Now more than ever, many young women are stepping out of their comfort zones — and into nature — to find solace and healing. According to a 2017 national study commissioned by REI on women and the outdoors, more than 85 percent of women believe that being in nature has had a positive effect on their mental and physical health.
“There’s something spiritual about setting foot on nature. When you’re feeling stuck, literally taking steps forward can give you a new perspective on life,” says Morgan Dixon, co-founder of GirlTrek, a nonprofit organization that encourages African-American women and girls to use walking as a step to healthy living. And because no two paths are the same, we talked to seven women about how getting outside changed them. Let their stories inspire you to reset your priorities, heal from grief, forge your own way, and most importantly, find yourself.
How Nature Helped These 7 Women Heal
1. Running from Abuse
Cyndi Wyatt, endurance mountain runner
Before Cyndi Wyatt became a serious trail runner, she would jog the local trails to escape her then-reality: Getting divorced and leaving an abusive marriage. “I would run four miles at a time, sometimes with my daughter in the stroller,” Wyatt says. “Stomping through springs, getting sweaty and dirty and overcoming fear of snakes allowed me to be stronger in my daily life,” she says.
And nature was full of signs. While she was running up a 5,000-foot mountain, Wyatt encountered a bear and her cub. She watched from three feet away as the bear taught her cub how to pull a bush down and reach for the berries. At that moment, Wyatt realized she needed to be that mama bear for her kids. “They still needed me like I needed them,” she says. Wyatt still takes to the trails when she’s feeling anxious. “I used to feel like my life was a tornado of things to do, and my feet were never on the ground. Trail running grounds me like nothing I’ve experienced before.”
2. Finding Purpose
Steph Jagger, author of Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery
On paper, Steph Jagger had it all: a high-paying corporate job and a home to call her own. But something was still missing — and she was intent on finding it. So she took out a second mortgage, quit her job and traveled across five continents to ski some of the world’s tallest mountains. “There was no reason for me to do it other than wanting to do it,” Jagger says. But leaving her life behind to follow winter across the globe was her way of breaking the mold. Jagger set out to prove that women didn’t have to experience a tragedy to want more and connect with nature.
“That’s the story that’s missing in the female narrative. If these are the only stories we tell — the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jeanette Walls — the strength of women becomes contingent on some part of us being broken,” Jagger says. While she was trekking through Indonesia, she was finally able to turn the page. “Where I saw beauty in [Mother Nature], I saw beauty in me. She is the ultimate mirror and the ultimate healer,” Jagger says.
3. Accepting Failure
Georgina Miranda, mountaineer and founder of Altitude Seven and She Ventures
After learning about the violent rape epidemic affecting women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgina Miranda couldn’t sit back. But rather than raise awareness through a fundraiser, she decided to take her message around the world. Miranda set out on an Explorer Grand Slam expedition (climbing the seven tallest summits in the world and skiing the last degree of the north and south poles) and launched Climb Take Action, a campaign to raise money for victims of gender-based violence in Congo and places of highest need. “I wanted to do something empowering while raising awareness,” she says.
And that something wasn’t easy. While climbing Mount Everest in 2011, Miranda developed hypoxia (a form of high-altitude sickness due to low oxygen levels). She was just five hours away from reaching the peak when she had to turn back. “Mountaineering taught me that failure isn’t always a bad thing,” Miranda says. “You’re at the mercy of nature and you have this goal, but you have to be respectful. I knew that if I kept going I would put myself and other people I was with in danger,” Miranda recounts. In 2013, Miranda returned to Mount Everest, and she summited.
To inspire other women to find purpose in nature and choose adventure as a way of life, Miranda founded Altitude Seven (and She Ventures), which provides information and inspiration for women who want to explore the world and a new way of living. “I didn’t grow up athletic, and mountaineering has brought another level of confidence in me to tackle life,” Miranda says. “Adventure changes lives, and I say choose adventure.”
4. Overcoming Fear
Morgan Dixon, co-founder of GirlTrek
Hailing from a family of Oklahoma farmers, Morgan Dixon had always associated being outdoors with work. Anything beyond that was delving into mysterious territory. “Nature can be a scary place,” Dixon says. “Going into the woods brought up a fear of the unknown for me, but then I started hiking and began to feel radically connected to nature.”
Today, Dixon says the outdoors has become a place of comfort for her, and she uses hiking to practice fearlessness in her everyday life. “Being in nature makes you dependent on its elements. Just think about the oxygen and carbon dioxide you exchange,” she says.
As the co-founder of GirlTrek, Dixon is redefining what the outdoors means for black women. “You don’t need to be in Jackson Hole to be outdoors. There are beautiful green areas everywhere to find total healing,” Dixon explains. “We want to reclaim our streets for our communities and show women that in order to take care of their families, they must first take care of themselves.”
5. Releasing Self-Doubt
Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of GirlTrek
Before turning 40, Vanessa Garrison ran, hiked and biked hundreds of miles across the U.S. And to ring in her 40s, she took a solo trip to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. But Garrison hasn’t always been an outdoor junkie. “I grew up in Seattle — outdoor heaven — but I actually didn’t step into a national park until my late 20s. Hiking just wasn’t part of my family’s activities,” Garrison says.
Then she married her husband, a Yosemite rock climbing instructor, and began to talk herself out of her own self-doubts. “Frankly, I just thought doing anything like hiking and running was totally out of my physical abilities,” Garrison says. It’s that type of motivation and inspiration that Garrison hopes to share with the women of GirlTrek. “We want women who live in places where there are no green juices, yoga studios and mountains to know that if you’re having a bad day, you can take a walk and experience nature’s healing,” she says.
And you don’t have to fit into the idea of an “outdoor woman” to opt outside. “I carry red lipstick everywhere I go, and when I summited Kilimanjaro, you bet I was wearing it,” Garrison says.
6 and 7. Opening Up Possibilities
Tashi and Nungshi Malik, world record-holding mountaineers
In India, climbing mountains isn’t a sport. Yet, Tashi and Nungshi Malik became the world’s first twins and South Asians to scale the seven highest summits. Through encouragement from their father, the Malik twins started mountain climbing at age 18.
“Mountaineering has huge potential in India. We have 50 peaks in the Himalayas, and they are all vast and beautiful,” Nungshi says. The Malik twins say that mountaineering has helped them connect to their community and share their appreciation for nature. “We were always shy girls and very self-contained. Climbing has wetted our appetites to open up,” Tashi says.
Together, they started the Nunghi Tashi Foundation, which helps support and encourage mountaineering programs for girls in the South Asia region. “India has a very academic-focused society. The mountains have acted as a guru for us, and we want to help girls realize their full potential, whatever that might be,” Nungshi says.