By Jenny Schmidt
A few years ago, faced with a complicated and emotional decision, I knew I needed some solo time. I loaded my bicycle on my Jeep and headed south toward the deserts and December sunshine of Texas.
For two months I walked, ran and biked with my backpack filled with snacks and my head filled with problem-solving strategies. My adventures weren’t logistically complicated and I settled into a simple routine of sunrise, coffee and maps, trail run/walk/bike, drive to the next spot, whiskey, sunset, sleep, repeat. Eventually, on a dusty trail in Big Bend National Park, I saw the solution. I returned home armed with clarity and resolve.
Without those days of solo time I doubt I would have found the inner quiet needed to work through my internal mayhem, and I’m so grateful I had the resources to do that for myself. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, solo adventures seem to fix everything. It’s the state of mind I need in order to think through problems. It’s where I go to generate new ideas. It’s just about the only place I can practice selfishness, balance and reflection.
Eventually, on a dusty trail in Big Bend National Park, I saw the solution. I returned home armed with clarity and resolve.
Unfortunately, many of my peers haven’t found this joy. When I preach the power of solo adventures, I often hear “I could never do that. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I don’t have the skills,” or something similar. I became curious about these comments and started to dig in. Patterns emerged and I started to comprehend how often my friends had been told growing up they shouldn’t do something because of who they were.
It had been ingrained into their brains: You’re a girl; it’s not safe alone. It’d be better if you went with your boyfriend. Don’t you know how many men are out there looking to hurt you? You don’t know enough about that; you should let me take you. That’s for athletic people. Wouldn’t you rather play inside with your sister?
My curiosity turned to action and in the summer of 2016, my friend Kait and I planned a bike trip from Bellingham to Anacortes with 15 of our friends. Most of our friends on that trip were new to bicycling and many of them were so affected by the experience that they’ve since gone on to plan and execute their own solo trips. Participants gained the confidence to believe in themselves. Even better, they now have a community of friends supporting them along the way.
Through that experience, a myriad of barriers between women and their recreational dreams became apparent to me and Kait. Fear, lack of confidence, finances, access to resources, lack of support, social judgments – most, if not all the women on that first trip, had experienced a combination of these barriers and more. We learned we could provide a space and community where those barriers could be broken.
One friend’s experience was so profound, it forever altered her perspective on exercise and outdoor activity and her place in that world. Prior to the trip, we went on a training ride together, aiming to get comfortable on the bike and work up some mileage. While riding up the first hill, I watched panic set in her face and we quickly pulled off to the side of the road, talking through the challenge. After a few minutes she realized she was simply breathing hard, a feeling she had forgotten. It turns out, having a friend with her in that moment, encouraging her and telling her it was a positive thing that was happening, was the one key she needed to take that next step and bike up that hill.
One week later we were on the group trip, and by the end of the first day she was at the front of the pack with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a sweaty, tired cyclist. One year later, she was cycling through Oregon on her own, fitter, happier, stronger and ready for anything.
After seeing how the barriers between women and their outdoor dreams can be dismantled, we started a nonprofit that aims to make the outdoors accessible to everyone. Shifting Gears provides programs to anyone wishing to learn the skills to branch out on their own. Programs are inclusive and welcoming, eliminating any sense of judgment or social pressure. We dig into the skills it takes to step into the outdoors – reading maps, choosing trails, safety, bike repair, training for longer distances, hygiene, packing and the list goes on.