Reservation. A 6 mile portion of the Buckeye Trail also connects to the trail here near a beautiful stream if you are looking for an interesting entrance point to a longer hike.

  3. Valley Link Trail, Metroparks Serving Summit County:
    Photo: Metroparks Serving Summit County

    The Valley Link trail is one of my personal favorites, connecting Sand Run Metropark to the Towpath in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This trail is really beautiful regardless of the season, but might be a bit treacherous in the winter without the proper gear due to the hills. I generally don’t really care for out-and-back trails, but this one is worth it for the scenery. The 5.3 mile trail can be accessed from either end, but I’d suggest starting at the entrance at 1690 Cuyahoga St in Akron and just going as far as feels good. Restrooms are available just slightly off trail part way through at Big Bend.

  4. Blue Hen to Buttermilk Falls, Brecksville, OH:
    Blue Hen Falls

    Recently I went on a hike here as part of my first solo trip, but this out-and -back is by far one of my favorite places. The hike to Blue Hen is relatively easy, but not maintained by the National Park Service. The trail to Buttermilk Falls is steep and eroded in places, but not too bad if you go a bit slower in those places and stay alert to where the path crosses the stream, that you basically follow to the second set of falls. At any rate, the reward at the end is absolutely incredible. Bring your camera. You won’t be disappointed.

  5. Virginia Kendall Ledges, Cuyahoga Valley National Park:
    Overlook at Kendall Ledges

    In case you haven’t noticed, I kind of have a thing for rocky places, water and lots of trees. Virginia Kendall, which is part of the National Park, is not an exception. This is a fairly busy area of the park, so don’t go on a nice day expecting solitude. There are a couple of different loop trails here, but the Ledges trail, which is under 2 miles, is the stand-out one for me because it has some beautiful views. This trail is also nice and shady, which makes it a nice hike in the heat of summer, despite the elevation changes. The history of the area is also pretty interesting, and you can read more about that here.

    Please remember, no matter what area you visit, to take good care of the land and leave it just as beautiful (or more) as you found it by following Leave No Trace principles. Get outside in these amazing wild places and reconnect to your own wild strength.

My First Solo Trip

Last weekend I was able to carve out some much needed time to get away from life. I’d also been lucky enough to stumble upon a local woman named Jenny through an old episode of the Hike Like a Woman podcast who owns a business called Camprents. They rent fully stocked backpacking packs, complete with food and camping gear and ship it to you or your destination. I reached out to Jenny on Instagram, asking if she was still looking for beta testers like she mentioned in the podcast, and she graciously lent me one of the packs to try over the weekend.

Because it was sort of a last minute trip, I needed to stay close to home. Originally, I had planned to get dropped off to camp at Stanford House in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and hike back home to my apartment in Akron the following day, but due to the upcoming holiday, all the sites there were booked. A park ranger recommended I try a tree farm down the road that also offered primitive campsites, so I reached out to Heritage Farms, reserved a site, and began planning for my first solo trip.

A few days before my departure, we’d been having some thunderstorms, so I kept a close eye on the forecast, mainly so I could be prepared for the 14 mile hike back home the second day. Then, the day I met Jenny to get the pack, a heat advisory was issued for the weekend, with temperatures expected to be in the 90’s and a heat index over 100 degrees with the humidity. There wasn’t any rain predicted though, so I packed more water and researched which trail heads had drinking water available.

Camprents pack full and ready!

The day I left for my trip was scorching hot and I had decided I did not want to rely on a ride, so I made the decision to drive myself and, rather than hike home with a full pack in the heat, to hike early the next morning near the area I camped. I headed out in the early evening for my drive to the farm, where I parked and hiked in to my site with all my water and gear.

Heritage Farm

 

The site I had chosen sat up on a hill that overlooked the farm and was tucked in a corner near the woods. No one had reserved the other two sites near mine, so I got to be completely alone, which was exactly what I needed after and especially rough, emotionally draining week.

I set up camp and hiked into Peninsula to the Lock 29 trail head. I’d arrived around 6, so my time to hike that first day was shortened by needing to eat dinner and build my fire. I’ve hiked the towpath in this area quite a bit, so I just wandered down the trail enough to find a path just off to the side that led to a quiet little clearing near the bank of the river, where I paused for a minute to cool off, enjoy the beauty and relative silence and try and clear my head.

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath
Cuyahoga River near Lock 29
my trail friend

Earlier in the week my partner, whom I had just moved in with a little over a month ago after dating for nearly a year and a half, decided to break up with me for the second time in our relationship (the first being last fall, where we were apart for 2 1/2 months before deciding to give things another try). Although I had been anticipating it, because I was noticing a lot of familiar patterns, I was doing a much better this time being open about what I needed from our relationship and standing up for my own interests. The way it happened, however, was abrupt and caught me by surprise, and I found myself suddenly upended again, but this time without a place of my own to land or escape to.

I’d planned this trip before our breakup as an empowering first solo trip intended to help me feel like an outdoor bad ass and enjoy this great opportunity to try some new gear. It was just going to be a quick bit of “me time” before our 3 day backpacking trip to Mohican State Forest for her upcoming birthday, where we had camped the previous year. What it ended up being was a retreat, a time for me to remind myself of my own strengths and all the other things I love about life other than her that I could still love and enjoy without her as my partner. I also used the time to reflect on what I wanted for my life that was suddenly blown wide open to endless possibilities, the lessons I had learned from our time together and to find the strength I will need as I rebuild my life alone.

Merrells off near the cool water

I sat by the river for as long as I could before heading back to camp, where I built my own fire, one of the proudest and most memorable moments from my trip, even if it was the simplest of things. Every other time I had been camping, it had been with someone else, and when I tried to start one or wanted to on my own, I always got edged out of the process as my partner came in and took over (and then usually got frustrated themselves when it took a long time or they were less than successful). For me, building and sustaining my own fire felt like a huge win and I was so excited that something so small could make me feel so much more confident.

my first campfire

As the fire crackled, I ate my dinner and wrote until it was too dark to see and my headlamp started to attract too many bugs to use. I wrote about the breakup and the excitement of doing my first trip all on my own, about having started that fire… and also how much I wanted to tell her all about it and share it with her and how sad I was that I couldn’t. When I had to stop writing, I was still sad, but my head felt clearer than it had in days. I turned off the headlamp, and watched the fireflies light up the hillside, flickering on and off in the distance.

As I watched the fireflies all around me, I was reminded that, just like their lights, this moment and all its pain would fade, and then another would come and drift away and another. I realized that life is nothing but a series of moments. I will really miss the moments that I had with her, but I also know we will eventually create new ones. They will be different, but they can still be good, and I’ll also get to make some memories on my own and with new friends. That night, I realized that I can make amazing moments all on my own.

Dawn at Heritage Farm
Camp

As the next day dawned, I decided to write myself a new beginning and seek out more of these experiences that make me feel confident and empowered. I broke camp and headed down the road to one of my favorite trails in CVNP, Blue Hen Falls to Buttermilk Falls.

Blue Hen Falls

Blue Hen Falls is always busy and that day was no exception, despite being 86 degrees at 9:30 AM, so I paused there only briefly and continued down the trail towards Buttermilk Falls.

The path to those falls isn’t maintained. There are logs and a stream to cross multiple times, big hills with only tree roots as steps and parts of the trail that are steep and partial eroded. I’d been there before but I still lost the trail more than once, but still I found my way. When I did, not only was I rewarded by the incredible beauty of the area, but I got to enjoy it in solitude and silence, with only my thoughts and words that I wrote while there. The water cascading down over the shale washed my spirit clean, taking with it my fear of being unable to live my life without my partner. It reminded me that even though the terrain of my life and our relationship was changing, like the trail, I could still find my way to things I love that do endure, these trees and rocks and this water… all these natural places that have been here, in this place, for decades and will still be, before and after all the heartbreaks and victories of my life. I was reminded, in this place, that things can both change and stay the same and that, sometimes, if you can’t find your way or get lost or find yourself alone, it’s not a failure or final, but a chance to blaze your own trail and move in the direction that gives you strength and purpose and brings you joy.

Buttermilk Falls

Although I hope that someday she and I will be the type of friends that can still go camping and on adventures together, and the grief is by no means completely gone, I’m beginning my own adventure: this blog, moving again, beginning to save to build out a camper van that will one day become my own and allow me to see more of these beautiful natural places that both inspire and heal me, and to begin to share the power of writing and the outdoors to uplift and inspire with so many others.

Don’t put off taking a solo trip or think you don’t have what it takes to do things alone. You do, even if you can’t see it or are afraid. All you have to do is be still and listen to that little voice inside you that is still part of the wild.

Where the Wild Things Are

Photo by Pedro Paredes on Unsplash

I’m the kind of person that has an unquenchable thirst for places with few people. I’m not just talking about being alone. I like that a lot too, but being alone in my apartment or car or even in a small corner of a library isn’t really the same. Those places, while they are all cool in their own ways, still have an outside structure imposed on them, one invented by people and policed by social norms. They have artificial light and man and machine made sound. Being alone in them just lacks something, ignores a need I have that can’t be met by neat cul-de-sacs or the manicured crushed gravel trails of city parks. I need variety, organic shapes, natural light, obstacles in my path and the kind of silence where your voice, if you had reason to use it at all, would be heard by no one and would cause the air around you to seemingly break, those natural sounds pausing and disappearing in response to the intrusion.

I like a certain untamed yet purposeful chaos in my settings. That’s why, I think, I’m so drawn to the wild.

I’ve never lived in an actual “city” until last year,  at least not one with a downtown of skyscrapers and with public transit. Mostly I’ve lived in homogeneous, boring suburbs or the edge of the country somewhere, with just enough space to rarely see your neighbors and make a riding mower a necessity. Here, I’m scrounging out a new chapter in my life in more ways than one and (mostly) love it. It’s nice to not have to drive a half an hour to get toilet paper when you run out, for starters, ad museums and libraries help support the habit of my inner culture junkie. But the longer I’m here, the more I’ve noticed how PLACE affects me. Especially since I have been here, I’ve noticed a bigger change in my moods, the quality of my sleep, my relationships, and even my health.

Photo: iStock Photo

Every weekend, if not more often, I feel this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and lost , almost like I fell asleep and woke up in some clinical white rat maze in an undisclosed location. What’s more, I already come prepackaged with a mental illness, so that disorienting sense of being boxed in and yet somehow isolated while in the midst of the noise and bustle of hundreds makes for some pretty rough moments. It also makes me question my decision making skills and why I ever came here.

(Oh yeah. Love. But more on that later…)

When those moments hit me, I kind of panic and begin to break inside. The lights, the sounds, and even the smells intensify to a raging crescendo. And then… I cry. Ugly cry. Uncontrollable fucking sobbing. No matter where I am or who I am with, it happens. I can’t even really tell yet if it WHAT I am doing before seems to matter at all. If I can’t exit immediately and be alone somewhere quiet, everything just gets worse (because it is embarrassing as fuck to cry for no reason in public). Worst of all, I can’t calm myself down. That’s pretty depressing because it means that I just have to wait things out, feel powerless. All the while I know it will probably happen again eventually and be equally mortifying, because it is just another part of who I am, like my less-than-perfect teeth, my lack of a Y chromosome or my queerness. Despite how I might want this particular trait to be different, it kind of just…well…is.

I’ve tried  pretty much everything you can imagine for my anxiety, from mantras and carrying stones in my pockets, to therapy and meditation (which I still do), and even alcohol and drugs (most of them prescribed to me). Exercise was the closest thing that helped, but if you’ve ever been depressed, you know that moving leaden limbs is an uphill battle that’s hard to remember is worth it. Not a damn thing has made any of it better for more than a couple of weeks at a time and of every single thing I tried, not one made it stop.

Living in a city and working in a cubicle makes this a challenge for me. Where’s a girl to go for some privacy during her bi-weekly meltdown? Where the hell can I escape to when there are all these people and constructions barrels and this noise and all the damn expectations and lights and social norms I don’t fit or can’t figure out that make me feel like a freak show? As it turns out, the answer is inside me, an instinct that in my panic I would fail to notice over and over again, yet it was always there: quiet, safe, stable, sacred.

When I need to run, I run to the forest. My saviors are trees.

There’s trees in cities, but I’m still new here, so it took me a while to notice that when I’d leave work in a panic or my partner and I were in a rocky place, I’d drive back to the country where I used to live, to the parks I had been going to since before I let myself actually be myself. I thought I was just going there because I didn’t know my way around yet or because I was scared to be alone in a more urban setting. I didn’t realize it was because I felt safe in the silence.

It may sound like I dislike and avoid people, but nothing could be further from the truth. To me, the real purpose we feel in our lives comes from our interactions with each other and the world around us. It’s how we live and how we give of ourselves freely to help others that makes life worthwhile. But there’s something that makes that difficult to approach or remember at times, for all of us, even those without mental illness. It’s just modern life.

Everything that happens in the forest (and really any other naturally created ecosystem) is purposeful, deliberate and very basic. Being there makes me slow down. It quickly brings my anxiety to a halt when I see the animals and the water and even the fallen leaves and the bugs underneath doing what they do. You know what that is? They survive. That one goal- to do what they were born for, to survive themselves and collectively as a species- informs every single action they take.

What if I could live like that? Does a bird or a squirrel feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of places it could get food or the trees around it? Does a tree feel insecure when its leaves fall because of the change of seasons and mourn that loss? Does the stream get tired of flowing in the same direction, day after endless day? They just don’t. They do one thing and do it without all the complications of emotion: they endure.

In the woods, I’m learning to do that too. I can sit in stillness and be reminded by the wild about what’s really important, that if all I can do is take care of my immediate needs and help my species grow and survive in whatever way I can, that’s enough. When I get out into nature, I come home. When I live with a simple focus like other wild things do, I feel connected, grounded and safe. But when I move my body, when I am purposeful in using that connection to support me until I feel strong, then, there, I am free.

We can do this no matter where we live. What we think of as nature is just a matter of degrees. What part of you is fed by the wild? Maybe for you, like me, it’s how the trees use their roots to steady them and make them stay when everything else around them seems like chaos.