Poses and Pints: Finding My Tribe


I can remember the first time I walked into the studio. I was way too early, as in the first one there - *face palm*. That’s my social anxiety with new places and people flaring up. I picked a corner in the back of the room and unrolled my mat, sitting quietly and praying other people would show up soon. My friend Becca had invited me to join the class, bribing me with the fact that since it was next to a brewery we got a beer with our class price. But WHERE WAS SHE?!? I shifted on my mat awkwardly when the instructor Tracey showed up a few moments later, then stood up and approached her, wiping the nervous sweat off my palms when she chirped out a happy greeting. I still remember the huge grin on her face and the smile lines around her kind eyes as she welcomed me to her class. I was instantly at ease and found myself reflecting that same big smile back at her. 


Thankfully, before I had time to doubt my sudden lack of fear, Becca shows up. We sat and chatted as the room begin to fill up. Around 20 or so people filled the space around us. I glanced around as I stretched out and reached for my toes. Mostly younger women and a few men, all looking like they knew what they were doing. Fit. Skinny. 'Damn, thats a pretty mat’ I thought enviously as a young woman took the place beside me. Lululemon tights. Prana mat. Pro pedicure. She looked like she had just stepped out of Shape magazine. Embarrassed by my own TJMaxx clearance sale yoga mat, soft mid-section, and old leggings, I picked at my chipped toenail polish. Tracey called the class to start, so I turned my attention to my breath.


Yoga is my safe space. With a stressful job and mild, undiscussed anxiety, I need it to function. And here, I found myself in a new neighborhood, with fewer friends, during a wild part of my life with a lot of important changes. My social skills have changed from grade school, when I was chastised for being the social butterfly. The playground is way bigger and scarier for an adult. So, my step into this new world would be in a familiar place. My practice.


As we began to move through our salutations my awareness of my neighbors began to fade. Instead of as individuals, I began to notice the sounds of our breath syncing. Bodies morphed into little energy fields, moving to their own beat. We flowed, inhaled, exhaled, and sweat together. Settling into savasana, I rooted myself to the ground and felt the energy of the souls around me. Even with my eyes closed I felt the connection, tears waiting for a break in my mental armor. After I opened my eyes, I glanced around and saw a new group of faces. Instead of seeing height, or size, or the clothes on their back, I noticed mothers, teachers, the guy who took my order at the coffee shop, someone from the bar, artists, cyclists, and smiling strangers. This is the feeling we were all chasing. The opening of self, even surrounded by doubts and unfamiliar people. Our practice brought us to an equal level, where we celebrated our differences and bonded over our universal search for balance. I remember smiling over at Becca and saying “Yes.” 


Two years later, I find myself getting to class first on purpose. Monday yoga at Alliance is a very popular class now, to the point of running out of spaces. Staking out my same spot in the back of the room, I rise to my feet quickly now when Tracey or her Rigazzi Wellness business partner Veronica walk in, arms outreached to embrace them. I had only seen Tracey a few days before, but she’s always one of those people I genuinely can’t wait to see again. The number of drinks we’ve shared after class has stretched into uncountable territory. Weekday hangouts at trivia, puppy dates, and bike rides with this group are now part of my weekly schedule. Tracey jokes with Becca and I frequently about being “groupies” and we laugh knowing it’s not far from the truth (I’m still in favor of making shirts). We are all part of a dedicated tribe, and rarely miss a Monday class. And that tribe keeps growing, outside the walls of the brewery. I love my back row, where we share the giggles, sometimes mutter curse words with a ragged breath (not always quiet, sorry not sorry), and grasp out at our neighbor with our eyes closed as we run out of stretching room. 


Since I started surrounding myself with these amazing people, I have hit my lowest low and then bounced back to a high I never knew existed. I love my shape, push myself out of my comfort zone, and have raised the bar for what I want to achieve professionally, as well as individually — my physical and mental health, as well as acceptance of my past. And it’s because of my tribe. I would have never found them without yoga or the inclusive nature of our practice. In all the years I’ve gone to my mat, I never found a home like I have with our Ragazzi family. If you are looking for your tribe, come meet us. But come early, because mat space fills fast…

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My First Love

I can still remember feeling her struggle for breath, her dark brown eyes wide with fear and pain, head heavy in my lap. Hot tears were streaming down my face as i rocked back and forth in the pouring rain, cross-legged in our muddy pasture behind the barn. We were hours into the struggle. That morning started with irritable stomach pain, but by afternoon the vet had been called out twice in the middle of a storm, pumped her stomach and administered Banamine, to no avail. We walked in circles until she gave up and collapsed. Impaction colic only leaves an owner with two options. Blinded by my tears, I knew I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I looked up at the vet and my mother and barely choked out “It’s time to let her go..”

I was fourteen years old and had just lost the love of my life…

When we brought Ebony home we had no idea what we were getting into. My family had owned horses as long as I can remember, but she was MY first horse. I had begged after our first mare Penny passed away and promised everything under the moon to get another horse. I think my dad was the one who caved, and one morning when I was ten years old, a trailer pulled into our driveway. A beautiful blanket Appaloosa mare leapt off the trailer, eyes wild and trembling. It took us a long time to calm her down and get her settled, but that was just a glimpse as what was to come. The next few days revealed a nervous, untrusting horse, ill suited for a child. But I was stubborn and convinced I could change her heart. I had no idea how much she would change mine.

I started by just being around her while she grazed in the pasture. She kept her distance at first, but as I sat day by day in the grass, she slowly stepped  closer and closer. Eventually tolerated me stroking her neck and velvety muzzle. After a few weeks she would follow me around the field. I’d put a saddle on her back with my dad’s help and lead her around our property, down the trails in the woods and along the creek. When I finally got on her back she stood and looked back at me, almost as if she was saying “It took you long enough, girl.”

Bareback and carefree, age 13

Bareback and carefree, age 13

From that moment, we had freedom. I was on her back every day, exploring the countryside around our farm. We galloped the empty cornfields, hair flying behind us. Summer days changed to winter afternoons in the woods, Ebony’s hooves crunching in the snow, stalking my brothers in their forts and being chased through the trees by their paintballs. She was my war mare, never flinching. The first boy that broke my heart had his name sobbed into her mane along with hot, angry tears.  In the dark I remember sitting backwards on her as she stood half asleep in her stall, laying my head down on her speckled rump with my arms slack along her ribs, feeling her long, slow breaths. I got taller and older, as did she, but that is always where i found myself in a time of crisis. Lying reversed on her back, cheek on her warm fur, feeling the rise and fall of her ribs with each breath and hearing her heart beat.

When she died, I skipped school for two days, unable to climb out of my hole of grief. She was my first love and I was heartbroken. It would be years before I found another horse that made my heart skip a beat again. She came in the form of a gangly, untrained two year old my neighbors had for sale. In a twist of fate, I had met the filly as a foal, just weaned from her mother’s side. We had visited the farm to look at another horse the year before and I was so distracted by the cute foal running around, I never really looked at her mother, who was for sale. I begged my parents for the foal, but they didn’t think I was old enough at sixteen for such a big training project. When I recognized her unique paint markings a year later, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a sign.

I took that filly home for $600 and named her Belle. Just like with Ebony, I spent months training her on the ground, going slowly and carefully. We bonded quickly and she would trot behind me like a puppy. We walked with her saddled and explored the farm, following faded hoofprints from years prior. We grew together. Two years later, I felt confident that Belle was ready to carry me. Wearing a helmet, safety vest, and holding my breath, I gingerly swung onto her back and waited. Instead of the rodeo show I expected, my little mare let out a soft sigh and turned her head to look back at me, almost as if she was saying “It took you long enough girl.” My heart swelled, thinking back to the mare I had lost, and we walked off for our first ride. I never looked back.

I’m now thirty and Belle is fourteen. She has followed me through college, the birth of my daughter, the heartbreak from a man I thought I would marry, to my first professional job in North Carolina, and finally here to Tennessee. She is my rock, my constant in life, and the best therapist money can buy. Sometimes it’s months between our rides now, as I ride professionally and don’t have the time like I used to. But I know if I walked out to the pasture right now and lay across her back, she would listen and breathe with me. I have owned, ridden, and loved many horses, but they say you only get one true heart horse, that horse of a lifetime. I feel lucky I had two. Perhaps Ebony came back to me in the form of a painted mare and we are enjoying the days we never got together growing older. Horses have taught me many lessons over the years, about life, loss, and most importantly, love. They will be a part of my life till I leave this earth. Put simply

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man...
— Winston Churchill
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Blazing a Trail: Finding Yourself in the Great Outdoors

You can’t come, it’s a boys’ trip. Girls don’t go to deer camp...

Those words rang in my ears and tears welled in my eyes. As a nine year old girl I couldn’t understand the unfairness of the situation. I watched my father and two younger brothers pack their hunting gear and bags into the truck that would take them hours from home the following morning. I remember sobbing into my mother’s lap, begging to go. I was a better shot than Sam, and Zack didn’t even really want to go! Why couldn’t I?

My early cowgirl days. Little did my parents know this was actually a dream I would pursue.

My early cowgirl days. Little did my parents know this was actually a dream I would pursue.

I was the only daughter to a family with four sons. To say I was a tomboy was an understatement. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a log cabin in the woods, surrounded by farmland, trails to ride my horse on, and no city noises to pollute the sounds of birds and wind. The great outdoors was my babysitter. In the summer our parents would turn us out to run free, as long as we returned in one piece for dinner. We played games with our cousins at the farm and would pick teams depending on the activity at hand. Of course, the boys were always chosen first. “You’re not fast enough! You can’t climb that high! You’ll get hurt! Only boys can do that!” Us girls would look at each other and act like we didn’t care. But under that game face, I tried so hard to be one of the boys so I could do all the things they got to do. They didn’t make any girls clothes at the time that could handle my adventurous playtime, so I usually wore my brothers’ clothes, which infuriated them. They would yell at me for hanging out with their friends and building forts with them, instead of playing Barbies inside. “But still, she persisted…"

All the way through high school I struggled with my identity as a woman who loved the outdoors. I wasn’t soft-spoken or gentle. I didn’t wear much makeup. I detested dresses. I had calloused hands and chipped fingernails. I’m not even entirely sure my parents realized they didn’t have five sons until I started dating. And even then, it was hard to find a boyfriend who could keep up with me. I would continue to struggle with this identity for years, even while working as an outdoor guide. “But still, she persisted…”

2017 was dubbed “The Year of the Outdoor Woman” by various publications and retailers. After decades of trudging though the mainstream ideas that women couldn’t do certain things, we finally shouted back “YES WE CAN!” The industry finally realized we really, truly mattered. Women account for 63% of the outdoor retail industry, according to Outside Magazine, yet we are sorely under-represented. Most companies were thinking up until this point that to sell a women's specific product they needed to make it smaller, softer, flowery, and form fitting. The cringeworthy term “shrink it and pink it” needed to die. Newsflash: we come in all shapes and sizes! Gear and clothing needs to not only fit and look good, but it needs to perform! Aside from the retail angle, companies began to push women specific events and initiatives. REI will go down in history for their “Force of Nature” campaign, which took the outdoor industry by storm. They partnered with Outside magazine and designed an ENTIRE ISSUE strictly for women. One of the articles in the magazine really hit home for me. The article stated that women are suffering from the pressures of social norms not only in the workplace, but at home. We have spent years bending over backwards for our jobs, husbands, and children, all with a smile on our face. The outdoors was becoming a place to escape and mentally (and physically) release that pressure.

One of my dearest friends who is a constant inspiration. Not only in my yoga practice , but in my life. Thank you Tracy…

One of my dearest friends who is a constant inspiration. Not only in my yoga practice , but in my life. Thank you Tracy…

I never truly felt that I had found my tribe until I moved to Knoxville. I started to surround myself with fierce women who played as hard as I did. Some are short, some are tall. Some are thin, some are round. Some are yogis, others shred the mountain bike trails. Some of us are slow, some are fast. Some are mother, daughters, sisters, wives…but we all have one thing in common. We love nature.

So why write an article about all this? Recently I found myself struggling with work pressures, an overflowing inbox and to-do list, and the stressful illness (followed by the vet bill) of a sick horse. I decided I needed a nature break, and not just a quick hike. This was serious. Scrolling through Facebook that morning a memory from a year ago popped up on my screen. It was a photo of myself, taken in a field in Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with a herd of elk behind me. My hair was windblown, my eyes sparkled, my clothes were dirty, and I had a huge smile on my face. THAT is what I was missing. I immediately messaged one of my best friends, who happens to be an ICU nurse with a crazy schedule, and she felt the same way. We needed to get away. I rashly booked a campsite in North Carolina for the following week, the first Monday in October. I told her we only had 24 hours, so let’s pack in as much as we can without planning anything. I’m normally a control freak planner when it comes to a trip, but this felt right to just wing it.

We left Knoxville Monday morning with the intention of stopping near the state line to hike before heading to our campsite. I remembered a trail I had done years prior when I lived in Asheville near Big Creek that was long enough to warrant a dip in Midnight Hole, which was near the beginning of the trail. The trailhead was deserted, and we had only passed a few cars on the winding roads along the Pigeon River and Big Creek. My anxiety from the last several weeks started to melt away with each crunchy step of my boots on the rocky dirt. Leaves were gently falling to the ground, and the water gushed below the trail in a ravine, drowning out my thoughts of work and stress. We got so distracted by the beauty, we made a wrong turn to Mouse Creek Falls, which added another mile or so to our journey. When we found the falls, the water was smashing off the lower rocks into a fine mist that beat lightly against our cheeks. The air tasted cleaner, more pure. A warm rock invited a short nap and we finally headed back down the trail. We were dripping sweat by the time we reached Midnight Hole, only a mile or so from our car. It was definitely not what I would consider swimming weather, but we had the pool and falls to ourselves and we were hot from our hike. We looked around…no one to be seen…and stripped down to our bras and underwear and jumped in. The cold water knocked the air out of my lungs like a freight train! I have NEVER felt such cold water in my life. Ice needles pricking my skin, I gasped for breath and dove back under. Darting around our legs were dozens of rainbow trout, curious about the two crazy chicks that had landed in their home. I showed Portia how to spot the fish against the rocks, and we wisely decided to get out before we got hypothermia. The hike back to the car helped fix that, as the sun started to sink lower over the mountains surrounding us.

Portia and I hiking in Big Creek. Shortly after this photo we got to Midnight Hole and nearly passed out from jumping into the freezing water. REFRESHING!

Portia and I hiking in Big Creek. Shortly after this photo we got to Midnight Hole and nearly passed out from jumping into the freezing water. REFRESHING!

The drive to Cataloochee was short and we had camp set up in less than an hour. Tents? Check. Firewood? Check. Food? Duh. Beer and whiskey? Double check! We spent the evening laughing, planning future trips (I’m coming for you Iceland) and reminiscing over adventures past. Two girls without a care. The alarm at 6 AM came quick, and it was pitch black out. We packed up camp by the light of our headlamps and made coffee on our camp stove, determined not to miss the show.

Driving slowly through the gates past the rangers station, we were the only headlights in the black. Windows down, our ears strained to hear. I pulled off the road and turned the car off, hoping…praying. Then, only a dozen or so yards from the car, we heard a faint huffing noise. It started as a low guttural groan and crescendoed as a screeching bugle that raised goosebumps on my arms and made my hair stand on end. The eerie challenge of the bull elk was echoed further away in the trees by his rival. We had found the rut.

Sunrise in Cataloochee Valley…a herd of elk barely visible in the background.

Sunrise in Cataloochee Valley…a herd of elk barely visible in the background.

As the sun began to rise, dark shadows in the field emerged as cows and calves lying in the grass. A large bull was bedded down a stone’s throw from my car. The bugling became more intense until suddenly another larger, much more aggressive bull elk came barreling from the tree line and defended his harem from the interloper closest to us, his giant antlers sweeping low towards his opponent. We watched in silence as the victor returned to his herd, screaming in triumph. His cry echoed and ricocheted off the peaks around us and made me remember the words of my yoga instructor and dear friend Tracy:

This moment is fleeting. This moment, right now, will never be here again. This is the only time you will experience what is happening before you. Cherish it, and be present.
Calling a challenge…

Calling a challenge…

We took the long way home down a long gravel road with no cell reception, no GPS. And as far from technology as we were, I had never felt such a deep connection. Not only to nature, but to myself, my friend, the moments we had experienced. I got much more than I had came for. And I knew I would continue searching for that feeling, that connection, for the rest of my life. More women should feel comfortable enough to push themselves to experience these things as well. I understand my privileges, which makes me want to be a greater voice for women who can’t or haven’t made themselves heard. We need to equal the playing field that is the great outdoors. Not just with clothes or gear. But also with community. 2017 may have been the year of the outdoor woman, but our journey is far from over. This is still a world and niche dominated by men. As a strong, loud woman of the outdoors, I want to help other women find their voices. Whether that’s attending a class at REI for women’s bike maintenance, a group hike in the Smokies, or yoga at a local brewery. Your tribe is out there.

Tracy, me, Becca, and Sarah at the 2017 AMBC Fall Fest. Dirty, happy, and maybe a little drunk…

Tracy, me, Becca, and Sarah at the 2017 AMBC Fall Fest. Dirty, happy, and maybe a little drunk…

Want to find women like us? Check out these initiatives that focus on women in the outdoors:

  • Mountain Chicks - A national group founded by women for women that organizes group hikes and adventure events. Check mtnchicks.com to find your state’s chapter (We have one here in Knoxville that I am an ambassador for).

  • Bell Joy Ride - A Knoxville group dedicated to Inspiring women to ride and progress in mountain biking by providing rides and resources that are supportive, social, fun and confidence building.

  • Women Hikers and Outdoor Adventurers - An East Tennessee based Facebook group whose sole purpose is to encourage, educate, and empower women to get outdoors while providing a welcoming community of sisterhood that fosters individual personal growth and personal responsibility through outdoor exploration.

  • SheJumps: An organization whose goal is increase the participation of women and girls in outdoor sports.

  • And She’s Dope Too: An adventure collective for females, that stresses collaboration over competitiveness.

  • SheExplores: A podcast that is quickly becoming a mover and shaker in the outdoor industry, articulating social and cultural themes surrounding the female outdoor experience.

Clinched

She's remeniscint of the girl you loved to hate in high school. Beautiful. Mysterious. Everyone wanted her. To spend time with her. To feel her affection, boys and girls alike. If you were fortunate, she would gaze upon you every now and then, instead of looking through you like you didn't exist (which was ninety nine percent of the time). You're embarrassed by how many times you've tried to talk to her or even smile at her in class. Secretly hoping that someday she'll want to be your friend.

And then it happens. One day, she walks across the noisy, crowded lunchroom and asks if you want to sit with her and her friends. She doesn't even wait for your answer. With a flip of her perfect blonde hair over her shoulder, she saunters back to her table, knowing you're already grabbing your lunch tray and tripping over yourself to catch up.

As you shyly sit down, you try to melt into the chatter surrounding you, but all you can manage to do is wonder if this is some sort of joke. Any minute she's going to dump her tray over your head or make a cruel remark about your clothes. But to your surprise, she starts talking to you. And laughing with you. Offers you a piece of gum before you walk to your next class together. Deep down, you know there is bullshit ahead, but why not bask in this moment? You know it's short lived...

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She's the Clinch River.

Most of you familiar with this stretch of water have probably heard her nickname, which I use more than her real name. The Grinch. And much like the Grinch of fables and lore, she is a cruel mistress. Over the last three years I have spent hours trying to figure her out, as have many other East Tennessee anglers. But she has as many faces as the diamonds in blondie's tennis bracelet from high school. Every day she's a new bitch. Some days she'll tease you with bites or shadows of trout that dash away from your fly right as you prepare for a hook set. Or maybe your buddies in the next drift boat are hauling in fish after fish and it's all you can do to not chuck your rod into the current. You stare at the swirling riffles and swear on your life you won't be skunked that day. But the stink follows you home, well after you've swilled the last lukewarm beer and packed up your gear.

But every now and then...once in a very great while...she'll turn her favor on you.

I had little expectation Sunday as we ran our shuttle vehicles to the ramp. Hurricane Irma was on our tails and the wind was whipping through the sycamore branches along the banks of the river. I could already see all the nymph rigs I'd be untangling throughout the day. I had my favorite 5wt at the ready though, and I'd be damned if I was going to have a bad time. Generation was mild, with a second generator cranking up a few hours after we put the Hyde in the water. We thought maybe we'd have a few good hours to try to fish, and spent the rest killing beers as we floated downstream. 

To my annoyance, Jamie wanted to stay near the put in and throw "a few casts" in a spot he swore held good fish. We could barely speak to each other though as a local group of bait fisherman cackled over the banks, trying to launch an old johnboat off a trailer that looked to be from the age of Adam. The motor choked to life, spewing fuel and a noxious blue cloud over the water. I figured any trout that stuck around to watch that shitshow were now suffocating on the fumes. It was all we could do to keep from laughing loud enough for them to hear us, and then it happened. My indicator dove deep and I almost missed the set. What felt like a monster turned out to be a very feisty 8 inch rainbow. Well, damn. A fish in the first 15 minutes seems like a fluke. I snapped his picture, knowing this might be my only catch of the day, and let him slip through my fingers back down to the deep. Got the stink off! I was ready to find quieter water and move downstream, but we decided to throw a few more good drifts before pulling anchor. Minutes later I pulled in a pretty footer. Was I smiling? Released.

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"Ready to move?"

"Just one more cast..." (famous last words)

I tossed a sloppy, surface-slapping cast and immediately moved to re-cast in shame when the line ripped through my fingers. Hot line! Big fish! It dove, zigged, zagged, and launched out of the water, trying to throw my hare's ear. I was cackling like a little kid as I slowly worked him towards the net. This was the biggest rainbow I'd caught on this river to date with a flared, and I threatened Jamie with physical harm if he couldn't net it. Once in the boat all I could do was admire it and screech. Seventeen-ish inches of rainbow just starting to show it's fall colors. I could still see the boat ramp and was tempted to call it a day right there. What else could top my first hour?

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Not the next three. I caught maybe a fish every 45 minutes after an intense staring contest with my indicator. This is the Clinch I know. At one point when the sun peeked out, I felt myself nodding off. My head lolled back and I snapped myself awake at one point. I gave up for about 20 minutes and rested my head on my knees and napped. Sunburnt and satisfied with my day, I was happy to just sleep back to the take out.

The last mile offered dirty water, swirling cross-currents, and unpredictable wind. I had caught six fish, which I considered a great day. I figured, why the hell not, let's wet my line again. When I got another bite, my spirits lifted. "Get another," Jamie prodded. It was an average Joe, ten inches or so. Another fish landed. Average Joe again. And then another. And another. And then I was at thirteen. I was beside myself. SHE LIKES ME! SHE REALLY LIKES ME! *insert mad cackling here*

In total, I gave sixteen trout a remarkable story to tell their friends later that night. For them I'm sure it was a alien encounter that other had experienced before, but kept hush-hush about. And I secretly feared no one would believe mine. Even Jamie was a little thrown off by the Ol' Girl's sense of generosity. Basking in the afterglow, I have to remind myself...this feeling is fleeting. It won't always be this way. But I'm going to enjoy it now. 

The truck ride back to the shuttle point was pretty quiet. What else was there to say? A few times I halfheartedly apologized to Jamie about not rowing and he waved them off, telling me it was just as fun to watch somebody doing it. As we loaded up, I knew this was not a day I would see again for a long time. Because what the Grinch giveth, the Grinch taketh away. 

 

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Recovery

Sometimes the best time to start something is when you're stuck.

 

 

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The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark
— John Muir