How the Outdoors Changed a Life: A True Story

If you’re looking for idealistic reasons that neatly wrap up a love of the outdoors and how it’s shaped a life, it’s not here. There are plenty of quotes if you’re looking for a way to skim those deeper feelings. But if you’re in a rainy-day, introspective kind of mood, stick around.

But first: to the uninitiated, there’s an expression among the outdoor kids:

It’s not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle.

This phrase isn’t something we casually toss about in an effort to sound cool. Our various modes of moving through outdoor spaces are sacred and sincere, the purest form of self-expression we have. Our thoughts and daily actions are intertwined with being in our element; about the lines, the rapids, and routes that capture our hearts and imaginations. It’s not something we merely enjoy. We need these things almost as desperately as we need air, water, food, shelter and love—and sometimes we even sacrifice a few of those.

It affects our lives. At least, it affected mine.

But I didn’t start with the outdoors.

I was born in Florida, a hot and humid land where people stand still because too much movement can cause heat stroke. Before my freshman year of high school, I was forced to move even further south in the state. I landed in a city that pushed two incongruent lifestyles together: gangs and cranky retirees from New England. There was a severe lack of extracurricular options for teens, and because of that, coupled with it being too hot for more wholesome recreation, many of my friends sold drugs, took drugs, or got pregnant.

At 16, I was forced to go to court against a girl who was hell-bent on killing me over a boy. At 17, an ex placed a gun to my temple when I asked for my father’s gold chain back. Much of my time as a teen was spent as a designated driver, dodging gang activity and trying to be a positive influence for my friends; even more time was spent wishing myself out of that place. At 18, I left.

I chose Utah. I knew no one there, but the vastly different lifestyle was a beacon. My view of the world 180’d when I dove into its mountains. With the discovery of the outdoors, everything that seemed so socially important back home (money, clothing, the need to be in a relationship) became petty. I eventually found my niche as a ski instructor and when the snow wasn’t flying, I was out climbing, kayaking, and mountain biking.

Shaking off the remains of the superficial world I grew up in, I started an outdoor nonprofit to support women and the organizations that build community. I began writing. I mean, really writing. I was asked to contribute as a photojournalist for magazines. I formed an idea of benefiting a conservation organization through a climbing trip and, with my then boyfriend, took off for six months on a 16,000 mile traverse across the far reaches of North America. We called it “The Most Epic Trip.” He returned. I never fully did.

Six months on the road turned to nearly three years. I climbed, skied, and mountain biked. I wrecked my gear, my car and sometimes my body (much to my mother’s dismay). I slept under the aurora borealis in the Yukon in -17F temperatures. I skimmed over alligators with my canoe. I skied with Frenchmen in Gaspesie Bay. I was confronted by drunks at 3 a.m. while sleeping under the shadow of Mt. Washington. I got a job working remotely, and I got laid off.

winter pow turns

I wrote, and studied, and photographed, and pushed, and cried—then pushed some more. I sought out every chance to learn, to reach, to refine. I experienced financial poverty, eating nothing but protein shakes and peanut butter. But I kept going because being in love with the outdoors means never standing still.

I live by two sets of words: “Dream big. Live Bigger”—the motto of The Most Epic Trip; and “Go conquer”—the motto of my life and my nonprofit. I am no longer aware of what my comfort zone is. What I do know: if I’m stagnant, I’m dying.

The outdoors taught me that. It pushed me to see more and to be more. It progressed within me a life I once knew nothing of but am now so encompassed by that the memories of the girl I was as a teen seem play like a movie rather than my reality. I wish that girl had known this life; I wish she had been able to share it with her friends, help keep them safe, and show them better avenues for confidence.

But the outdoors is giving me that chance now. It showed me a purpose in life, a way to live bigger than myself and do more than live for material wealth (heaven knows I have little of that). It’s given me purpose and a way to help others. It’s paved way for human connection and experiences.

The outdoors brought me out of my comfort zone and I’ve never felt at ease there since. And over that line is where is real life begins.

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Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Leaving home to journey westward alone, she chased the sun to Utah. Over the years, she was consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. But exploration continued to call. After closing her bakery — which funded college courses and adventure — she stored her possessions and hit the road again, on a quest to reach the distant places of North America. For three years she lived in her little Mazda 3 and skied the backcountry of Alaska, slept under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climbed Colorado's frozen canyons and rock climbed across the continent, photographed Nova Scotia’s coves, backpacked in southern US wildernesses and munched on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But living in a car started to feel limiting, so after seeing the many glories this continent had to offer, she chose the only place fitting for an explorer to spend a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is now making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.


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