We here at PEMBA are always interested in how people find their way into the outdoors. Some people get exposure from birth, and others seek it out. We’re about an even mix of the two here on the team. It makes us wonder: How do others find their way? We asked, and got a really compelling answer from our friend Amy Christensen from expandoutdoors.com. Check this out, and then answer for us: Does her story resonate with you, your friends, or your customers? Just wondering…
“Can you wait for just a moment,” I asked? His eyes rolled back (again) in undisguised exasperation. “You just took ten pictures of those same flowers five minutes ago. At this pace we’re never going to get to the top.” I sighed. He was right, but I couldn’t understand the hurry. Why couldn’t he just enjoy being outside? Wasn’t that enough?
The more hikes we went on together, the less patient he became. “I thought you said you loved the outdoors,” he’d point out when I was trudging along behind him, gasping for breath. I wasn’t all that fit back then, but I hadn’t lied. I did love the outdoors. I just didn’t know how to be out in them.
Growing up in the Maryland suburbs, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to get into the wilderness very often. I was in a Children’s Chorus, played violin and took ballet. There wasn’t a lot of time left for outdoor adventures 2+ hours away.
When we did travel (and we went on a LOT of summer road trips), we visited historical monuments and museums, with a generous sprinkling of National Parks. But I only got a slight taste of what the outdoors was like since we rarely ventured more than 20 feet from the car to explore anything beyond the paved viewpoint.
I moved to Colorado at 22 for an internship and I knew, without a doubt, that I’d be staying. I wasn’t sure exactly why the pull was so strong (having only been to CO once on a long-ago road trip), but I trusted it.
When I arrived, I started hiking with some friends off and on. I was eager to experience the trails, and at first it was exciting. But then my inexperience and lack of fitness began to take their toll. The outdoors became a source of anxiety and frustration for me. I felt discouraged and confused. Why couldn’t I make it to the top? Why did I get so tired so quickly? I became convinced I simply wasn’t cut out for serious outdoor excursions.
The Lincoln Group
One day I got a phone call from a friend who’d started climbing Colorado’s 14ers. He and some friends were planning on a hike the next day and would I like to come along?
I jumped at the invitation, even though at the time, I’d missed the part where he mentioned hiking up to 14,000 feet. I agreed to meet them at the appointed time (silently wondering why we needed to meet so early in the morning).
When I arrived, I realized immediately I was woefully underprepared. “You brought a rain jacket, right?” My friend asked as he eyed my small backpack. I looked at him blankly, the feeling of inexperience and of being a burden welling up inside. “I have an extra one,” someone in the group offered kindly.
With borrowed jacket, hat, gloves, and sunscreen, I, along with five others, set out. As the trail got steeper and the air thinner, one of our friends started feeling the effects of the altitude. I listened, fascinated, as plans to get her to a lower elevation were made, radios exchanged to stay in contact with each other, and words of encouragement were shared. I stayed with the group heading up to the summit.
As it turned out, I was not the last one to make it up (much to my, and I think everyone else’s, amazement). As we sat at the summit and cheered for the others as, one by one, the rest of our party arrived (including the one who’d been having trouble), I marveled at how good I felt—both physically, and emotionally. I was filled with gratitude for my friend who’d invited me to join. He cared about safety. He was patient and encouraging. He’d never questioned my ability to summit. He’d believed in me. And I hadn’t let him, or the others, down.
We continued on that day to summit three more 14ers, and I found myself, towards the end, running along the trail to the summit of Mt. Bross. (Me! Running! Who knew I could do that?) The open views, the crisp, alpine air. The tiny flowers the size of a pencil eraser standing strong in the wind. I found renewed strength and belief in myself. In my relationship with wild nature. I belonged.
After that experience, I realized I had a lot to learn, and some key pieces of gear to acquire. I’m not sure the term #OIBIZ existed back then, but I’m pretty confident that if it had, I’d never have heard of it, or understood what it meant (or how it applied to me). At an outdoor newbie, I found it hard to know what to buy and where to go to buy it. Outdoor advertisements seemed geared towards experts, or veteren outdoor enthusiasts—certainly not to me. The terminology and jargon was foreign and I felt in over my head.
I fumbled through my first few pieces, not really knowing what I was doing. There was the rain jacket (that turned out to be merely water “resistant”) and the thick rag wool hiking socks I bought for summer treks (that subsequently gave me blisters).
Luckily, I was not only spending more time outside hiking, running and training, but I’d found a few knowledgable friends who kindly pointed me in the direction of outdoor retailers when there was a new piece of gear I needed. And contrary to my initial belief that I didn’t belong in “those” stores, it was refreshing to learn that the sales staff were excited and invested in my continued happiness in the outdoors.
I was impressed with their honest answers and assessments of products they shared, and grateful for the education they provided. I learned what “wicking” meant and why cotton wasn’t the best material for cold weather activities. They taught me the difference between “waterproof” fabric and “water resistant” and in what conditions I might wear one over the other. I learned about and began to attend clinics held to introduce newbies like me to sports like snowshoeing and trail running.
I began to feel increasingly confident to walk into a store and ask intelligent questions, and participate in conversations with other outdoor enthusiasts without feeling like a fraud. Other people even began asking me questions!
Coming Into My Own
Slowly, with more and more time spent camping with friends, hiking and running on trails by myself, my connection to the wilderness began to strengthen, along with a deeper connection to myself.
My confidence rose. My understanding of the world around me expanded. I felt as though a fog had lifted and I was actively participating in my life. And as my experiences matured, so did my awareness. I began making better choices for myself (career, finances, relationships—especially relationships!)
Looking back at those early stressful hikes, I’m grateful for realizing that who you’re with can make a huge difference. I am incredibly grateful for the people I’ve encountered along this journey who taught, encouraged, supported and believed in me—and still do.
My unconscious had been right oh-so-long ago—this is where I belonged: running along a trail with the smell of evergreen fresh in the air, aspen leaves rustling above.
Amy Christensen is a certified professional life coach at Expand Outdoors who specializes in helping people get unstuck and move forward toward their life goals. She is passionate about helping others develop an active, healthy (and sustainable) lifestyle. She is a trail runner, climber, novice surfer and mountain biker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast and about to embark on a year-long adventure, traveling around the country with her husband, enjoying the outdoors while working from the road.