Walking Past Rattlesnakes

Written by Narinda Heng in her blog Transitional Zone last year following the 10th annual Women of Color Wilderness Retreat led by Balanced Rock. This year’s adventure hits the trail in just one week! musclesgroupshot_2014WOC copyThe rattlesnake lay partially coiled on the right side of the trail, still making faint sounds of wariness and irritation when Miho started hiking again. “Do you want me to go first?” Elizabeth asked as I hesitated.  I looked up at her, then promptly turned and walked past the snake as it slowly slid around the small boulder and descended the hill, making its way out of sight.

We were about halfway through our 5-day backpacking trip along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. We had started from White Wolf and would finish at Tuolumne Meadows. It was late July. It was hot. It was rattlesnake season. The El Portal Fire was still burning through thousands of acres though we didn’t see much evidence of it in the sky. We were a group of eleven women of color from age 22 to 53, brought together by Balanced Rock Foundation for this backcountry journey, on the tenth anniversary of these women of color trips. The claim is that it is the only trip of its kind in the country.

I know that there are women of color leading other women of color on trips in the backcountry in the United States, but it seems that the Balanced Rock trip is indeed the only institutionally-led and supported one.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in an immigrant household– not only an immigrant household, but a refugee household– that I had not considered working in the outdoors, or even backpacking recreationally. It was never in my range of vision. I didn’t see it as a possibility for me. From outdoor exploration camp in sixth grade to team-building high ropes courses through college and beyond, I cannot recall a single counselor or instructor who was a woman of color.

That’s not unusual, of course. Everyone has different interests, different vocations, different ways that they recreate, different places they want to spend their leisure time. The practice of carrying 30-40% of your bodyweight across long distances in remote places is understandably not commonly appealing across any demographic. And taking such journeys is far from the only way to recreate outside, nor is it necessarily a more valid way of experiencing nature than to spend an afternoon in a regional park.

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I don’t think everyone should go backpacking. I don’t think everyone needs to try rock climbing. But what I recognize now that I think about my journey into outdoor education is that these activities were on the edge of my subconscious. Like the students I watched walk back and forth in front of the LGBT Resource Center office at UC Irvine, apprehensive about walking in. But I knew that I could walk into the LGBTRC. I saw people like me in there. And for most of my life, I didn’t see people like me backpacking, I didn’t see people who looked like me climbing.

The journey to finding these things that are so important now (camping, climbing, outdoor education) happened in small increments. I could say it began with a roommate in college who instigated a camping trip. She was Vietnamese American, and really really into camping. Her excitement was contagious. A bunch of us went car camping somewhere south of Orange County, along a river. We slept under the stars, cooked over fire, and, because we were in college, drank quite a bit. And though I didn’t do much camping until years after that, I think of that experience as the first time I realized that camping was not just a white american thing. (There’s a lot to unpack there about growing up perceiving myself as not ah-khaing, not American, associated with this as well.)

Despite a lifetime of exposure to American ideals about individualism and following bliss and doing what the heart truly desires, I am coming to understand how the smallest spark of encouragement, the smallest invitation, has a profound effect on expanding what I believe is possible for myself.

(To be continued.)

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