The Luxury of Liberation
Come summertime, my family and I were animals, and the wilderness was our habitat: the bright bonfire with spooky stories, a lake beating the shore in the distance, and the stars above—too many to possibly count. Sunny days were filled with fishing trips on my papa’s boat. Family legends of the walleye that got away consumed our minds every time we passed the lake. By the time I was ten, I understood how to set up a tent. By sixteen, I had visited numerous National Parks, and sleeping under the stars had become my refuge. My family did not go on many exotic vacations, but they eagerly awaited the weekends that we spent avoiding poison ivy and coating on layers of sunscreen and bug spray.
When I was a preteen, my parents sent me to a residential YMCA camp on a beautiful lake. Each year, I waited in anticipation for July to come when I would spend hours catching up with my camp sisters by the bonfire. It was a magical place away from the noise, one where I could do anything I wanted—swim, fish, sing, dance, and listen to the frogs and crickets as I drifted off to sleep. These moments in my girlhood made me feel strong and confident. Under layers of dirt, sweat, and lake-water was a girl who could take on the world, no matter what obstacles stood before her.
Each year, mom bought me the essentials, like bathing suits and hiking shoes, but also luxury items, like portable fans and ground-lounge chairs. She had grown up outside, so she was excited to give her children everything they needed to have the same experiences. After that big pre-camp shopping trip, I was ready to embark on an outdoor adventure.
When I was eighteen, the same camp I attended as a child hired me as a counselor for the summer. Working with seventh and eighth grade girls reminded me of the sweetness, heartbreak, and excitement that came with growing up in such a special place. There’s something about a still summer night and the twinkling stars above that empowers young women. I spent two months laughing, crying, and chasing dainty penny-toads with the girls in Crockett cabin. It was the best but also the most difficult summer of my life as I began to realize my liberating outdoor experiences were not inclusive of all young women.
As a camp counselor, I gained a better understanding of the value—and the costs—of outdoor recreation. While some girls like me came to camp decked out with a new sleeping bag, flip flops, and copious amounts of sunscreen, other girls could barely afford to come to camp. The YMCA provided scholarships to families in need, but that did not necessarily mean their children had all they needed for camp once they were there. Some kids arrived without jackets, proper footwear, sunscreen, and bathing suits. While I was a fish that could barely be convinced to come out of the lake, other girls had never swam or even seen a lake. While I had spent days fishing each summer, many girls could not afford even a pole. Some girls in my cabin had never spent a week outside of their city block. The life that shaped me as a young woman was not available to every girl. How had I never realized this privilege?
I thought about all of the outdoor experiences I had been given—and the costs associated. Maybe a girl has access to nature, but what about the equipment necessary to confidently adventure into the outdoors? The experiences that had been so empowering for me had the opposite effect on others who couldn’t afford the same luxury outdoor recreation experiences that I had. Some girls came without rain jackets, so they endured stormy days in uncomfortable wet clothes and shoes. And while adventuring requires gear for safety, it also demands a sense of solidarity among the group. The girls who came without the brand new gear compared themselves critically to those who did; insecurity and an awareness of the group’s inequality held them back from fully benefiting from their outdoor experience.
After my sophomore year of college, I seized the opportunity to work for a National Park Service in Northern Michigan for a summer. I designed and implemented education programs that provided all outdoor equipment needed for immersion into the wilderness, totally free of cost to students. Those girls who may not have access to the necessary gear would be on a level playing field as others who did. They would confidently be able to embark on this wilderness experience. I remember the excitement and determination as we boarded the boat to a small island in Lake Michigan, packs brimming with sleeping pads, flashlights, and enough instant oatmeal to feed a small army. Our time on the island was filled with inspiration as we hiked up sand dunes, identified wildflowers, and performed endless tick checks.
Although I remember our adventures fondly, the trip did not necessarily achieve our mission. Hoping that the program would reach underserved communities, I was disappointed that the kids on the trip were not our intended audience. They weren’t the girls at camp that had never seen a lake. These students had come from families similar to mine and had spent a great deal of time camping as children. Wilderness experiences are costly—between backpacks and water filters, it’s not every day that a child might get this experience for free.
Girls who have the opportunity to adventure outdoors are likely to continue embarking on similar experiences in adulthood. Outdoor recreation has been proven to enhance physical and mental health, facilitate higher self-esteem, and in my experience, provide women with an overall sense of strength and liberation. But when these experiences are too costly, young girls from low-income communities do not have access to recreation, and they are less likely to seek out these opportunities when they are older. They don’t just miss out on a girlhood adventure in the woods because they don’t have hiking boots; they miss out on a whole realm of outdoor experiences and the benefits they provide.
The titanium marshmallow roasting set always seemed a bit unnecessary to me anyway. At five years old, I would much rather fetch a dead branch from the woods and use a pocket knife to carve out a sharp tip—perfect for roasting marshmallows. Nevertheless, my siblings and I grudgingly used these luxury tools when it became too dark to hunt for our own. I appreciate the gear that has facilitated my recreational experiences throughout my life, but I also understand that my girlhood spent outdoors occurred because my family could afford it.
Though I am no longer a child, the great outdoors is still my refuge. While I struggled with my mental health throughout college, hiking, bird watching, and fishing was, and still is, therapy unlike any other. Moonlit nights spent in my worn hiking boots have inspired line after line of poetry. Bonfires are still spent searching for the perfect marshmallow stick, and the confidence I received from outdoor recreation in girlhood has blossomed into a dynamic passion. And it is through this passion that I understand the need for outdoor recreation to become more inclusive of low-income communities. Gear should be more accessible and inexpensive, and nature nearer. Scholarships and programs that bring girls of all backgrounds to the woods, lakes, and starry nights are critical. Girlhood is an essential time for empowerment and liberation, and the great outdoors are a phenomenal place for achieving just that.
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