Monday, August 1, 2011

Helping Women Believe They Can Dream

It's just days following news of Jennifer Pharr Davis' speed hike of the Appalachian Trail - breaking both the men's and women's world record. She covered the 2,180-mile distance in 46 days and 11 hours.

It's an impressive feat. I'm awed by this woman's determination in fulfillment of her dreams.

It was just weeks after she started out on her journey that I attended a conference exclusively for women about hiking and backpacking. The Summit was a first-of-its-kind event meant to invoke inspiration and confidence in women to undertake their big dreams, especially in the outdoors. The event offered the expected workshops related to nutrition, gear and trails, but it also offered an unexpected and refreshing twist – nature appreciation and taking it slow.

I attended a session focused on nature appreciation and spiritual connection in which the presenter encouraged all of us to “saunter reverently,” a message I have really taken to heart.

I spoke with the Anna Huthmaker the event organizer and founder of Trail Dames, a hiking club for women of a curvy nature, to learn more about her vision for women as hikers and why taking it slow fosters dreams as much breaking records.

Wow, so it’s a big deal that The Summit is going to be in Colorado next year.

Virginia worked out so why not Colorado? There are lots of women hikers out there. We have ten chapters already, and I’m talking to someone in Seattle and someone in California [about starting chapters there].

I don’t want The Summit to be for just Trail Dames. I want it to be for all women. There are a lot of women out there who don’t identify as Dames. Trail Dames is the host.

At the end of the summit you asked what attendees find when they are on a trail in the woods – what it gives them. What does being on a trail do for you?

Being on a trail allows me to be the kind of women I want to be. I wanted to be a woman who does these kinds of things. So every time I’m on a trail I’m closer to being that woman.

Is that what influenced you to start this organization?

Not really. I don’t know why I started it. I know when the idea was formed. I was on the A.T. and this other hiker said I really really belonged. It hit home, this idea that if I belong – so does any other kind of woman. I don’t mind being the poster girl for the non-traditional type hiker I will bring others with me.

There’s an emphasis on the Trail Dames website and at the conference on taking it slow. What accounts for that?

There were two things that hit me when I started encouraging women to hike. Historically they tended to hike with their husbands. Those hikes tended to be goal oriented. I wanted to encourage them to relax and not [feel that they] have to race through it. The second thing is that I want them to enjoy what they are doing. I don’t want them stressed out about being fast enough and good enough. A lot of that was my own baggage, but it fit with other women. Then they can find their own pace. It might turn out to be fast, but they arrive at it naturally – rather than forcing it.

Can you talk a little bit about the support and community of the Dames?

That is what women do best. We are caretakers. When someone next to us bursts out crying in frustration, we care for them. If we take a woman who is unsure, nervous, not sure she can [hike], or [doubts] that she belongs there then you surround her by women who encourage her that she can. It instantly creates this bond that is deep and profound.

At the conference – I made this joke about [singing] Kumbaya, but we could have. We support each other, and people are brave enough to share their dreams with other women. We tend to want to stand up and help each other.

I want to clarify something. I love men. I love everything about them. In no way am I trying to disparage them or keep them away from us. For three years I did bring your man hikes. They didn’t go over so well, so then I hosted “bring Anna a man” hikes.

How would you characterize your hike leadership style?

On a trail, I’m at the back. My biggest goal is that no woman feels like she’s too slow or holding anyone back. [As hike leader] I give out directions; I realize we’re all adults.

Why do you do that?

Because that’s what I felt when I first started hiking. That’s the worst feeling in the world if you’re already overweight and feeling like you don’t belong out there. So it’s meant to prevent that.

In the back we laugh the most. That’s where the best stories happen. The woman at the back is achieving the most when she’s climbing the mountain. The one in the very back who is older or less fit, when she reaches the top, that’s when the real magic happens. I love the feeling like I helped that happened.

What do you hope women who attended The Summit gained from the experience?

I hope they gained the belief that they can really dream big and go for it. There’s nothing in the world you can’t do – if you want to hike the Inca trail, hike the Grand Canyon, go to New Zealand, it’s really just a plane ticket, and a believe ‘I think I can do that.’

If I can make them believe that they belong on the trail. If The Summit can help them believe that they belong on the trail

At the conference at one point you said women are taking over the trails of the U.S. Can you talk more about that?

When I said women are taking over the trails of this country I meant that as empowering statement. As far as I’m concerned, my experience is 100% true.

I’m just trying to make other women to feel proud to be out there. I want them to remember that they’ve accomplished something. It’s a big deal to get out there and climb that mountain. [I want to] promote sense of community, a sense of purpose.

Can you talk a little bit about the awards from The Summit?

That for me was a function of looking toward the future. For the Spirit of the Trail Dames I wanted different chapters to have the opportunity to recognize people. The idea is that the national award will become more coveted. I wanted there to be weight to the event, an importance to it. I don’t want it to be just a bunch of people at a campground.

The Spirit of the Dames award is the chance to recognize someone who never gets recognition. I get recognition, hike leaders get recognition, head dames get recognition. It’s for regular folks.

Before I started throwing out “we’re the only hiking conference for women” I did a lot of research. [I wanted the national awards to] showcase women in excellence in the outdoors. It needs to be celebrated. It really does. What I’m hoping that we get more and more nominations – even among people I’m not aware of. They deserve that recognition and to raise awareness.

What, in your mind, is the mainstream perception about the culture of hiking?

The first thing you think of is someone who is really fit. We think of granola types who are very comfortable in the outdoors. When I started hiking all the books I read and most of what I did was Appalachian Trail based so the community was fairly extreme. I was hanging out with people who did long distance hiking so that became my idea of the norm. I don’t think that’s an impression among other non-hikers. Most other women I run into don’t know A.T. People do assume you have to be fit.

When I ask what are they worried about people talk about needing the right gear or needing to already be fit. You don’t have to be that way to hike. Hiking is just walking on the dirt.

How is Trail Dames challenging this? How does Trail Dames fit into the culture of hiking?

Hikers don’t put such narrow definitions on hiking. People accept everyone else. We put our own limitations on it. People who are out there all the time, I don’t think they care who else is there as long as you’re being respectful.

Here’s the cool thing. Look at you, an extremely experienced A.T. and PCT hiker. The only difference between you and some Dames is that at some point you believed you can do it, and you went out and did it.

I’m trying to take women and say you can do that if you want - inspiring the confidence. A lot of women who come to Trail Dames [hiking] it’s never occurred to them. They’ve got great lives and hiking never occurred to them. It’s putting the option of having a goal of hiking in front of them. Big girls never believe they can do this.

It’s kind of waking up their mind to the idea “ hey, come try this.” They blossom trail wise. They were blossoming otherwise it their lives, too. We just opened the door to this one aspect for them.

They’re identifying as Trail Dames. They’re identifying as this thing.

Let’s talk numbers. How many members and how many chapters do you have?

Nationally there are about 2000. There are seven chapters are on the website – three that started a few weeks ago. Four more made commitments on the week of The Summit.

Technically we have 14 chapters, but ten for sure are hiking. We’re getting ready to have Ohio, Maine, and second Virginia Chapter, in Charlottesville.

Is Trail Dames a bridge for members to other things?

It will depend on the members. When I talk about people coming for a season –it’s a bridge to another part of their life. We have people who join us then become more serious hikers. They leave to more extensive hiking. They go on to riding horses, kayaking, or writing a book. It depends on the member. If it’s a bridge –that’s great too.

Is there anything I haven’t asked?

It’s helping women believe they can dream. Women are identifying as Trail Dames. To me it’s really important to truly give women on the fringes an opportunity. I want to make sure it’s still accessible to everyone – 300 lbs, 70 or blind. There is nothing else accessible for them. Whether they fit my definition of Trail Dame or not, they’ve all come. As long as it doesn’t push out unfit women. It really is for all women.

What are the distances for Trail Dames hikes?

We have a regular Trail Dames hikes that are 3.5 to 5 miles long. Those are very poplar. We have dynamic hikes beyond that can be 10 miles long. They can be strenuous. We offer both equally so there’s a place for everyone. I’ve asked the other chapters to stay in those parameters. Anyone can do 3.5 miles even if I have to hold her hand, even if it takes 4.5 hours.

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