Editor's note: Join us for Outessa Retreats in 2018 by registering now.
I didn’t expect to learn so much outside of class.
I recently attended the REI Outessa Summit in Kirkwood, California. REI Outessa is a three-day immersive event designed to bring women together to seek inspiration and gain new skills in the outdoors. Over the course of the event, REI instructors and brand ambassadors alike teach classes in a wide variety of disciplines: from mountain biking to wilderness first aid to how to pack your backpack for maximum comfort on the trail. Each day ends with fireside conversation, beer, wine, and s’mores as guest speakers and participants reflect on what they learned. I am an avid outdoorswoman, and I lead clinics with a local women’s group that I co-founded, PNW Outdoor Women. I went to Kirkwood hoping to have fun and make new friends while brushing up on some existing skills. And that I did. I also walked away with these fresh perspectives to incorporate in my daily life here in Washington.
Open yourself to being a student, no matter how accomplished you are.
When I was registering for classes at home, I wasn’t sure if any of them would be the right fit for me. I grew up in a family that prioritized outdoor adventure and spent my childhood exploring the Pacific Northwest. I carried this fine tradition into adulthood and these days I spend all of my free time immersed in the outdoors—hiking, climbing, camping, scrambling, snowshoeing, mountaineering and most recently, skiing uphill. I lead clinics and hikes for a women’s group my friends and I started here in Washington, and I am used to taking on a leadership role. My fears proved to be unfounded. The REI instructors excel at challenging each participant in their class, giving everyone something to work on. If you are new to SUP, they will teach you how to stand up without falling. If you have done it before, they will show you how to turn on a dime. Never tried climbing or tied a knot before? They will teach you everything you need to know to tie in safely and much more. The key is remembering we all have something to learn, no matter how far we’ve come or how far we have to go.
Don’t be afraid to share deeply.
By opening myself up to being a student, I also opened myself up to fellow participants. We found an emotional connection with each other that I never expected. As trail chat turned to weightier topics, I found myself wide open and vulnerable, sharing intimate details of my life. The other women were just as eager to share their own stories. One woman had just lost her husband, an unexpected tragedy. As a mother of two young children, she expressed the difficulty in leaving them behind but knew that she had to care for herself and take time to grieve. What better balm than the outdoors? Many of the women shared stories of domestic and sexual violence and the way that the outdoors helped them find their center of gravity again, allowing them to reclaim power over their bodies and find a sense of confidence again. Others shared a sense that they were lost in their lives or stagnating and they were turning to the outdoors and the friendships gained therein to find new inspiration and motivation. Each story was received with respect and compassion. If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to not shy away from these conversations. You never know what stories you’ll hear that will resonate with your own, or what story you can tell that will move a complete stranger.
Savor the stillness.
As expected, REI Outessa was a flurry of lady-powered activity. It was easy to get caught up in the energy, filling your schedule with class after class. It’s equally important to give your body and mind time to rest and recoup after pushing yourself physically, especially when you’re also learning new skills. From the coffee bus to communal dining, the event is set up to create opportunities to nourish your body and find moments of calm. After all, stillness is as much a part of being a Force Of Nature as motion.
Seek out experiences that introduce you to new people.
Perhaps my favorite thing about REI Outessa is that women of every shape, size, race, religion, age, experience and background can be found. I believe our strength as women lies in our diversity. The range of participation makes this event stand out from other outdoor classes or clinics. We had active conversations about how our identities as multi-faceted women have shaped all of our lives and given us richly textured stories to tell. What began as a connection over our shared love for the outdoors soon became much richer as we found common ground.
Overcome your excuses and encourage other women.
I listened as women planned trips and set goals for themselves to keep the magic going into their respective futures. I got a message the other day from one such woman, Lori. We connected over breakfast at REI Outessa and later in a goal setting workshop. She wrote to tell me about the steps she has taken since then to turn her dreams into reality. It was the reminder I needed to continue pursuing my own dream: breaking down the barriers, like financial constraints, lack of support, lack of exposure, lack of access to outdoor education and wild spaces, and lack of female representation in outdoor media and culture that prevent women and girls from pursuing a life of outdoor adventure. I hope to do this through volunteerism with groups like PNW Outdoor Women, Vertical Generation and She Jumps, who provide outdoor education and climbing access to girls and disadvantaged youth, writing blogs and articles that lift other women up and give them the knowledge and encouragement they may be seeking to get outside, and being transparent in sharing my own story. Much like Lori, I don’t have all the answers yet or know exactly where this path will take me but I’m equally excited to find out.