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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.