There’s a powerful, simple way to help make the outdoors more inclusive.
When I was in my early 20s, I was deep in the dark holds of living life in the city. I was bartending, drinking too much, aimless. I felt as if my life was falling away from me–but I found solace and strength in a growing love of the outdoors. I took a NOLS course and spent a month sea kayaking in Baja—and realized that living a full life could be as simple as watching the sun rise over the Sea of Cortez as the moon set in the west from the comfort of a sleeping bag on the sand. I learned the basics of telemark skiing on the icy slopes of Cannon Mountain up in New Hampshire and found grace in the form and a desire to put all the negativity in my life into the big, positive endeavor of becoming a better skier. I wanted to be in the city less and on the summits of mountains more.
So I found a volunteer stint with the Student Conservation Association maintaining trails with the U.S. Forest Service in Dillon, Montana. The experience changed me, saved me. I spent days in the wilderness, tuning into the rhythms of swinging a Pulaski into the dirt, and getting a glimpse of elk, bear, fisher cats, and owls in their own space. I moved way from my inner darkness and embraced a life of promise in the outdoors.
While I made some powerful connections and built enduring friendships that summer in Dillon, I also met a lot of people who did not want me to be there. I did my best to be open to the local community, but I also felt the anger of those who felt threatened by an East Coast city boy on their turf. Once, when I was hiking by myself, a ragged character in a cowboy hat and holster came walking up to me along a fence line, put his face (and whiskey breath) up to mine and snarled “Where were you born.” The reply of “Edison, New Jersey, bro” oddly took him a bit off guard, as did my added barb that “but my family has been on this continent since the 1600s… and you?” Not to mention, no white men should feel as if the North American continent, taken by the genocide and displacement of Native people is exclusive to us. That was the end of our encounter.
Here’s the thing. I felt threatened. And I am a white-as-white-can-be man. What if I had been a person of color? Worse, would I even have been able to save myself through the outdoors the way I did at all? How would a 23-year-old Black kid coming from the city to a Montana cow town feel in 1992? And don’t fool yourself, would it feel better now? Or worse? Systemic racism runs deep in our society, and those of us who benefit from it need to constantly look at situations that felt normal or safe for us (or even somewhat threatening) and realize that we are lucky. We have to remember that conversations about inclusivity and safety are not about us—we need to listen with compassion and help drive change.
One powerful initiative that’s making these conversations and changes easier is the new Outdoorist Oath. The brainchild of social activists Teresa Baker, José González, Wyn Wiley (Pattie Gonia), and executive director Gabaccia Moreno, the oath is simply a commitment to address the inequality in the outdoors (and the world) and gently, and actively, work to be the change. It’s also a call to rally all of us to help preserve the outdoors and fight climate change, which the founders see as a result of systemic inequality in our society. It’s one simple, powerful thing you can do to make a difference. Here’s the simple way to start, Go to outdooristoath.org and be a part.
Cover photo: We Swear — Outdoorist Oath founders Gabaccia Moreno (left), Wyn Wiley, Teresa baker, and José González. Photo by Carlo Nasisse