This article was created in partnership with REI.
As you know, we partnered with REI last month to come together to encourage queer folks to explore their cities and move their bodies all while meeting new local queers to add to their friend groups. Though some of you might be familiar with REI already — especially folks who recall The Outsiders Issue and who were lucky enough to meet the REI staff who joined us at A-Camp in 2019! — let’s refresh why the PNW-based co-op is such an excellent resource for queers and such an amazing friend to Autostraddle!
REI is a growing community of 21.5 million members — the nation’s largest consumer co-op! — and while they do of course sell quality gear, lead expert classes and trips, and offer truly outstanding customer service, they are really so much more than just a storefront. They put their money where their ideals are when it comes to community building and making the great outdoors a more welcoming, accessible, safe, and desirable space for all people to enjoy, and part of that means investing in programming with Autostraddle to create queer-specific outdoor content and adventure. We are very, very grateful for our ongoing relationship with REI.
It was a very Midwest meets Pacific Northwest moment when Autostraddle readers and queers in Chicago and Portland met up IRL for a simple hike in our respective cities! Shelli in Chicago chose our beautiful lakefront trail, while Vanessa in Portland chose the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Here’s what happened.
Dispatch from Shelli: Walking the Lakefront in Chicago
Hello again my hiking dolls,
Shelli here, Culture Editor at Autostraddle dot com and new lover of queer city hiking after REI and Autostraddle went outside a few weeks ago!
I woke up on that beautiful Chicago Saturday excited to go outside, have a walk, and meet a bunch of new queers. My wonderful partner was coming along for the walk (even though they had just gotten in from a work trip the evening before), and so we packed up our waters, REI swag, and good vibes and made our way to Chicago’s beautiful lakefront trail.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day for a walk! High 60’s, sun shining and a perfect breeze all before 11am. I’m usually a bit late to things but made sure to arrive right on time for this one. As we made our way to the trail, I saw two folks already having a chat and waiting to get our little body moving party started.
I was a bit scared that folks would get to the walk with their friends and be too nervous to chat to anyone else but them—but it was the complete opposite. As folks started arriving it became clear that this was going to be exactly what I hoped it to—a moment where queer folks can come together to connect and explore. We formed our circle on the outskirts of the trail where a mixture of folks were passing us, those who were on their standard morning workouts, folks who opted to walk along the trail on their way home, and folks who just wanted to take in the absolute beauty of the day with a walk along Chicago’s stunning lake.
We went around and introduced ourselves, talked about where they found Autostraddle, and how they learned about the walk in partnership with outdoor specialty retailer AND the nation’s largest consumer co-op, REI! After introductions, I made a request (wrapped up in the sweetest demand) to talk with someone they didn’t come with as we waited for others to arrive. They—as the kids say—understood the assignment immediately. Breaking up our circle to cross over and chat with someone new. As my partner passed out bandanas to folks as they showed up, I sort of hopped between conversations giving updates. I heard folks laughing, connecting, smiling, and chatting and couldn’t have been happier.
It was time to prepare for our one-hour walk over to the Peace Garden which is one of many stops along the trail. Our amazing REI rep checked in to let me know that they were well equipped with a first aid kit, other supplies, and of course were certified to help out just in case anything went down. We were officially ready to go!
We snapped some pictures with our beautiful city in the background, some last-minute arrivals joined us with their dogs and we were on our way. The connections continued, folks were walking and talking about work, chatting about relationships, talking about exploring the city, and of course, talking about content they had read on autostraddle dot com—it was so fucking dope. We walked just over 2.5 miles and the charm of the day was right alongside us. There is something about Chicago you know, it’s a city that has a little bit of everything, including beautiful bits of nature woven through it that you can explore on a short walk on a Saturday morning. As we made our way into the Peace Garden, which was covered in beautiful fall leaves and just shady enough for us to cool down if we broke a sweat, we wrapped up our day. I answered a few questions about Autostraddle, stumbled through some about my own work on and off the site, and thanked everyone for taking the time out to come and move our bodies and connect with queer community.
After our world got turned upside down a few years ago, the opportunity to be outdoors again in any way is hella welcome, and so much of outside is free. Moving your body can be a luxury—gyms cost money, hiking gear can get expensive, and classes can be fun but can cost so much that you can only afford to go once a month. We were able to get some free fresh air, hear the sounds of the city and the splash of the lake on our free trail, and have free chats with folks ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
As we ended, I saw folks exchanging information, talking about getting together later that night, and how they were so excited to connect IRL! Our REI Guide even echoed the excitement of the day, and was so happy with how everything came together in this really dope display of Chicago queer community vibin’ with the outdoors and each other.
Look, I knew it was going to go well but sometimes the intimidation of the outdoors and meeting new people can be overwhelming. This didn’t just go well—it went AMAZING and exceeded my expectations. There were folks there of all body types, movement levels, backgrounds and other vibes and we came together to connect and vibe and what a time it was. No judgement, no fears, just a bunch of queers on a beautiful Chicago Saturday morning connecting with each other and the outdoors around us, I mean—what more could a girl possibly ask for?
Dispatch from Vanessa: Exploring the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Portland
Oh my goddess? This hike — the first Autostraddle event I’ve led since before the pandemic — exceeded my expectations in every single way! I am bursting with excitement to tell you all about it, but before I jump in, I have to say thank you. Thank you, to Autostraddle and REI for teaming up to create an event that felt genuinely accessible to anyone who wanted to join. And most importantly — thank you to the community members who joined us for this event. I haven’t had the opportunity to feel that spark of joy that occurs every time Straddlers meet up IRL since pre-pandemic (I know many of us haven’t), and I’m thrilled to confirm it hasn’t disappeared at all. If anything, it’s so much stronger than before.
But okay, let me start at the beginning.
In Portland, it rains. We scheduled the hike for the end of October knowing that the weather would probably be “raining” at best, and when Anya asked me what level of rain would cause me to cancel, I laughed. Portlanders just sort of accept that “going outside” and “getting wet, possibly soaking” is synonymous for most of fall, winter, and even spring. And that’s okay. But still, when I woke up on Saturday, October 29 and saw that it was definitely raining, I worried that people might bail on the plan.
I worried quite a bit more than I used to about this hike! Hosting events for Autostraddle used to feel like second nature, but since the pandemic began and we ceased all in-person events (correctly, in our opinion, for the safety of our community), I’m extremely out of practice. Even as the leader of the hike, I felt nervous — what if I hadn’t picked a good spot? What if no one showed up? What if it was too hard? What if it was boring? What if no one had fun? What if, what if, what if, what if. My partner was joining me on the hike and we bundled up and agreed that if no one showed up I would cry and then we would go hike on our own. But you know that’s not what happened.
SO MANY STRADDLERS SHOWED UP TO HIKE THE OAKS BOTTOM WILDLIFE REFUGE IN THE RAIN WITH AUTOSTRADDLE AND REI! IT WAS MAGICAL! THERE WERE APPROXIMATELY 18 OF US PRESENT! DID YOU KNOW IN HEBREW THE NUMBER 18 IS SIGNIFICANT BECAUSE IT LITERALLY MEANS “LIFE”?
We started in a circle where we shared our names, pronouns, and something that had brought us joy recently. Some folks wore masks and some didn’t; everyone expressed that the event being held outdoors in a wide open space contributed to them feeling comfortable enough to attend. I shared why I picked our location, and was delighted to hear that some people actually did take public transport to the trailhead, which was a huge goal point for me. I also expressed that because of a variety of health issues and the pain they’ve caused (surprise, I ended up in the ER less than forty eight hours after the hike having emergency gallbladder removal surgery, things have been rough!) I personally haven’t been hiking very much lately, and it was less important to me that we “crush miles” and way more important that everyone felt comfortable, supported, happy, and confident with our path.
Once we got on the trail, it was so clear how badly we’d all been craving this activity. My worries disappeared. Everyone walked at their own pace. We took frequent breaks, both as a group and as individuals, and no one was ever left behind. I met so many new people and learned about so many new things — special shout out to the hikers who taught me all about bee-keeping and the hiker who shared their persimmons with me! — and I also was able to bask in the community energy emanating from the group.
There is something about being outside that just makes it easier to form bonds. I don’t know if it’s the smell of fresh rain, which promises new beginnings and growth, or the necessity of helping each other and relying on a team to make sure everyone is taken care of, but whatever it is, the joy of being out outdoors is apparent. Every time we saw or heard a new bird, we’d take turns looking through a couple of hikers’ binoculars to check it out and try to name them together. When someone noticed the particularly lush coating of moss on the lake, we all stopped to admire it. One person admitted they never like to have their photo taken, but shyly allowed their partner to take a photo if they covered their face with a leaf that was two times the size of their head. We all took on a childlike enthusiasm about the world around us — the most mundane details became awe inspiring: the drenched forest with its damp air became our place to play for the afternoon. That playful energy allowed us, I think, to let our guards down.
While we hiked, I heard a pediatrician describe her current pregnancy journey. I heard two new friends exchange numbers and make plans to get dinner later that day. I heard multiple people admit that they weren’t sure how to “be” in a big group yet, and I heard just as many people reassured and reassuring that none of us are sure these days, but that everyone was doing okay. I heard people talk about work, about weddings, about health, and about tadpoles. We reveled in the wild wet neon green energy of fall in Portland. We reveled in the absolute joy of queer gathering. It was really powerful magic.
At the end of the hike — once we’d seen the largest outdoor mural in the country, a gorgeous lake covered in moss, so many leaves larger than each of our heads, herons and ducks and other birds we couldn’t identify, and multiple groups of small children — we gathered again in a goodbye circle and I expressed my gratitude to the group. An Autostraddle x REI hike, without hikers, is simply an empty trail and a box of cute bandanas. It is the people that make our events meaningful. And I missed you all so, so much. My gratitude is endless. I can’t wait for the next time we can join together and make magic.