For me, the outdoors is synonymous with connection. It’s about forming an emotional link with the land—and with myself—as much as it is about experiencing the natural world with all of my senses: sunning on a warm rock, breathing in fragrant pine trees, watching the sunset paint the desert.
But it’s also about the bonds I’ve formed with other people in these wild places, people who have become conversation partners for an hour, travel companions on a long-distance trail—or even friends for life. We connect over our shared love of the outdoors, but we connect deeply because all non-essential stuff is sloughed off. We share the simple joys of trail life and work together through the tough spots, creating indelible memories and forging spectacular friendships along the way.
I found two of my favorite adventure buddies—Angela Chung and Pamela Zoolalian—while participating in a unique program called the Wilderness Travel Course (WTC), a ten-week outdoor skills class offered by the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. At the time, I was already an avid backpacker and had recently completed a trek up Kilimanjaro. Pamela was fresh off a solo hike along the John Muir Trail, a natural extension of her lifelong fascination with the outdoors. “You couldn’t get me inside on long summer days, because I always wanted to explore,” she says. “I would even sneak out at night so I could watch the sky while the crickets serenaded me!”
Angela also entered WTC with previous outdoor experience, sparked by an educational program she participated in while living abroad in South Korea. “The landscape on this tiny peninsula is seventy-five percent mountain, and while not the high-altitude peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the granite and pine tree-laden mountain ranges were equally stunning,” she recalls. “Through this experience, I learned about my own history and how the mountains were a place of mystery, liberation and refuge. During the Korean War, my grandmother saved my father by hiding in the mountains. Her town was being attacked, so she fled, pregnant, carrying my father in her arms, hiking for miles to safety. Now I backpack for the stories, the connection and history of a place.”
While all three of us clearly understood the power of the mountains, what we truly wanted from the WTC course was to find community—connection, if you will—and we did, in spades.
Angela and I met during a late-spring outing in Joshua Tree National Park, an “experience trip” that met one of the course requirements for graduation. As we hauled our packs across the desert, the conversation shifted from the weather and scenery to our shared history regarding social justice and the outdoors. Afterwards, our friendship grew with a weekly hike. We became sounding boards for one another during those early mornings in Griffith Park, discussing everything from politics to personal relationships and family histories, and most importantly, our own fears and aspirations. Says Angela, “That simple, unassuming act of walking together, sharing dreams, supporting one another, was everything and has been everything.”
Similarly, I first met Pamela on a WTC-sponsored trip to summit a Sierra peak, then bumped into her again during a leadership training exercise in Joshua Tree. Drawn in by her positivity, enthusiasm and boundless energy, I invited her to join me on a three-day jaunt along the Pacific Crest Trail to ring in the new year. During that trip, a friendship blossomed through equal parts laughter and deep discussion, and has continued through many miles since. We’ve shared secrets and whiskey, hugs and high fives, tears and dreams.
The friendship I share with Pamela and Angela is a testament to the magic of the outdoors. While our bonds continue to strengthen, we’ve all also chosen to become volunteer trip leaders and instructors for WTC in order to help others form their own outdoor connections. “There are always a few [students] in every class that have huge doubts about what they are capable of,” explains Pamela. “Some may have never climbed a third-class peak; others perhaps have never snow-camped. Whatever hurdle it is that they need to overcome, when a student does, seeing that joy in them is what makes the reward so big!”
“For me, it’s about healing, pushing beyond one’s limits, and seeing what is possible,” says Angela. “One of my main goals for teaching and being a student of the outdoors and the environment is to share that passion and knowledge with young people, people of color, and trauma survivors. That connection with others can transform someone’s mood, someone’s outlook—and maybe even transform their life.”
Nature and friendship both offer healing powers and when combined, the effects are magnified, even life-changing. If you’re looking for a way to experience that connection for yourself, look for local organizations like the Sierra Club that offer opportunities to learn, get outside and build community. If you’re more experienced, consider sharing your skills and enthusiasm by taking friends and family on hikes, or volunteering with local groups.
The more we connect to the earth—and to one another—the stronger we all become.
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