Trails for everyone, forever
Each of the youth who joined the trip was unique and different, but they had one thing in common. None of them knew another Latina their age whom they could invite camping. By the end of the trip, they each knew seven other girls who shared both a part of their identity and their experience with the outdoors | By Sully Moreno
Every time I go on a hike, I take an intangible 11th essential with me: community. I go outside because nature is beautiful, because it’s healthy, because it clears my mind, but also for the connections I’ve forged outdoors. This summer, I led the Latina youth trail crew, and those 5 days in Mount Rainier National Park left my heart full as eight Latina teenagers found a sense of community in the outdoors, too.
I grew up in Panama, where I saw the mountains and the forests from the car window when my family traveled to the countryside, but I didn’t personally know anyone who hiked for fun. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest 7 years ago, the thought of hiking filled me with excitement and nerves. I wanted to try an activity that felt so quintessentially PNW, but I was nervous because I had no concept of what it meant to walk for miles on a trail.
I owe my love for trails to the friendships I made outdoors. Without a community to lean on, the nerves would have overtaken the excitement. But as my love for hiking grew, a question kept growing in the back of my mind — why did I see so few other people of color outside? This question led me to become a volunteer for Latino Outdoors, an organization dedicated to making the outdoors feel more welcoming and inclusive for the Latinx community.
Over my 3 years as a Latino Outdoors volunteer, I’ve learned the barriers that keep my community from enjoying outdoor recreation. Some are tangible, like a lack of reliable transportation or outdoor gear. But I’ve realized that the greatest barrier is more abstract: A lack of community outdoors. History has given people of color good reasons to avoid spaces where no one looks like us and where we feel no one is watching out for us. Latino Outdoors and similar organizations like Outdoor Asian and Outdoor Afro were created to foster that sense of community.
My work as the Latina youth trail crew leader started long before we set foot on our campsite. It began in my conversations with families, when my job was to assure parents that their children would feel welcome and included during the trip. Knowing the importance of feeling a sense of community outdoors, I let each participant know that they were welcome to invite friends to sign up for the trip.
My offer was met with the same question each time: Does my friend have to be Latina? Each of the youth who joined the trip was unique and different, but they had one thing in common. None of them knew another Latina their age whom they could invite camping. By the end of the trip, they each knew seven other girls who shared both a part of their identity and their experience with the outdoors. They arrived at Mount Rainier without an outdoor community, and they left exchanging phone numbers and Instagram profiles because they had found community.
“On the last day of trail work, we hiked a little bit on the mountain and saw some beautiful views,” said trail crew member Victoria Rosales. “I really felt connected to nature and my new friends at that point. Sharing this experience with other Latina girls was great. We got to make a change in the world in a society that often under-represents us Latinas, and by the end of the trip we all felt really empowered.”
As an immigrant and a person of color, I find myself compartmentalizing the pieces of my identity that feel safe to share in any given situation. The more comfortable I am with the people around me, the more I can share. During the Latina youth trail crew, I saw something truly beautiful unfolding before my eyes: a group of Latina women and girls being their true, unguarded selves around each other. We could say our names without unpracticed ears and tongues demanding that we adopt more English-friendly versions. We could share our family stories without having to wonder if our listeners would find them strange or foreign. And we could let the conversation flow in whichever language felt most natural.
The crew spoke about going to schools or living in neighborhoods where they were alone in their identity as Latinas, and how in those spaces their culture demanded explanation. Any time they wanted to speak about the countries where their families came from or the foods they enjoy at home, they had to weigh how receptive their peers would be to the conversation, and how much emotional labor they could handle in that moment to answer questions about their culture.
That is why the space we created in the Latina youth trail crew matters. For five days, crew members could share anything they wanted about their culture and identity without a second thought. They were all new to trail work, and their full focus could be on learning how to use a grub hoe or how to store tools properly. Or at camp, they could be completely focused on enjoying nature and each other’s company.
The youth accomplished amazing things during our 3 workdays. They carried logs and rocks up a steep trail. They carved steps to help hikers navigate a snowfield. They built 15 steps up the Wonderland Trail. All of these were completely new experiences to them. They all felt the same way I did before my first hike – excited and nervous. But the most incredible result of the trip was the sense of community we created together. Each participant felt welcome and included outdoors, and now they know how exciting the outdoors can be when you’re with your community.
For 3 years, Washington’s National Park Fund (WNPF) has helped support a Latina trail crew at Mount Rainier National Park. This year, WNPF was able to provide all of the funding necessary for the trail crew, making it possible for eight young Latinas, some of whom were new to camping and the outdoors, to complete trail work at the park.
The trip is in keeping with Mount Rainier National Park’s mission of bringing more youth into the park; the trail crew was a partnership between WTA and Latino Outdoors.
“We greatly value this three-legged partnership. It enables the park to expose more young people to the outdoors and to trail maintenance. It also, of course, improves the trails that our visitors rely on,” said Jim Ziolkowski, roads and trails foreman at Mount Rainier National Park.
WTA is extremely grateful for this support from WNPF and looks forward to continuing the partnership in 2020.
“WNPF supports both Latino Outdoors and a WTA trail crew leader at Rainier year after year. Not only does the park appreciate the three-legged partnership, but so do we,” said Laurie Ward, CEO for Washington’s National Park Fund. “Thanks for what you do, WTA volunteers, as you improve trails in our national parks.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.