Jenny Bruso created the popular Instagram account Unlikely Hikers so people who didn’t fit the stereotypical image of an outdoors enthusiast could see that nature is inclusive.
Five years ago, on one of my first dates with my current partner, I went on a hike in Forest Park near my home in Portland, Oregon. I don't think she would have referred to herself as an outdoorsy person; it was just a creative date idea. It also happened to be my 30th birthday.
I had been on a hike before, and I hated it. I'm a self-identified fat, femme, queer writer and former indoor kid. I grew up in San Diego, and my parents attempted to take my two sisters and me camping and hiking. But the dirt, the bugs, going to the bathroom outside—it was against our delicate sensibilities.
Still, I wanted to seem game and down for anything for this date, so we did the hike. It was really tough, and I felt embarrassed and self-conscious of how hard my body was working. I was dressed totally inappropriately, basically in club wear. I didn't know what I was doing, and I didn't really have anybody I could ask about how to prepare myself.
Exercise of any kind was not my thing. As a kid, I would ride my bike around my neighborhood or walk to 7-Eleven for junk food. That was about the extent of it, and that lasted into my teen years. Later I got into feminist ideology and body positivity, and I started resenting the way exercise was presented to women as this thing we do to change our bodies, not something we do to make ourselves healthy mentally and physically. I avoided it almost like a kind of rebellion.
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My attitude changed on that date hike. I got to the top of this one big incline on the trail overlooking industrial North Portland, and I felt like I had found something exciting. Even though it was really hard, this was something good. I wanted to do more of it.
Getting out into nature to exercise had never really occurred to me before, even though I'd lived in Portland for eight years and it was an amazing place to be outdoorsy. It still took me another couple of years before hiking became something I did all the time. I was enmeshed in nightlife. I was a DJ, and I was partying basically every day. But it was getting really old.
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I needed to find something else to fill the space that being a DJ took up in my life, and hiking became that thing. I used it as an excuse to be away from alcohol and partying; it became my refuge. Moving in nature was the only thing I could do to really quiet my mind, and the more I did it, the more I understood the true benefits of exercise. I felt a new sense of purpose and place in nature. I have always felt kind of lost in the world, unsure of where I belonged. Nature had space for me.
I got to a point where I was hiking three to four times a week, but I felt like the odd man out in a lot of ways. I was self-conscious because I didn't fit that very tailored image of a hiker created by marketers and outdoor retailers: thin, young, always white. I started to get uncomfortable that this activity I really enjoyed was constantly portrayed in a narrow way.
After about three and a half years of hiking, I still didn't really know anybody who liked to hike, and I didn't know there were other people already talking about these issues. So I launched my blog to find that community I was missing. I started finding people online, and they started finding me.
Early on, I referred to myself on the blog as an "unlikely hiker," but I didn't really think anything of the term. Other people latched onto it and started using it. It was really exciting to see, but I still didn't realize the magnitude of it until people began encouraging me to run with it. I had pretty much unfollowed every hiking community online because I felt so weirded out and disrespected by them.
I decided to start Unlikely Hikers Instagram, which now has more than 21,000 followers. Almost immediately, people wrote to me telling me they were always looking for something just like this, that now they felt like they had an online hiking community. Similar Instagram communities have started since; it's been really cool to witness.
When we don't see ourselves represented in something like hiking, we either consciously or subconsciously decide it isn't for us. I would tell someone who doesn't think hiking is for them to allow themselves to be surprised at what they might discover. Try laying out a blanket in a community park and taking in the sights and sounds. See what might happen in your brain and body.
Nature is for everyone. But nobody receives a handwritten invitation to the outdoors. There's a lot of clarity and healing and connection that can be found in nature. It's meditative. It's still the thing I always turn to for inner peace.