How one woman is challenging mainstream's image of the average hiker
“The switchbacks repeated themselves so many times I couldn’t tell what progress I’d made, but there it was, the last one before the crest. I trudged on, grateful for another morning without a hangover,” Jenny Bruso reads into the mic, reciting her essay "I Took the Long Way" to the standing-room-only crowd of 75.
Bruso is reading before a packed house at Queer Adventure Storytelling, a monthly event for LGBTQ outdoor enthusiasts to share stories, songs and poems about traveling, hiking and nature. As one of the event’s three co-founders, Bruso brings eight years of outdoor experience and enthusiasm to each gathering.
A decade ago, Bruso was a DJ in her mid-20s, mired in a haze of alcohol and drugs, wholly uninterested in the outdoors. In the years since, she's has become an avid hiker who works tirelessly to challenge the mainstream's idea of who recreates outside. In the process, she’s created an online community of self-proclaimed Unlikely Hikers and helped launch the monthly Queer Adventure Storytelling event.
“I said it very passively and wasn’t trying to call myself ‘The Unlikely Hiker,’ but people grabbed onto it.”
San Diego-native Bruso did not grow up recreating in national parks and forests. “We didn’t like the dirt, the bugs or feeling uncomfortable,” she says. “We would much rather watch TV or ride our bikes around the neighborhood.”
When she was 27, Bruso joined her partner at the time and a mutual friend on a trek to Mirror Lake and up Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, a trail that gains 1,700 feet over three miles. “As tough of a time as I was having, I was not immune to how beautiful things were and how they sort of sunk into me,” Bruso says. She marveled at the smell of the forest in the summer sun, the sight of fiery wild rhododendrons.
Gradually, Bruso started opting for hiking over the club scene, working her way up to three to four hikes a week. She started a blog in 2015 to chronicle those adventures and share her outdoor experiences as a “self-identified fat, femme, queer, writer and former indoor kid,” per her blog. She wrote frankly about her struggles on the trail and a pervasive feeling, fed by glossy magazine covers and filtered Instagram feeds, that she didn’t quite belong on the trail. “This thing that I love doing is really white, really male-dominated and really narrow,” she says.
Bruso dubbed herself an “unlikely hiker” in one early post. “I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “I said it very passively and wasn’t trying to call myself ‘The Unlikely Hiker,’ but people grabbed onto it.”
She saw other outdoor enthusiasts using the phrase on blogs and in hashtags and, before long, Bruso started an official Instagram account to spotlight fellow Unlikely Hikers. The community has since grown to 18,000 followers on Instagram and 1,600 fans on Facebook. Today, Bruso routinely posts images and shares stories of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all backgrounds and experience levels, especially those from marginalized groups. Each garners hundreds of likes and dozens of supportive comments. “To be able to share other people’s experiences and stories feels like a tremendous privilege,” she says. “Unlikely Hikers can only exist because of the people who share their stories, reach out and make it a thriving community.”
"There’s so much momentum right now surrounding changing the dominant narrative of who should feel comfortable outside, who’s in all these pictures and who's enjoying our outdoor spaces.”
Last February, Trevor McKee, trainer, instructor and course developer for Outward Bound, Travis Clough, operations manager and instructor with The Venture Out Project, and Bruso developed Queer Adventure Storytelling.
The trio met through mutual friends and quickly set about brainstorming ideas for promoting inclusiveness and encouraging a love of the outdoors. “I feel like there’s so much momentum right now surrounding changing the dominant narrative of who should feel comfortable outside, who’s in all these pictures and who's enjoying our outdoor spaces,” McKee says.
In developing the event, McKee quickly became enamored of Bruso’s story and drive. “For her, it’s been a conscious decision that creates health and healing, empowerment, community, peace and serenity,” McKee says. “And she has full-on gone out there to make it happen. She not only paves the way for herself but for other people, too.”
The first Queer Adventure Storytelling event took place at a north Portland brewery in May, and each event to date has resulted in standing-room-only crowds. Queer Adventure Storytelling is held on the second Wednesday of each month, and interested attendees can get updates on the group's Facebook page.
Bruso is excited by the communal culture that’s developed—and where it may lead from here. “It’s an invitation: This could be your incentive to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do or find a partner to do those things with,” she says. “It’s always worthwhile to hear the stories of lesser-heard people, hold up those voices and maybe create specific spaces for those voices.”