Red Fong on Building Home-Spaces Outdoors

This story was a collaboration between Red Fong and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.

Early memories outside

 

“Before I was born my parents hiked the northern half of the Appalachian Trail, and that set the precedent for me and my siblings always being outside,” said Red Fong.

 

Red’s childhood growing up in a small town in central Massachusetts was full of time outdoors—hiking, camping, backpacking—guided by their parents’ love of spending time in nature. 

 

But during their first backpacking trip, hiking with their mom and her friends up to the Greenleaf Hut in the White Mountains, an eight-year-old Red was unhappy on the journey up to the hut.

“It was really rainy and cold. It was not a good time going up. I was not pleased,” said Red. 

 

“And then the next day, the sun came out and the clouds cleared and we were hiking down on this trail and it was so beautiful and sunny—and I was with my mom—it was a really warm and happy experience.”


“Those memories definitely stick with me. It was impactful for me because it cemented that love for being outside, and the appreciation for how much the weather can impact your mood as well, and just being able to connect with my mom in that way. It was definitely a really important first experience.”

Pictured is Red with their cat Shiitake exploring the homelands of Abenaki along the Kancamagus Highway

"Being outside, being with friends, being in community, always sharing food, sharing responsibilities [...] was an opportunity to connect with the people who were around me in the absence of some of the distractions that happened in our day to day lives."

Red remembers car camping with family friends as special moments of togetherness.

 

“We used to go car camping with these big groups of families that had children around me and my siblings' ages. We'd always go on these trips to New Hampshire and Maine to spend a weekend. Being outside, being with friends, being in community, always sharing food, sharing responsibilities—all the kids would put up the tents and the parents would be cooking and would let us out to go run around in the woods until it got dark—being outside for me was an opportunity to connect with the people who were around me in the absence of some of the distractions that happened in our day to day lives. 


“We were always so busy as kids—I remember our mom was always shuttling us around to different places. But once we were outside and camping, the only thing you can do is hang out with your friends.”

 

“I graduated to doing backpacking with some of those family friends, and spending time doing that in the White Mountains quite a bit, but it was always an opportunity to disconnect from things a little bit and not be so focused on what I was thinking about—but rather what my body was doing and who I was with.”

 

Now, years later, after moving to Maine for college, spending time working for trail crews, learning rock climbing and whitewater canoeing, and moving to Boston—community is still important to Red. 

 

“As a nonbinary Asian American, I’m very much a part of the queer community,” said Red. They’re also an active runner and cyclist in Boston, where they currently reside. They currently work as Director of Operations for the Maine Environmental Education Association, supporting a community of Maine educators and youth passionate about the environment.

"Nature has always been this fundamental piece for me of my mental health, and previously when I was really exclusively seeing it as backpacking and more outdoor sports, that way for me to access my mental health was a bit more inaccessible."

Exploring different ways of being outdoors

 

Red has also found the outdoors to be a place to experience challenges and to confront fears.

 

“It's so cool that you can climb up the base of a rock to look out to where you were. I don't really like to look down—I have quite a bit of a fear of heights—but that helped conquer my fear of heights a little bit. One time I was doing some climbing in the Katahdin region, we were climbing up this rock face, and I got to the top of it. I hyperventilated halfway up, and I had to stop because I was freaked out. But I got to the top and looked around, and it was this beautiful view of the lakes that are scattered in the region. You could see Katahdin in the distance, and it made it worth it, even though it was a little scary.”

 

“I also really love white water canoeing. I spent some time doing some canoe expeditions up in the Katahdin region and northern Quebec. I really love being on the river, being in a canoe—it's really intense but also really amazing, because you get to feel the power of the river and you get to understand it in a different kind of way and be really aware of what's going around in your environment, and I really miss that. It's one of my favorite things to do, and it's hard to do it because you have to have a lot of gear.

 

While Red enjoys group outings for outdoor activities, they don’t enjoy being alone in the woods.

 

“I don’t really like to spend a lot of time outdoors by myself. I had some particularly traumatic experiences that I'm still trying to move through. So I'm slowly trying to introduce myself back into that space,” said Red.

 

“Sometimes what makes going outside difficult for me is the people that are out there. As I've come into my own identity, I express myself very visibly as a queer person. When I was growing up that definitely wasn't the case, so it was easy to navigate some of those outdoor spaces. But now I'm very queer and nonbinary looking so sometimes it can be uncomfortable to be in some of the outdoor spaces. Not everyone is always sensitive to those types of experiences and how, even though you might not be in a particular state of risk, your body is constantly elevated—you're always in tension or on edge—so something that may not be necessarily traumatic in that space can end up being traumatic.”

 

“Most of the time when I am by myself in the outdoors, I'm in a park, and so I've really had to step away from that 'outdoors as wilderness' kind of mindset. It's more just like, I go to the state park and I set my hammock somewhere, and spend some time journaling and swimming. This summer I spent a lot of time doing that and it was really helpful for me to start to connect with the outdoors and nature in a different way that wasn't exclusive to hiking or backpacking.

 

“Nature has always been this fundamental piece for me of my mental health, and previously when I was really exclusively seeing it as backpacking and more outdoor sports, that way for me to access my mental health was a bit more inaccessible.”

"I'm very much a gear junkie. By having an understanding of how all the equipment worked, it made me feel more secure."

Building safe spaces outdoors

 

Over time, Red has learned what they need in order to feel prepared, comfortable, and safe on a trip outdoors.

 

For rock climbing, working through Red’s fear of heights has involved gear, knowledge, and teachers.

 

“I learned to love tying knots, and all the different ways you can manipulate rope. I'm very much a gear junkie. By having an understanding of how all the equipment worked, it made me feel more secure. I'm super grateful to have had not only access to the equipment but also really great teachers that taught me how different crags and cracks in the rock can help you, or how different tools should be used to navigate climbing up something.”

 

In general, Red appreciates having the right equipment for a trip.

 

“When I leave my apartment to go somewhere, I have to make sure I have everything. I very much have a checklist kind of mind, so having all those different things really makes me feel comfortable, knowing that if this happens, I have this backup, or this kind of tool that I can use. 

 

“Whenever I leave it's very excessive, I always bring a lot of rope, a lot of Paracord, and that's become a really big thing for me. I always like to bring a tarp to hang up wherever I camp or wherever I'm backpacking. 

 

“One of my favorite things to do when I'm out backpacking or hiking is setting up that tarp. It's this process of setting up a safe space for me, it brings the two things together—my love of tying knots and rope, and being able to create a comfortable home-space when I'm out there. Having all the tools to do that makes me feel a lot more safe and a lot more ready to have those experiences outside.”

"I think we are so often focused on the 'leave no trace ethic' that we often forget that we are part of nature and that leaving an impact is part of our essence."

Sharing advice and learnings

 

Red holds pieces of advice they’d like to share with others who want to spend time outdoors.

 

“Growing up, we [my siblings and I] were super privileged to go to this place called Kroka, it's in southern New Hampshire, and it's an experiential outing classroom, and you do expeditions. One of the big things there is living comfortably outside. Wherever we went on an expedition, we were always building these home-spaces, like everytime we moved locations, we'd rebuild that home-space. I think without that I'd be super uncomfortable, and wouldn’t know how to find that rhythm. But every day, you take down your camp and you travel, and then you put it back up. 

 

“I wish people knew that it's okay to try and make yourself comfortable in the outdoors, through building a home-space.”

"I think we are so often focused on the 'leave no trace ethic' that we often forget that we are part of nature and that leaving an impact is part of our essence."

“Your outdoor experiences don't have to be all backpacking and hiking. It definitely took me a while to really learn that - now, of course, I just go to a park, but it wasn't until recently where I deeply felt the impact of being outside in a park like that instead of going backpacking. 

 

“Just this weekend I was feeling super groggy on a Sunday and I was like 'I feel really gross, my body doesn't feel right,' and I had been sitting inside all day, and I went to a little park down the street, and I took my cat on a leash, I took my blankets and I went and sat outside. I brought some food with me, I brought my journal, and I sat out there for like half an hour and I felt so much better. It made a world of difference. I got back inside and I felt so invigorated and so much more alive and awake. Really allow yourself to lean into that feeling, 'yes this experience outside that I'm having, in this park,—it's an authentic outdoor experience.’

 

Red counts two other factors—people and food—as crucial to  feeling comfortable outdoors.

 

"Grab a friend, one that understands what you’re going through. It's sometimes very intimidating to try and go do something new on your own, especially something like exploring the outdoors, and especially as a person of color. I’ve had a lot of access to gear and outdoor experiences and knowledge, and I always felt like it was my responsibility to bring other people outside—other friends who hadn't necessarily had those experiences, especially a lot of friends who were Black or Latinx. I always think about it: it's someone’s responsibility, if they have privilege and access, to help you gain access to those places as well. 

 

“A way that you can really make yourself feel like you're having an authentic experience outside is picnicking and eating something outside. Engaging in those types of activities really makes you feel like you're making that home-space for yourself, where you are becoming comfortable. I think eating is a way we surrender ourselves a little bit, so by engaging in that, in an outdoor space, it makes it a little bit more integrated.

"It's someone’s responsibility, if they have privilege and access, to help you gain access to those places as well."

Outside every day

 

Now, living in Boston, Red gets outside as often as they can, on small excursions outside their door.

 

“This morning I woke up and I had to walk the dog and I was like, 'ugh it's cold outside.’

 

“But then I hit the first patch of sun, and turned my face into it and I thought, 'this feels glorious.'"

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This story was created and published in October 2021