From Beginner to Leader: My Journey with The Venture Out Project

I spent most of my youth outside, though I never considered myself outdoorsy. I grew up in a semi-rural area in Southern Indiana, next-door to a small church with a pond and a couple acres of woods in my backyard. My entire childhood, I felt that there was something about me that was different from my peers. I was quiet and shy, and I never felt like I really fit in with the other kids in my life. But in my yard - my woods - I could just exist. I felt free there.

As I got older and moved away from my childhood home, I lost that bit of land that felt like freedom. As I grew up and learned how I was different, I lost some of my actual freedom. When I came out in college, I surrounded myself with people like me, just to feel a little safer in a place where I’d been harassed again and again. After college I got involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy. I even ran a queer education and advocacy group with a couple friends for a few years.

A man wearing a green sweatshirt, red Osprey backpack and yellow glasses, looking out over a desert landscape. Image via The Venture Out Project

In 2014 my partner was accepted to grad school in Massachusetts, so we moved across the country to start a new adventure. Massachusetts was beautiful. There were mountains! Small ones, but mountains nonetheless. I wanted to be outside here, but I had no idea where to start. I also missed my queer community. I didn’t know anyone, so I joined a bunch of online groups, hoping to make some friends. One day I saw a post in a Facebook group I had joined about a queer snowshoe hike. This was it. This was exactly what I had been looking for. As an introvert who had never snowshoed in my life, it was way out of my comfort zone, but I was determined to learn something new and meet some new people.

I had a blast. I loved snowshoeing. Being outside in the trees and the snow felt so natural. Plus, I found a bit of the community I’d been searching for. I met so many people that day who I felt a connection with, and I was pumped to build new friendships. As it turns out, I had stumbled upon the first ever hike led by The Venture Out Project.

Eight people standing along a trail, with the middle person in the second row holding a TVOP flag Image via The Venture Out Project

As the weather warmed, TVOP started doing more hikes, and I joined for every one that I could. I also started hiking on my own. The TVOP crew helped me learn how to read a map and plan my own hikes. Later that summer I went on my first ever backpacking trip and started volunteering to lead day hikes. As I continued to work with TVOP, I learned skills like hanging bear bags and backcountry cooking, and learned how to snowboard and cross country ski. By the next year, I became an instructor and started leading more hikes, backpacking trips, and rock climbing nights at a local gym. In early 2020, I was finally able to snag a full-time job. These days, as TVOP’s Programs Coordinator, I spend my time handling registration for all trips and events, managing and overseeing our day events, and spending a good chunk of time in the field as an instructor.

What I love most about TVOP is the participants. I love watching people connect and learn. We get a lot of participants who are new to outdoor activities, just like I was when I attended  my first outings. Helping others discover a love of hiking and backpacking feels like I’ve come full circle. When I get to see the smile on someone’s face as they reach the top of their first mountain, or talk to them about how they slept after their first night in a tent, I get to relive those firsts over and over again. I also love seeing participants connect with each other. Sometimes I like to sit back and watch and listen as participants bond and make new friends, just like I’ve done on so many TVOP events. It’s truly magical to see people discovering themselves, their relationships, and the outdoors, and to have a part in that discovery.

Two people sitting down along a desert trail, looking at something on a camera, with the person facing away from the camera wearing a purple TVOP shirt Image via The Venture Out Project

TVOP has grown a lot since my first hike. That growth has allowed us to serve more queer people in the outdoors than anyone could have imagined, and I am so grateful for everyone involved. Now, in addition to hiking and backpacking, we also offer canoe and rafting trips, forest bathing, skill-based trips like woodworking, ski and snowboard trips, identity-based trips, and so much more. As summer approaches, and I enter my ninth hiking season, I feel excited about our fullest season ever. We’ve got more trips than ever before, and a new cohort of volunteers beginning day events in 14 states across the country.

I recommend getting involved with The Venture Out Project to any queer person who either already enjoys spending time outside or who wants to. Join us on an adventure, follow us on social media, or apply this fall to be a part of next year’s volunteer cohort. We’d love to have you!

A purple Venture Out Project flag hanging on a wooden post, with a desert trail in the background Image via The Venture Out Project