After reading Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” inspired by his impassioned rejection of social structure in exchange for a wistful life in the wilderness, I proclaimed myself a transcendentalist. At age 16, I was enraptured by the idea of living among nature, and much like the unfortunately imprudent Christopher McCandless, whose short and ill-fated life is chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” I had an earnest and unfaltering desire to escape to the outdoors.
Although no longer intrigued by the somewhat unreasoned concept of abandoning all modern conveniences for a simpler existence in the wild, my seemingly intrinsic connection to nature has endured. Living in a fast-paced urban environment, I constantly crave the outdoors — and I’m not alone.
“I’ve always been really into backpacking,” said campus sophomore Anthony Ottati. Ottati is a lead officer of the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society, better known as CHAOS.
This past summer, Ottati and a group of friends hitchhiked to Alaska, subsisting on approximately $5 per day for food and basic necessities. As if that adventure did not quite satisfy his appetite for outdoor excursion, he also conquered the Sierra High Route, a 195-mile-long cross country hiking trail running through King’s Canyon and Yosemite National Park.
“I met one of my best friends who posted a trip: ‘who wants to hike 44 miles in 2 days?” – Anthony Ottati
Active members of CHAOS organize trips like these, and everyone from the experienced backpacking aficionado to the hiking novice is welcome to participate. This not only provides ample opportunities for outdoor engagement, but it also fosters what the organization calls an “outdoor community.” The club currently has more than 900 individuals on its mailing list, and in addition to learning about upcoming trips, members can check out unlimited outdoor gear from the communal gear shed.
“I met one of my best friends who posted a trip: ‘who wants to hike 44 miles in 2 days?’ ” Ottati said. “Only one person responded, and he came on the trip with us, and now we’re really good friends.”
CHAOS traces its roots to the LeConte camping party, where the University of California professor of geology Joseph LeConte, along with several members of the university’s first graduating class, explored the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. LeConte would document their travels throughout the summer of 1870 in his journal titled “A Journal of Ramblings Throughout the High Sierras of California,” in which he describes the breathtaking scenery along with their encounter with renowned outdoorsman John Muir.
Perhaps this rich history has given way to a widely held fixation on discovering “what’s out there” — the same fixation that fuels organizations such as CHAOS and has sustained a culture of appreciation for rural environments among many UC Berkeley students.
Whether it’s planning a weekend trip to Tahoe with friends, joining the College Ski and Snowboard Club on its big trip or simply taking a hike on the Berkeley Fire Trails, among these students, the urge to explore the outdoors is seemingly insatiable.
But this infatuation with nature can be observed simply by looking at the collections of backpacks, jackets and outerwear sported by students across campus. Rather than being a staple item for the avid hiker or outdoors person, suddenly, expensive outdoor apparel is a trending item for everyday wear, with brands such as Patagonia and The North Face being some of the most popular. This gave rise to the colloquial term “patagucci,” a reflection of how outdoor apparel has evolved into a trending fashion, or perhaps more problematically, a status symbol.
The view of the outdoors as an aesthetic, however, speaks to a greater issue of inequity of accessibility.
Lack of diversity reflected in advertisements by companies such as Patagonia, for example, might serve as a deterrent.
“There are a ton of benefits to spending time in the outdoors, but there are also a lot of barriers,” said Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs, director of the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, or COEC.
She explained that, while there are a number of commonly considered factors that might inhibit access to the outdoors, including time, knowledge of terrain and monetary constraints, there are many barriers relating to race and socioeconomic status that go widely unrecognized.
Lack of diversity reflected in advertisements by companies such as Patagonia, for example, might serve as a deterrent for individuals who feel like they fail to fit the constraints necessary to pursue an outdoor lifestyle.
“For the most part, we predominantly see young, white, able-bodied, oftentimes male more than female … people out there using the outdoors,” Mulholland-Beahrs said, describing the images commonly projected by many outdoor magazines and catalogues. “If that doesn’t fit who you are … you’re constantly given this message that the outdoors is not for you.”
COEC has worked to counteract this issue by providing opportunities for underrepresented youth to engage with nature. Since its establishment in 2015, the coalition has worked to unite cross-sector partners in their efforts to expand equitable access to the outdoors.
The coalition is part of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and provides undergraduate students with various opportunities to become involved in the organization’s efforts. For example, Every Kid in a Park — a campaign launched by former president Barack Obama — allows UC Berkeley undergraduates to serve as interns trained by the park service rangers to lead field trips for fourth grade students from Richmond and San Pablo to Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park.
“We launched the coalition with this idea that it’s not just about research — it’s also about how we connect people with the outdoors and how we increase accessibility to the outdoors for current and future generations,” Mulholland-Beahrs said.
Many of the organizations that partner with COEC are also working to recognize and facilitate outdoor opportunities for minority groups. Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and African American Explorations are just some examples of groups that are working to eliminate some of these barriers to outdoor access.
“I think a lot of people they see backpacking as something that’s really complicated … and really it’s not.” – Anthony Ottati
Ottati hopes to accomplish a similar goal within CHAOS. In addition to the beginner trips already hosted by the club, he explained that he hopes to begin holding workshops for individuals who are new to hiking and backpacking, with the aim of increasing engagement and enthusiasm among new members.
“That’s one of my goals … to try to get more people involved,” Ottati said. “I think a lot of people they see backpacking as something that’s really complicated … and really it’s not.”
Ottati also explained that, although many UC Berkeley students might express interest in nature, they are often unable to make time for outdoor activities because of heavy academic course loads and commitments to other extracurricular activities.
And while this issue can be largely traced to UC Berkeley’s notoriously demanding intellectual environment, Ottati said it is also due in part to the lack of interest-based clubs currently present on campus. He mentioned that students are often willing to put aside their passions to focus on other activities.
“If it’s something that’s really meaningful to you, you’ll make time for it,” he said.
And when it comes to the outdoors, opportunities for outdoor recreation are closer than they might seem. Taking advantage of one’s natural surroundings does not always involve traversing a mountain range or camping in Yosemite Valley. Instead, it can be as simple as sitting on Memorial Glade or visiting the Big C.
Perhaps learning to recognize and appreciate nature’s ubiquity is the first step to truly gaining access to the outdoors and to reaping all of the mental and physical health benefits it has to offer. Hopefully, this understanding will expand equal opportunities for outdoor experiences — experiences that have inspired awe and amazement in students and scholars since LeConte’s camping trip more than a century ago:
“Most of the time in a sort of day-dream—a glorious day-dream in the presence of this grand nature. Ah! this free life in the presence of great Nature, is indeed delightful.”
– Joseph LeConte, Aug. 4, 1870