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From Sparkles to Sparks: Just Click Your Heels (or Hiking Boots) and Go!

Women in the Outdoors in Utah

Written by Paula Colman

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Photo: Zion Adventure Photography

I have noticed that women embrace adventure differently throughout their lives. As girls, we started each school year anew: new classes, new clothes, new cliques. Many of us joined Girl Scouts or took ballet, gymnastics or swimming lessons. Some activities went better than others, and the next month, semester or year, we tried something even more challenging or altogether different. We just jumped into a new pair of sparkly Mary Janes, clicked our heels and … poof, waited for the magic! Why is that so hard to find as a grown-up?

Instead, each New Year, without the benefit of a syllabus to lead us, many of us make resolutions, specific changes in our lives: to exercise, to meditate, to stop smoking or eating meat, to save money for travel. These sound more dispirited than enchanted, and they are just potential solutions to greater desires: to save the planet, to be financially independent or secure, to be healthier, or to just heal. Resolutions bring us closer to the solutions that are important to us by keeping us accountable with smaller goals. In other words, a resolution is a spark, and women can find it outdoors in Utah. 

Whoa! I know, you were just surfing the web for landscape photos or some Instagramer’s adventures killing time before your next appointment, and now you’re wondering, “How is resolving to visit Utah going to magically change my life?” or, foremost —

Where and What is Utah?

Using my best schoolmarm voice, “If you’re asking, then you obviously haven’t been here,” but you’ve probably heard of it, wondered about it (definitely wondered about it). Between the Rockies and the Great Basin, Utah is best-known as the backdrop for famous westerns and Olympic glories, but The Beehive State also has an enigmatic and surprisingly-progressive history where we embrace the independent pioneer spirit in business, technology, politics and the outdoors while collectively volunteering more hours than any other state.

If you have visited (or failed to leave), then you’re giggling knowing that Utah is, indeed, the spark igniting the desire to do so much more. Like the region’s pioneer forebears, you’ll find women in Utah who display fearlessness or, perhaps, just a sense of wonder. They view this place of Alpine forests and slickrock plateaus as a giant playground where they can embark on adventures that rekindle the childhood joys of soaring down a slide, swinging into the sky, or exploring nearby woods or trails. Being immersed in the outdoors and a culture that embraces it is powerful magic.

The vast number of exciting things to do and beautiful places to see here keeps you constantly cataloguing your next challenge. If you’ve skied Alta, then you’ve looked down from the Sugarloaf Lift at runs that you’ve resolved to try next time. If you’ve visited Zion National Park, then you’ve likely resolved to hike Angel’s Landing, wade The Narrows or, somehow, score a permit to drop into The Subway. If you’ve attended the Sundance Film Festival, then you’ve definitely resolved to see as many movies and Q&As as possible and sleep when you get home. Utah is not a one-and-done or I’m-going-to-follow-a-plan destination; it’s a I-want-to-wander-and-explore place because, like lightning in Utah’s Dark Skies, that spark will illuminate the world at your feet and beyond the horizon, and there just isn’t enough time to see and savor it all.

But what if you’ve never done any of those things? What if you haven’t left your desk or home or time zone in years…decades? It happens…a lot. Life gets in the way of a lot of the things we need or desire, or it makes us forget what those things are until we have no other option than to get away or run away. After reading the memoir Wild, I felt an intense visceral need to strap on a backpack and head out solo on a 1000-mile trail, but then realized I have trouble starting a simple campfire or reading the doggone map. It’s been a long time since Girl Scouts. 

How Do You Create a Spark if You Don’t Remember How to Gather Kindling? 

When women get together, work together, play together, amazing things — small or monumental — can happen. From preschool on, we have heard some form of, “The first thing you do is find a friend...” Turning slowly against the weight of fear, some cherubic goldfish-encrusted face always materialized and, then, we were suddenly laughing and sharing the best technique for building a Lego castle. Taking that first step in any endeavor, big or — well, they all seem big at the time — doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

A bit of trivia: In 1870, Utah’s territorial legislature unanimously granted women the right to vote just months after trailblazing Wyoming but 50 years before the country did so. It doesn’t seem surprising that an initial spark of the suffrage movement ignited here. These women weren’t afraid; they had just hauled handcarts filled with their families and dreams over the Rocky Mountains!

2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ratification meant more than, “Women got the vote.” It meant a lot of women resolved to make it happen despite having not a single woman in Congress! Women across the country lobbied, convinced and demanded (men in) the House and Senate and the legislatures of three-quarters of the states to change the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in local, state and federal elections. It wasn’t fast or easy. It didn’t alter their lives overnight (women are still waiting for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment granting equal rights under the law), but those women knew in their minds, hearts and souls that, working together, they could make what they desired — what seemed impossible at the time — happen. There are many opportunities for women to engage with others to find solutions to meet desires, goals or dreams, and they don’t have to be monumental or universal. (Read: "Women in the Wild: Transformation and the Outdoors").

Utah is Part of the Equation.

Think about your resolution as a solUTion with Utah as part of the equation. What do you want to achieve? Whatever it is, it’s important, because it’s important to you. Something that’s been important to me as a parent is to instill curiosity in my children by … staying curious myself: trying new things, meeting new people and learning from them, accepting their encouragement and celebrating my occasional epic-fails. To make sure they see it all, I resolved to post my exploits online. 

I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I started using it to make sure I knew what my kids were up to (yeah, I really believed that for a while), but it opened a portal to a world of exotic-looking places and experiences, many close to my adopted home of Salt Lake City. Like glossy photographs in a magazine or the latest reality TV promos, the filtered images in those sponsored posts, at first, seemed beyond reach.

However, looking closer, what caught my attention and compelled me to open that darn app time and time again were the pictures and videos of real women doing extraordinary (as in out-of-the-ordinary, not adrenaline-infused) things. These weren’t professional athletes or ambassadors on trails, rivers and mountains. These were my neighbors and friends I recognized from carpool and grocery lines. They were visitors from London, England and Paris, Texas. They had kids and grandkids, demanding jobs and busy lives, but here they were, mountain biking, skiing, camping, and canyoneering on their own, with girlfriends, spouses and kids … and they looked #beUTAHful. So, like the girl who grew up trying all kinds of hobbies, sports and musical instruments, I clicked the muddy heels of my hiking boots and resolved to try them all. Well, not ice climbing. Well, not yet.

The best thing about women in Utah is also the most intimidating — there are some incredibly talented women here. There are runners...and ultra-marathon runners. There are skiers...and Gold Medalists. Trying something new can feel daunting or embarrassing but, typically, not among women where friendships are created easily and forged by shared interests such as scout troops, sororities or book clubs, and women love sharing things they’re passionate about from shoe sales to spectacular descents. So, to get outdoors or try something new (while not being left in the dust by your Strava-addicted partner), “Who ya gonna call?”

Being immersed in the outdoors and a culture that embraces it is powerful magic.

Photo: Zion Adventure Photog

Trying something new can feel daunting or embarrassing but, typically, not among women where friendships are created easily and forged by shared interests.

Photo: Zion Adventure Photog

Juliet Sullivan (7) ready to go for the day.

Photo: Tim Sullivan

Just grab a friend or ten and go! Help rekindle their flames or, if your gal pals are on a path to the mall (not Moab) searching for Manolos (not Merrells), then head out on a women-only adventure, the number and type of which are exploding throughout Utah. Use that REI member discount and rebate to hike or camp with fellow female spirits in stunning Bryce Canyon National Park.

Not quite that adventurous yet? Then, just get a taste of the outdoors and reawaken all of your senses. Escape from your skiing-crazed family with a local group like the Wild Women Tribe, which leads women on half-day “wanders”, such as hiking to a hot spring followed by a tea ceremony in a yurt. When you meet the kids later over hot cocoa on the St. Regis patio, you’ll be the one with the best tales to tell and pictures to post. 

Sometimes, just a taste of the outdoors (especially with someone else planning and leading the way) can be enough to help you resolve or just refocus what is important to you. Over winter break, I signed up for a Wander with my daughter, who attends college in the South and reminds me — often — how much she hates the cold. It was a morning of snowshoeing (definitely involved snow) and smudging of sage, lavender and other trailside herbs (to clear the air and aura) and indoor boxing (to physically release any remaining tension). In other words, a high-risk activity between a mother and daughter. 

But she loved it. She even invited a sorority sister from Chicago to visit Utah to join us. It did sound pretty gnarly. She then took her to Woodward Park City for a day of more snow… I mean, adventure, and downtown to Gallivan Center for ice skating, and Big Cottonwood Canyon for sledding. Does she, actually, love this winter wonderland? Watching her bound through the powder and drop to make a snow angel, I think she likes to play and explore and try something new and find a friend — or a mom — to enjoy it with. I think, regardless of the temperature (she certainly trades Atlanta for Salt Lake each summer), she is re-energized in Utah’s outdoors and will inevitably return to reconnect and rediscover and, indeed, resolve to do more...with me, of course. I am the cool mom.

Resolve to Visit Utah.

It’s been a long time since Girl Scouts. As I recall those adventures like pictures in a scrapbook, I look forward, knowing there are more pages to fill … and endless exploits to post. But it’s more than pretty pictures and popular posts. Remembering what such experiences provide is what’s important. They help capture not only the landscape but who I am and what I want to be. 

Being outdoors inspires all of us to dream and, then, to become. It doesn’t matter what you do or how well you do it. In Utah, where mountains meet deserts, and women can find a friend or go it alone on ski runs, hiking trails or roads illuminated by sparks rekindles those dreams. Here, we make daisy chains from flowers along the trail, look up at the mountain and declare, “I can climb that.” Utah is a giant playground beckoning that girl — that woman — to explore and discover the landscape and herself. Resolving to visit Utah will ignite you from within creating a powerful magic that lasts forever.

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