My escape as a young girl growing up in an unhappy household was books. I would return from the library with paper bags filled with books -- I kid you not. From my bedroom, I would immerse myself in other worlds, other people's lives and try to live vicariously through words on a page.
I particularly loved adventure stories. I was fascinated by the Swiss Family Robinson and how an entire family lived in a tree house. I have been fascinated with tree houses ever since. The story of the brave native girl from Island of the Blue Dolphins captivated me. She survived on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California for 18 years before being discovered.
I would read stories about girls who would get sent to an "away" summer camp and how they were allowed to get dirty and run through the woods, barefoot. Lucky! I dreamily pictured myself on a tire swing over a picturesque river, Tom Sawyer-like, or walking through beautiful meadows a la Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables fame.
Because both my parents were immigrants from South America and were not assimilated in the least, I thought of all this as "American things" -- foreign and exotic. So much was off-limits to me because of my culture and my traditional parents. I was not allowed to have sleepovers or sleep at anyone's house. When I wanted to skateboard, I was firmly told no. That was for boys. Besides, good girls stay home to mind their business, but boys could stay out because, well, they were boys. It was their birthright.
Nonetheless, I remember asking my Colombian-born father if he would allow me to go away for camp in the summer.
He was amazed I had asked such a question. "No, Ana," he said in his abrupt, dismissive manner. "That stuff is for boys." And he would go back to ignoring me.
In my heart, I knew he was wrong, but I was powerless. I remember the drive to school in the mornings and staring at the beautiful mountains in the distance. I grew up in a working class city in Orange County dotted by cheap motels, liquor stores and ugly strip malls. The beach, another place I grew to love, was 11 miles away. I hated where I lived. It was tacky and ugly. I longed to escape.
The mountains seemed so close, yet so far away. I wondered what it was like up there. Was it steep? How did one climb a mountain? Was there a path of some sort? How did you keep your balance and not fall off?
When, as a middle-schooler, I joined the Girl Scouts, I was not allowed to go on any of the trips. What was the point of being in the Girl Scouts if you weren't allowed to go anywhere or do anything? I quit not long after getting my crisp, green uniform.
It seems unreal but it wasn't until more than twenty years later that I went tent camping for the first time.
I was a single mother with a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. I had been working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, but I had accepted a job with the Associated Press in Los Angeles. I was going back home and I couldn't wait. I was tired of the long, cold winters.
I decided we would make a vacation out of it and stop at national parks and camp along the way. At Target, I bought a Coleman tent, three sleeping bags, a couple of lanterns and other items I thought we might need. I picked the sleeping bags based on their colors -- green, blue and red. I had no familiarity with ratings.
We headed east first and made a stop at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, that claims to be the "roller coaster capital of the world."
When we began our westward trek, I only had ideas of where we might stop to camp during the following three weeks. Definitely Yellowstone, even though I did not have reservations.
After driving for hours from Ohio, we found a campground somewhere in nondescript Middle America.
I had never set up a tent before, but I figured it couldn't be that difficult. My kids and I laughed as we held out the directions in the middle of a campground and attempted to make sense of the unwieldy contraption. Finally, and with some embarrassment, I asked a couple nearby to help us out because they clearly seemed to know what they were doing. Who goes camping for the first time and doesn't know how to set up a tent?
I found a journal recently from during that time.
Murdo, South Dakota
We are headed to the Badlands. I love saying that word. Badlands. The way it's been described is mysterious, remote, peculiar and, yet, oddly beautiful. It's also about 95 degrees. I never thought I would find this state intriguing, but it is.
We visited the Corn Palace in South Dakota and for hundreds of miles along Interstate 90, we followed signs to Wall Drug, literally in the middle of nowhere. We stopped and hiked along the spooky and surreal rock formations of the Badlands, took obligatory photos beneath Mount Rushmore and marveled at the gorgeous and dense forest of the Black Hills. When we visited a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, we pretended to be locals.
Buffalo Bill State Park
It's a gorgeous morning here in the mountains of Wyoming, but it was a difficult night, somewhat. Richard was frightened and spooked because we are in such a remote area. He kept hearing noises and imaging campground serial killers lurking behind the shadows in the trees. Julia loved the millions of stars in the sky. I kept thinking the tent was going to blow away. It was also extremely hard getting the stakes for the tent to stay in the ground, and because we did not have pads underneath, we could feel the rocks beneath our backs under our sleeping bags.
Right outside Yellowstone, while setting up our tent, dark and menacing clouds appeared out of nowhere. The wind picked up and our tent was almost blown into a lake. As it started to rain, we had to quickly pack up our belongings and throw them back into my very impractical, yet fun, Saab convertible to wait out the storm.
Once inside Yellowstone National Park, a massive park, we found a nice family willing to share their campsite with us at the height of summer in what was known as Bear Country. I had no idea that families would plan these trips and reserve campsites many months in advance.
That night in Bear Country, I had difficulty sleeping. I kept a watchful eye on my children while imagining a bear tearing at the tent to devour us in the dark of night. Every little sound I heard, the rustling of leaves, simply meant we were that much closer to doom. I had never seen a bear in the wild and I was hoping to keep it that way -- at least, for now.
When the three of us separately kayaked down the Rio Grande in New Mexico in Class 3 rapids, I remember being terrified that my kids would fall into the river and bang their heads into the rocks. It actually ended up being me that tipped over three times. While underwater, I had to right myself and my kayak in the rushing waters. It was scary, yet exhilarating -- and empowering.
Taos, New Mexico
I got caught under my capsized kayak and took a taste of river water. For a moment, I wondered if this was it for me because I was having a hard time getting the boat off of me and the water was moving pretty fast. But I figured the kids not only needed a ride back to California, but they needed a mother too, even if it's me. So, I got out of that mess somehow.
We ended up having quite the adventure on this road camping trip. It opened up possibilities and it made me realize that the adventurous spirit within me had not been squashed by motherhood or career. I learned a lot but I sometimes questioned myself. Was I crazy for wandering out west into parts unknown -- just my two kids and I?
I drove more than 2,000 miles and, with the exception of a couple of nights that we spent in the car or a cheap motel, we camped out every night. I fell in love the outdoors and, despite the risks, I was thrilled I had taken the chance to venture out, with my kids, and begin to explore some of the wonders our country has to offer us.
Since then, I've had more adventures, and some misadventures, like getting lost for hours in the dark after climbing Half Dome in Yosemite. I finally got to know and love Joshua Tree, a national park that is practically in my backyard. In August 2010, my kids and I explored Southern Utah and we camped in Zion, Bryce and Arches National Parks. In 2014, I hiked in Acadia National Park in Maine.
Earlier this year, I took a 10-week Sierra Club course on backpacking and wilderness skills. Three months ago, I twisted my ankle coming down Mount Wilson in Los Angeles and I had to hike five miles -- downhill -- before I could take my hiking boots off and examine my badly sprained ankle. It was the start of summer and I could not picture myself lying in bed to heal. I gave my ankle a break and rested for a couple of weeks before venturing off for a planned trip to Alaska during the summer solstice.
Maybe hiking the Harding Icefield Trail to Exit Glacier with a sprain, three miles of it in snow, was not my best idea ever but I survived and count that as one of my favorite hikes in the world -- thus far.
What can I say? I can't resist the lure of a challenge. Just last weekend, I climbed my first "fourteener." I backpacked for three days with friends and summited Mount Langley, a 14,044 ft. mountain in Mount Whitney's shadow. I may have caught the "peakbagging" bug and am dreaming of climbing more mountains.
My two older kids are young adults now and live on their own. I have a 7-year-old who has his own sleeping bag, a daypack with a bladder, a headlamp, first aid kit and hiking boots. He's camped, hiked and scrambled on rocks since he was a toddler.
I'm still learning and I'm not an expert in the outdoors but I would like to be a knowledgeable outdoors-woman. I also want to share my love, passion and knowledge with as many people as possible.
I think of the kids, many of whom are missing out on being able to explore the outdoors, and it makes me sad. Whether it's for cultural reasons, lack of transportation and access or money - nature and the natural world right outside in our backyard should be available and accessible to everyone. I often notice how "white" our state and national parks are. When I notice families of color, I happily do a double-take because they are often too rare a sight.
There should be no limitations and every child and young person should have the means to know what it feels like to be surrounded by exceptional beauty untouched and unmarred by an urban landscape.
I have felt the joy of solitude and what it's like to experience complete stillness in the air broken only by the sounds of a bird or the wind rustling through the trees. I have looked up into the sky, as recently as this Fourth of July weekend in Sequoia National Park, and instead of watching fireworks I saw something far grander -- millions of brightly-shining stars framed by a canopy of towering trees.
I also know that, without a doubt, the outdoors is not just for the rich or for the Anglos. It's for everyone -- girls, boys, women, men, Latinos, Latinas, African-Americans, and anyone in-between.
It belongs to all of us.