By CHLOË HAWKEY.
IN THE WINTER of 2015-16, a rampant sexual harassment problem in the US Forest Service office in the Grand Canyon came to light, appalling many within and beyond the outdoors community. It was disturbing and upsetting to find out that river guides and employees of the US government were both perpetuating this problem and suffering so enormously from it, but it wasn’t, in the end, so surprising: after all, life in the rugged outdoors has long been associated with a certain kind of tough-guy culture that all too often seems connected to a questionable understanding of consent and gender equity.
Outdoor pursuits—rafting, kayaking, climbing, backpacking, skiing, and mountain biking among them—are adventurous, dangerous, and physically demanding, and for better or for worse, those are traits that even twenty-first-century Americans tend to associate with men. And to complicate matters more, women are not the only ones who have been historically excluded from the fun—the ability to play outside has been seen for too long as a luxury accessible only to those who are socioeconomically privileged; the image of the outdoors community is full of white faces, straight couples, and expensive gear. Because of this history and image, there seems to be an assumption that, politically, the outdoors community is somewhere between apathetic and conservative—as if when a group of people decides to embrace life outside of the (sub)urban mainstream, when it removes itself from traffic jams, day jobs, and air conditioning, it similarly removes itself from modern ideas about gender equity and racial justice.
Those of us whose “front-country” lives as students, teachers, artists, writers, etc. tilt leftward often find ourselves setting aside our political ideals along with our digital devices when we show up in the backcountry. We’re more inclined to tolerate (or even accept) the sexist jokes and the lack of diversity, less inclined to ask critical questions or call out bad behavior.
Yet, for every reason that we might expect misogyny and a sort of cruel individualism to prevail in the backcountry, there is a reason that we might instead see a sort of radical equality and cooperation. When we leave behind the contemporary mainstream in favor of wild-side streams, why should we not be able to leave sexism and racism behind as well? Why can’t we create better worlds for ourselves, instead of worse ones?
I think part of the problem is that, for all of our carbon-fiber gear and wicking polypropylene layers, we think of our sports as creating a relationship between individual and land that is somehow pure, original—old. Perhaps, then, we forget the forward-thinking idealism that drives so many of us in the front country. The revolution, we seem to think, isn’t going to happen on the trail.
But we’re wrong to associate the wilderness (itself a quite recent term) only with social conservatism and traditionalism, and we’re wrong to think that the it doesn’t also have radical potential. For centuries, Americans have been looking to wild places with utopian ideals—there have been sustainable, socialist, free-love communities in woods and on mountains all over the country, and though they haven’t lasted, they have shown us the potential that exists in the “great outdoors” to live up to our political and social ideals. There is no reason to think that a life that places value in the wild, in the forces of the land and water can’t model ideals of equality and inclusiveness—after all, those forces act on all of us equally. Indeed, being “out there” requires cooperation and kindness toward the group far more than living in the relative convenience of a city does; it requires men to cook and clean, and women to lead climbing pitches and search-and-rescue efforts. Rarely are we in the position to be picky about the gender or skin color of the person who saves us from a bad fall or patches the hole in our raft.
Yet the jokes, the little slights, and the advertising campaigns continue and, with them, the idea that the outdoors community is isolated and exclusionary, that it has nothing good to offer the wider world, beyond, perhaps, a guided weekend adventure. Instead, when we go into the backcountry and create these little worlds for ourselves—complete with our own vocabulary, expectations, and traditions—why not create little worlds that live up to our highest ideals? Why not put our highest standards in place?
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. An archive of her Notes is here.