Women in the Wild: Transformation and the Outdoors

Paula Colman joins a weekend retreat for women in Moab, Utah, that has an eye-catching mission: Build your tribe. Connect with your inner spirit. Transform body, mind and spirit around the theme: “Ignite the Flame Within.” Follow along as she seeks her authentic self and learn how to find your own Tribe.

Written By Paula Colman


Editor’s note: To help you plan your own transformative wilderness trip in Utah, visit this page for resources and updates about planning visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a weekend camping retreat in Moab for women,” I told my editor, “... like the Utah version of a girls’ spa trip.” Utah is home to some amazing luxury getaways (like those Park City spas just up the canyon from me), but the tiny town of Moab in central-eastern Utah is world renowned for its adrenaline-filled adventures, iconic parks and landmarks. Yes, iconic! Delicate Arch is featured on the Utah license plate, and Dead Horse Point is where Thelma and Louise drove their Thunderbird convertible off a cliff ... ok, maybe that’s not what the state tourism site wants to promote (See the itinerary: "Thelma & Louise: A Tribute Road Trip Through the Classic Film’s Utah Settings"). Moab is a place where you’re more likely to find spiny creatures than scented candles, and premium lodging means secure indoor parking for your mountain bike, not your automobile. So, maybe the spa analogy was a stretch, but it proved to be one incredible and memorable girls’ trip.

I had no idea what this meant much less how to write eloquently about it. I don’t speak New Age, I think I once triggered a yogi and I like to pair french fries with Champagne. So, when they pulled out the tarot cards, I felt less like Wallace Stegner offering his immortal prose about love, life and the land of Utah and more like Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality,” an undercover FBI agent posing awkwardly and somewhat dismissively as a beauty pageant contestant. I had a lot to learn.

Spoiler Alert: Lentils should always be sprouted; morning yoga is great, but jumping into the Colorado River at sunrise is transformative; my spirit animal is the whale; and like Bullock’s Miss New Jersey, I left with insights, memories and, in an astonishingly short time, amazing women friends who blazed different trails but seemed to share a common spark which, as if Stegner composed it, ignited my flame.

Building a Tribe Requires a Great Chief

"Through friendships, we spark and inspire one another's ambitions."
— Wallace Stegner

Wild Women Tribe is the “passion project” of Renee Huang of Park City. A public relations professional by day, she conceived of the Tribe after having a transformative outdoor experience with several friends at Big Bend, a section of Bureau of Land Management land where the Colorado River carves its way through a narrow canyon and turns sharply before it enters Moab. It is a place where you don’t stand beside the towering sienna walls but are surrounded by them. Renee wanted to recreate these feelings of strength and support “to build a network of entrepreneurial female spirits” who draw physical and emotional nourishment from the outdoors.

If you’ve spent any time in Utah or anywhere outside, you know what such experiences can do. Anyone who has climbed a mountain, hiked a trail or fished in a pond gets it. Fresh air is the most intoxicating elixir in the world. It makes you feel that you can summit anything. Conversely, the outdoors, particularly when you’re unplugged, can make you feel not only unmoored but minute. The scale of mountains, the power of rivers, the opacity of forests, the vastness of star-filled skies reveal our vulnerability and irrelevance. For millions of years, these natural forces were largely undiscovered, unknown and untouchable and, even with knowledge now digitally in the palm of our hands, they remain mysterious. They invite us to wander — to journey without a map — to query, stray and discover.

When venturing out with other women, Renee realized that discoveries occurred internally and externally, from beginning to end and that they inspired changes long after the trips concluded. Renee’s refrain is common, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” but it inspired another idea for me, one penned by Henry Miller, “One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” But, first, you had to get them outside.

“Thank you for saying ‘yes’,” repeated Renee throughout the 48-hour retreat. I understood what she meant and why she acknowledged it. For many women, stopping to take time for ourselves seems harder than reaching a summit. Work, family, community ... they are all calling to us. We don’t feel we can tune them out or let them down. So, getting away from home was the initial challenge, but emotionally leaving the comforts (or habits) of daily life was the bigger step. It takes someone — a chief — to remind us that to benefit our tribe, we must let go of expectations and pressures — to become our authentic self — and discover what is meaningful to us — our flame — in order to find balance and happiness in our relationships and lives. Yes, my fries-eating, analytical self was a bit skeptical and a bit nervous, and when I started imagining Joan Baez singing verses of Kumbaya with my chorus of never-ending lists, I wondered whether I should stick to the physical tests on slickrock trails down the road, because traveling this path would require more than a strong body but a new way of looking at things.

Energy and Positive Intentions

Pulling up to the pavilion at Big Bend Campground along the sandy south bank of the Colorado River, my companion Mara and I felt we were in the right place and simultaneously agreed that we were staying regardless because, whoever they were, these folks were obviously enjoying themselves. There were almost a dozen women gathered like fireflies under glass. There was laughter, music (although I can’t recall if it was a particular tune or the clanging of pots and pans and tent poles) and an unidentified offer to help unload and set up. (I, actually, secretly practiced setting up my tent in my garage a few days earlier to prove I could do it without my husband.) “No, I’m good. Thanks,” I replied and followed Mara to a flat site under some oak trees. There, we pitched our tent, grabbed our camp chairs and completed the circle of co-venturers back under the pavilion where we made introductions and, with the excitement of kids at Christmas, opened swag bags full of certificates, coupons, samples, books and t-shirts. “Presents are important,” said Renee. Commaradie and generosity were the tinder for the entire weekend.

Looking around the circle, other than Mara and Renee, I didn’t recognize anyone. We then bound ourselves together literally with an Intention Bracelet, a single piece of jute that, as we wrapped it around our wrists, cinched us together before introducing ourselves and announcing what brought us to this place. Over two days, I would learn that this group of 11 women ranged in ages from 24 to 57. Some were from Utah, others moved here recently or long ago, and one drove in from Washington State. They were single, married, divorced and of different races, religions, ethnic and educational backgrounds. They had kids, no kids, cats and dogs. We even found out that our chef, Anne, had two Easter Egg Hens (because they lay colored eggs, of course) named Violet and Peanut Butter. I discovered and shared more with these women in 48 hours than some of my blood relatives in 50 years!

Many of the women learned about Wild Women Tribe through descriptions, photos and reviews of Renee’s earlier “wanders,” half-day hike and snowshoe trips to hot springs and yurts with a yoga session or tea ceremony thrown in. No, they weren’t your typical massage, mani-pedi, fruity-drinks-poolside-kind-of-trips. They weren’t even your typical hike or snowshoe trips! Even when I first heard about it, Wild Women Tribe sounded unique — and fun — and didn’t require great sums of preparation, time, gear or wealth. It was accessible to anyone. You just had to say, “Yes.”

That became one of the most powerful intentions and discoveries during the weekend. It often feels safer to stay on the same path, but doing so eventually creates a rut or takes you somewhere you, frankly, don’t want to go making you stationary at best … or just lost. "No," "I’ll think about it" or, some form of "I need to do something for someone else," doesn’t move you forward. Learning to say "yes" frees you not only to go farther and see new things but to hear new voices guiding (or cheering) you along the way. Let go, find a different way of looking at things.

Putting Intentions Into Practice ... or on a Plate

Although there was a full schedule, either by design or intuition, Renee allowed the weekend to flow like the river beside us. The Colorado River was just steps from the campsite allowing us to see, hear and feel its presence the entire time, and after a half-day drive for most, it was calling us to its shore. However, despite 90-degree temps in early June, the water was not much more than snowmelt causing even louder hoots and hollers from those, including me, who barely waded in.

As with the prime riverfront location, when it came to food and drink, this camping retreat could hold its own against a five-star resort. Meat and cheese charcuterie, homemade granola and pickled vegetables, nuts, figs, dried apricots, hummus, baba ganoush … and those were just the appetizers. Anne Dorsey of Milk and Honey Wellness treated us not only to copious amounts and varieties of foods all weekend but, while preparing each meal, explained their source (thank you, Violet and Peanut Butter) and nutritional purpose (very important) and how different foods affected different people (most important).

It’s not about vegetarian or vegan or paleo or fries and Champagne diets; it is about your relationship with your food and your life, Anne explained. If you feel well, you’ll eat well, and if you eat well, you will feel well. The trick was discovering what those mean to you, evaluating your expectations and pressures and exploring what foods, in fact, work. No, we didn’t live on tofu, but we did eat a delicious lentil salad and learned why sprouted is better-tasting and better for you (Mara tested and confirmed this back at home on her family the following week) and, man, Anne can make some mouth-watering and tender baby back ribs! So, no, not your typical spa food. Better.

In one of the more inspired Tribe activities, Renee invited Andrea Latimer, the founder of Bitters Lab, to foster creativity and collaboration in a hands-on approach — mixing drinks. Bitters are a type of flavored extracts, and although grain alcohol is used as a solvent to release the aromatic or gustative flavors, you wouldn’t consume them alone anymore than you would a bottle of vanilla extract. They were historically used as a medicine or digestive or cocktail mixer. Today, as palettes have become more adventurous, bitters are showing up in foods and non-alcohol concoctions, as well. In fact, Andrea started making bitters as a wedding cake baker trying to infuse her confections with unique all-natural flavors.

(Read: Bitters Make Adventures, Oh, So Sweet for recipes and more information)

Each evening after dinner, the Tribe watched Andrea set up her workbench. Like a scientist or chef — both relying upon combinations and chemical reactions to produce something new — she demonstrated how to use her flavors in new and varied ways. Charred Cedar and Current bitters in an Old Fashioned, Blueberry Cardamom in coffee, Apricot Vanilla in frosting. It was, again, a different way of looking at things. Then, the fun part, we made our own. We channeled Tom Cruise and the Hippy Hippy Shake (telling the Millenials with an eye-roll to just YouTube it) and enjoyed the physical act of creating something and the communal act of sharing it together.

Sparks, S’mores and Shavasana

“Wisdom ... is knowing what you have to accept.”
― Wallace Stegner

Illumination and temperature rose and fell along the sides of the canyon walls each day visibly reminding the Tribe that, like sunrise and sunset, changes occur all around us and, as we age and mature, they (for better or worse) happen within us.

How we respond and feel about those responses are on us. “Accept where you are at this moment ... It gives you choices,” proposed Casey Aksoy, entrepreneur and female embodiment coach of Wild Sexy Free, who led each evening’s campfire program.

After having us elicit aloud what we felt good about in life, Casey asked everyone to write down privately what was not working. She then guided us through acceptance, forgiveness, patience and compassion — the steps necessary to reach the next stage, the next sunrise, in our lives.

That mental and, for some, emotional exercise was conjoined with the physical practice of morning yoga led by Nicole DeBloois and Sarah Woodward of Tadasana Yoga in Park City. For several years, I have found yoga … impossible. Although I can position and balance and breathe, I cannot quiet my mind. Clogged with lists and todos and details, “mindfulness” escapes me outside a turbulent airplane. Watching my Tribe hold graceful poses and, one, sitting like a priestess with her chin tilted toward the mesa, I suddenly felt that maybe I would never see things differently, that change was as likely as sedimentary movement on this Colorado Plateau.

The rest of the day, we enjoyed amazing meals, gorgeous hikes and dipping our toes in the still-freezing-cold river, where I convinced my new friends to pose before my ubiquitous camera, the most terrifying creature out there, I learned. This was not a pageant, after all, and we had ditched our lip gloss and concealer five minutes after arrival. Some were more willing than others and, realizing the trust being offered, I took greater care and tried to capture the strength and beauty of these women in this incredible setting. After another meal and mixology lesson, we gathered around the campfire a final time. 

From the moment we committed words to paper the previous night, we foresaw tonight would end with their ashes. We knew what was holding each of us back in our lives; it was now time to look at it differently so we could move forward. Asking us to use our five senses, Casey directed the Tribe to silently confess what we wanted or where we wanted to be: what did it look like, how did it sound, taste, smell, feel? The campfire then crackled, snapping me to attention as if to say, Let go, look at things differently, this is it.

And, then, there it was, the spark and the flame.

You’re Stronger Than You Think, and You’re Strongest with a Tribe

On the final morning, the sun was already warming the tent when a robin forced me awake. I am not kidding! The doggone bird would not shut up! Singing a rather persistent melody supported by the bass notes of the river rushing nearby, I listened for the rumblings of my Tribe. Nothing. So, I threw on my swimsuit thinking I would rinse off a bit of my authentic, non-showered self and take a few photographs of the sunrise over Big Bend before hunting for the others and coffee.

The bird was still singing in a bush beside the river. As I approached, it did not startle; it faced the water and just continued its tune. I looked at the bird, and then I looked at the water and, without taking time to talk myself out of it, I jumped in. Cold! So cold, it burned from my toes to my scalp. I was freezing but electrified, alone but connected. When I emerged, the bird was gone, but I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt more. I was a part of this wilderness, this world, and not just a visitor.

As I walked up the sand beach, the birdsong was replaced with a chorus of pans, coffee pots and musings about our final hike before heading home. Back under the pavilion, Tribe members shuffled and drew cards that revealed their spirit animal, a visual representation of one’s energies and strengths for some and a horoscope of sorts for others. It didn’t really matter, because while divining whether we were an otter, a panther or dragonfly, our Tribe — newly formed but strongly built with jute and juniper and vinyasa and Violet — collectively possessed an energy that could be seen and felt for miles, one that would nourish us and connect us now and until the next girls’ trip with these amazing Wild Women.

Explore more soul-nourishing Utah adventures

Find Your Tribe

Planning a trip to Utah is relatively easy (particularly after perusing visitutah.com). However, sometimes, it’s nice just to let someone else manage the details and direct the adventure in ways you never imagined. For example, this was my third trip to Moab in eight weeks (yes, lucky me), but it was completely different — different lodging, foods, areas, activities — from the other two. So, for a real adventure, let someone else guide you.

Several organizations and companies offer women-only camping experiences in Utah like Wild Women Tribe. They vary in focus, group size, length, intensity and price. Find one that works best for you or, better yet, moves you out of your comfort zone. Such trips are intended to provide support but to transport you, as well. 

• Spark Women’s Retreat was founded by Leadership Excursion Co, “an organization dedicated to the betterment of women.” It hosts a large weekend camping event for women in Zion National Park in the Fall with a wide selection of workshops. Accommodations include tent sites, glamping tents and cabins.

• AndShesDopeToo may have the best group name! This Ogden-based lifestyle organization hosts numerous one-day events throughout Utah and weekend Rendezvous camping retreats in the Spring and Fall for 200 women of any background and experience looking to connect with the outdoors. Due to coronavirus (COVID-19), all upcoming ASDT's events (i.e. Rendezvous, etc.) have been postponed. Follow ASDT for updates and additional information.

• REI, the outdoor retailer, also runs a popular travel company that offers women-only hiking and mountain biking trips (4-12 participants) to Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah throughout the year. REI provides tents, meals and all logistical support.

If you are the guide, family travel agent or “Julie, the Cruise Director,” then Moab, in particular, is a great place to take people of varying interests and abilities. For example, Moab hiking trails range from short walks to epic journeys. Deciding where to go often depends on your time frame, your comfort level and the comfort level of your companions. If you want to keep your friends, don’t kill them on the trail! Here are a few ideas: 

• Get Out and Stretch (parking lots that will amaze): Dead Horse Point and Double Arch
• Wander (short hikes with great views): Corona Arch, Hidden Valley Trail and Grandstaff Trail (photo below)
• Explore (jaw-dropping mornings): Delicate Arch, Fishers Towers Trail, Primitive Trail and Fiery Furnace (permit required, but worth the effort) 

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