As I began neatly packing the car full of my belongings, aggressively trying to fit pretty much everything I owned into the back, I hear “Heres my flannel for when you miss a bit of home.” I turned around to see my teary eyed father handing over one of his favorite flannels. He knew I had a love for those soft, plaid-patterned button ups. I put out my hands to pull the flannel close to my heart and am pulled into one of the tightest hugs I think my father has ever given. We shed tears and share squeezes that I don’t think I will ever forget as he begins a short speech about how proud of a father he is and that they’ll miss me more than anything. A few hours later, my mother, father and I embark on an 8 hour drive north to Marquette, MI where 4 years later, I would graduate from NMU and 6 years later, well – Im currently sitting in a softly lit coffee shop on third street, the smell of espresso whirling around my nose, the sight of Blackrocks Brewery down the road, and my thoughts tumbling around my brain.
Im here, I’m back, Im “home”.
I spent 4 years in college, and the last 2 years have been a whirlwind of adventure. Throughout those college years, I lived through some of the hardest days – some focused around school, most focused around my own personal struggles. And to be honest, the only reason I made it through would be the sole fact that I have the biggest army of friends and family that most people couldn’t even dream of.
Oh, and that flannel.
Rough day at school? Put the flannel on. Snowed in? Put the flannel on. You have an overwhelming amount of tears flowing from your eyes? Put that damn flannel on girl and go hug your friends. Miss your family? Put the flannel on and never take it off because you’ll never stop feeling that…. And thats the god damn truth right?
I always thought I was this independent girl who could conquer anything she wanted to on her own, I still like to think that but only in certain situations. See, the thing is, you need family. Whether this family is blood, or your best friends turned life long friends. You need them. You need sisters who will answer your call at midnight, drop everything and make the 8 hour drive just for a hug and a few hours of sister time. What about parents? You need those little letters that come in the mail that are full of encouragement, or a phone call that simply says “I believe in you, and I love you”.
Oh, and that flannel.
*I* need that flannel.
That flannel is home. That flannel is family when I can’t be near. That flannel is a hug from my parents. A hug from my sisters, my brother, my niece, my aunts, uncles and cousins. That flannel is everything when I can’t make it home for a holiday, for a dinner, for a 1st birthday.
Looking back on the day I moved to Marquette, I never thought a flannel could be so important to me. I mean, come on its a flannel! But looking back on that same day, I never understood what It was like to be away from a family that means the world to you. You can call, you can FaceTime, write letters and communicate every single day but It will never be the same as sharing a cup of coffee in our living room, enjoying the family’s presence and of course, laughing uncontrollably. It will never be the same as seeing their smiles in person, and hearing their giggles from across the table. It will never be the same as simply just being present.
These are a few of the exuberant words that color my mind as I reminisce on my personal experiences as a woman in the wild, as well as a woman being inspired and supported by other vigorous women. It’s no coincidence that the environment we put ourselves in is the one that shapes us with its friction; especially as a woman in an male-dominate arena of this world. The persistent rub of the unpredictable tragedies and royal achievements are thrown at us without a moment’s foresight or consideration of the ‘female parts’ of ourselves. Looking back at my first time exploring the outdoors of Colorado alone, there’s a sort of paralle that resulted from the experience- radical liberation and utter disbelief for how we were trained to behave. It’s as if the domineering male counterparts to this female-male (now LGBTQ+, woo!) dynamic was frightened by the women’s impeccably instinctive abilities and began to quiver in their own misunderstanding. Instead of embracing the woman’s perseverance and bravery, they fearfully oppressed it into a small, disregarded box. Well, like all things, there is always an end. That end is where I begin my story; at the beginning of a feminie revolution, with an undeniable accent on women running free in the wild and reclaiming their profound confidence hand in hand with their sisters.
To give some insight, I was the ‘tom-boy’ of the century in grade school. Terrible at making friends with other girls, always running with the boys and participating on their sports teams, figuring out how I could swoon my dad to say yes to me taking the three-wheeler out by myself in the woods behind our house; a never ending film of ‘resist your girlyness’. Why did I want to resist this natural essence I had access to so badly? Because I grew up with the understanding -now misunderstanding- that girls were weak, boys were strong. Girls couldn’t run fast, boys could run like cheetahs. Girls learned how to do their hair and make-up, boys learned how to make fires and shoot BB guns. Although at the time I wasn’t able to make this connection, I painstakingly witnessed it as an adult. All I wanted as a young girl growing up was to feel equal, strong, fast, courageous, and adventurous. Without much reasoning as to why the world had deemed only boys to obtain those qualities.. I unconsciously chose the ‘boy path’ so I too could play without restraints.
Flash forward to the present part of the 21st century where a complete upheaval of those social normalities are being abolished. It’s as simple as the switch of energy that flows in the air between females now that is more of a welcoming embrace and smile v.s the old school ‘fight night’ over the cute boy (who really wasn’t even that cute… let’s be real ladies!). A recent experience I had with this nurturing energy shift was during the early spring of 2021. I had just started working at the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage, AK, when I noticed a paper below the clock-out ipad. Reading the announcement, a rush of excitement shot through my veins- there was an opportunity to go rock-climbing with an avid rock-climbing photographer (William Butierez, @willbutt on Instagram) and a marketing/editorial employee for Patagonia, Christie Lauren (@chrlauren on Instagram)! For starters, I thought it was going to be way too good to be true. An opportunity to climb with real-deal climbers? Especially a WOMAN who works for Patagonia?! Without any hesitation, I went full send at the opportunity. The funny thing is that over the following weeks leading up to the climbing trip, my mind was filled with questions like “What was this outing going to be like?”, “What do I need to pack?”, “Will I be good enough to climb with them!?”. As if I’d never been outside before! They felt strange to ponder, but it was equally as humbling. It reminded me of when I first started getting invited to hike 14ers, backcountry ski, go mountain biking and rafting, and even climb at the local rock gym when I was a fresh high school grad who’d just moved to Colorado solo at 19. Flash forward six years and my innate fearlessness to doing it alone or with solely other women in the outdoors has never been more unshakable. Trust me, these questions had me looking back and laughing at my countless ‘rookie mistakes’; like wearing the completely wrong pack size, not purchasing an insulated sleeping pad, and dare I admit to bringing too much cotton! In my heart I knew that I was overthinking, and that the focus was on having fun outside with a new set of friends. Nonetheless, I’m able to come to that conclusion today due to the persistent support of those weathered outdoor enthusiasts that also knew that same rookie feeling.
To add another twist to this marvelous trip, my best adventure gal-pal from Summit County, CO (Britt Boyle, @jusssbritt on Instagram) had planned to come visit and stay with me prior to hopping into these new plans. When I told her the details, it was a “next question” kind of moment; this was a perfect unfolding from the universe, and it gifted me a sense of home. A feeling of home I hadn’t felt much since I’d left the rocky mountains, and all of the type 2 friends that would push me past my brink just to continue challenging me to go even faster, bigger, or longer. Routinely, my partner and I would go out and explore every weekend, but we both agreed- nothing can make you feel more at home than being surrounded by a group of like-minded people doing like minded things.
When the day of the big outing finally arrived, avalanche danger was treacherous and had closed down the road up to Hatcher’s Pass, the area we had planned to climb and play around at. With plan B ready to go, we agreed on a climbing spot closer to home among the hillside of Anchorage. Before leaving the house that morning, Will called and asked if Britt and I would bring our backcountry setups… but why? Well, this is where it gets fun.
On April 20th of 2021, Britt, Zenna and Elmer (my two Border Collies), and I rolled into the Flattop trail parking lot around 10 o’clock in my navy blue Jeep Grand Cherokee. It was one of the first sunny days in a while, with temperatures in the high 30’s (which felt like a luxury!). As we were in the midst of organizing our gear and getting our backcountry ski set-ups ready, we conjured an array of theories of what this experience would bring and how exactly it would work out. That’s when a large Ram Promaster Van and SUV pulled up, which spilled out a couple more dogs and our climbing companions!
After the officially-unofficial introductions of Will, Christie, and a fellow co-worker of mine at the Alaska Rock Gym, Gus Barber (@gusbarber on Instagram), we observed the three climbers packing and sorting in a way that was unfamiliar to either of us. Never having carried out a crash pad or excess climbing gear, we had stepped up for the challenge to assist in any way, but they insisted it was taken care of. With everyone set to go, we gathered closely together and the questions started spewing left and right from one person to the next. (Which was great, considering we had a flat four-mile skin out to our selected boulder!)
Before I gush over the incredible abilities of these three climbers, some necessary notes are due. For starters, Christie had never been skiing. EVER. This was her first experience in rock-hard, rental, alpine touring boots. Secondly, the crash pad she was carrying was just as big as her, if not bigger! Watching this woman fiercely gear up with a huge grin on her face was the magic of the passion for a sport she loved. When we had all first gathered and she told Britt and I this fact, my jaw dropped. Complete bewilderment overcame me, as well as a new factuation for her drive to boulder in Alaska. Next we had Will, who was taking on a filled up poke, or in other terms, sled. Touring with a heavy sled behind you looks and sounds like a breeze… until you’ve taken on the challenge and realize how a pack-mule must feel! As for Gus, he was a seasoned climber with a type-A personality, ridiculously brilliant, and living for the surge of conquering new routes. Towering at over 6’, the crash pads on his back looked like small pillows compared to Chrisite. With these key notes in place, our day rambled on.
When we started our day, we all believed our destination boulder was only a couple miles out. Gus having been the only one to actually boulder on it before, we put our trust in him; well, two miles turned into four and our bodies felt the extra grunge! With a bunch of shit talk, oddball conversations, and the goofiness pouring out of each of us with every slide of a ski, we howled in delight when we finally made it to Mojo Rock. It was time to play!
We simultaneously dumped our packs and crash pads, ripped off our ski/snowboard boots, unhooked from the sled, and layered up to enjoy our snacks. After re-fueling, we all dove into our different actions. Gus grabbed the climbing guide, Christie started setting up the crash pads, and Will assembled his camera equipment. Britt and I gleefully observed as we watched the magic happen. It was a cloudy day and the sun had hidden itself behind the clouds, making the transfer from snowboard boots into climbing shoes a task, but a task worth taking on. After diligently watching Christie chalk up her sought out hand holds and discuss with Gus what routes to try, it was time to give it a go! It was my first time bouldering outside with that legitimate of a setup, and with other people willing to direct me in how to approach this oblong, granite formation. After getting my hands placed accordingly with both feet on the boulder, I noticed my heart began to beat faster. I was hardly 3 feet off the ground, yet I felt like a young child playing on the playground with her parents watching. Not wanting to look fearful or silly, I reached towards the similar holds that I had just watched Christie use and embraced the uncertainty of this environment. Outdoor climbing had no comparison to indoor climbing, especially when it came to bouldering! I will admit, I would have been a lot less confident if it hadn’t been for Christie’s kind nature and willingness to talk me through each move I made. Despite being outdoors in an atmosphere of encouragement, I felt particularly appreciative towards her to take the time to guide me through the motions. My body went from tense and rigid back to feeling in control and safe, which is why this small moment was extravagant.
Oftentimes when we attempt a new activity in the outdoors for the first time, in spite of our prior exposure, it can feel like we just stepped into the battlefield with a roaring dragon. Except the dragon is our own mind, and our sword transforms into the people who surround us and have our back. I personally believe that as a woman, it can be detrimental for our outcome if we feel judgement or criticism from others while giving it our best shot. However, when women are together and undergoing any form of hardship with the knowing of equal support, they are given the space to rise out on top. Maybe this is something I personally experience, but it feels as if we’re receiving the belief we may have been stripped of when we were younger. Maybe it’s the pure sensation of the foundation we can build for one another as women when we stop trying to shine over the other, but shine together. Maybe it’s this loving fulcrum that can turn what we believe to be small, sheepish efforts into impactful and transformative inner dialogue, self-esteem, and willingness to try again.
Sometimes we can forget that as women in the outdoors, we all had to start someplace.. the beginning! I know that without the efforts of kindness towards me as I took my shot at the easiest route on the rock, I may have given up and passed by on outdoor bouldering from now on. Instead, I’m an eager beaver to gather more willing and hopeful women to get outside and play on big rocks! That, my friends, is how we can approach all women in the face of difficulty; with the choice of uplifting awareness.
After we had laughed, climbed, farted, and snacked, it was time to make the trek back to the vehicles with the dogs to end the day. Sluggish, worn out, blistered, the last four miles was an epic achievement for all of us. Just as Christie had supported me while climbing, we equally encouraged her to push past the agony of rental boots and make it to the finish line! The best remedy for an unexpected long day, full of adventure? Mexican food!
This was one of my favorite Alaskan outings, and one I will never forget. If you’re a woman who is eager to get outside and start trying new sports but aren’t sure how, I promise you there is always a way. I recommend reaching out to anyone you know who has experience in the activity you want to try, joining facebook groups, youtubing the sport and any tips or tricks, and remembering that being outside is meant to be FUN! If you’re ever in need of support, encouragement, or someone to ask questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me! I love assisting other women to feel confident and comfortable outside, where we belong 🙂
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Instagram @isabellewellman , @consciousalignmentmethod , @adventure.collies