From the Pages of Sisu Magazine, Issue 3: Revival
By Jennifer Gurecki | @yogurecki
If you find yourself on Stone Mountain in Atlanta, GA, don’t say that you’re hiking. It’s called “doing the mountain,” and that slight nuance means everything to Kenya and Michelle Jackson-Saulters, founders of the Outdoor Journal Tour and the We Hike to Heal movement.
Outdoor Journal Tour (ODJT for short) is part outdoor recreation, part spiritual healing. Founded in 2015, ODJT is ushering in a new way to approach doing the outdoors. It’s designed for women who want to explore scenic landscapes and hiking trails, and at the same time want to dive deeper into their personal development but are bored with traditional self-help methods. Kenya and Michelle’s calling is to help women learn the importance of "praying with their energy,” as they say, which simply translates into living each day as if you already embody all of your future goals.
It’s no secret that women are caregivers, to their families, to their co-workers, and to their communities. They prioritize serving others, but often don’t spend the same level of energy on themselves. ODJT provides a sacred and safe space for women to reconnect with themselves and with nature. Their tours challenge women to think outside of the box.
It’s no wonder that ODJT blends outdoor recreation and self-care. When you dig into the herstories of Kenya and Michelle, this pair makes perfect sense. The two met on Match in 2010, long before the swiping left and right scorned our souls. Unbeknown to Kenya, Michelle was way into spending time in the outdoors. “I always had been a curvy girl and had a complex with that. I was always active—it was about losing weight and then it became around how it made me feel. It made me feel really good and really strong.” It was Michelle who would drag Kenya on walks and runs. Michelle recalls it as comical, but it obviously turned into more than that.
When Kenya first moved to Atlanta, things weren’t so smooth. She recalls failing miserably and struggling with her self-worth. It was at this time that she began to pursue interests in wellness work as a reiki master and spiritual healer. In 2015, as Kenya celebrated the Summer Solstice with friends, she led her group in a small meditation. When they opened our eyes, two new people stood beside them and they asked how they could join. “I felt like it was a calling, a sign.”
In August of that year Kenya and Michelle organized their first event and the same thing happened. A woman, child in tow, approached the group and spoke to them about detailed counts of abuse as if they had known each other for a lifetime. “In that moment, I thought this is what we need to be doing,” said Kenya.
If ODJT wasn’t enough, Kenya and Michelle also launched We Hike To Heal in 2018, a month-long campaign that takes place every March that combines mindfulness and movement, nature, and introspective work. It was a way for women, regardless of their location, to not only get involved in group hikes, but engage around weekly emails with exercises, journal prompts, mindfulness content, and videos, all in the name of getting in the space of healing so that they could focus on themselves.
On We Hike To Heal Day 2019 (March 30th), Kenya and Michelle asked everyone—and by everyone we mean thousands of women across 36 locations—to get outside and find solace in the connections created by the mindfulness exercises. “There was this intuitive thing that you knew that whether you were in Cleveland or Canada, you felt like you were connected because you were doing something together. You’re part of something bigger than you, bigger that your city,” Michelle said.
Yes, It’s a Thing
Kenya says it’s important to note that when they launched ODJT and We Hike To Heal, they didn’t approach it from being Black and outside, and gay and outside, and women and outside. “We didn’t even know that was a thing,” she said.
Girl, lots of people in the outdoors don’t know it’s a thing. But as Michelle points out, people of color, women, and all underrepresented people have always been in the outdoors. We just didn’t see them in photos or magazines or marketing.
“It really was something that we were doing because we needed it and it was something we wanted to do for ourselves. Diversity is important and so is seeing other people like you in the space,” Michelle said. “The outdoors were an avenue in which we were crating this healing spaces, not a taking back our rights. Now it’s important to make space for women of all backgrounds.”
“Because we are not always thinking of the highest mountain, longest distance, most extreme experience, we can think about women who have lost their mothers and summer solstice,” Kenya said. “What women like us would need, want, and come to. We feed a niche in that way. That’s our sweet spot.”
Who Holds The Knowledge?
Doing looks different to everyone. It’s bound in our lived experiences, a culmination of the neighborhoods we grew up in, what our parents considered fun, our circle of friends. As Kenya and Michelle began to cultivate a community of women in the outdoors, they became more aware of the nuances of what it meant to “do the outdoors,” like Leave No Trace (LNT). While this may seem like common knowledge, LNT, just as every other outdoor-specific term, is coded and learned. It’s not something that makes it into every K-12 curriculum; it’s unique to people who identify with the outdoors.
The super bloom in California this spring brought this issue front and center as giddy hikers stepped off trail into delicate soil. Voyeurs rubbed their gratuitous wealth in our faces as they illegally landed their helicopters in the middle of the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve in California. While both violated LNT principles, we have to understand that what might seem as obvious to some—like staying on trail—is actually a learned behavior. And with anything that is learned, there are always teachers.
“I think that you have to explain. People don’t have the same passions about things. A lot of women are worried about being single mothers or having to work a lot or trying to manage their marriage. They’re not thinking about stepping on poppies,” Michelle said. “We want to enjoy the space and we want them to return. We want to instill a respect for the space that we’re in. It starts with talking to those whose land it started off as and what happened on those lands and a general respect for the space. There’s a much bigger problem than people stepping on the poppies, but once these spaces are ruined…”
For Kenya, she is recognizing that there isn’t a lack of resistance to adopting indigenous ways of respecting and caring for the land. “For our community, specifically the women we steward, they are absolutely 100% open to whatever information we share with them. If we say pick up every damn thing, they are sweeping up things with their hands. But they don’t see themselves as conservationists,” Kenya added.
On Sleeping Outside
These women also don’t necessarily see themselves as campers. Camping—i.e, sleeping outside—is something Michelle believes we glorify. It costs quite a bit of cash to have the proper gear, all to sleep outside. “It made me feel in a way that these people are displaced and don’t have a home and forced to sleep in tents if they are lucky. And here we are spending $500 on a tent and $200 on sleeping bag and $100 on pad and we’re roughing it,” she said. “It’s a little bit weird. It’s recreational and absolutely a privilege to do it that way.”
Beyond the expenditure, even the concept is challenging as it’s something that defined the human experience for so long, and now has transformed into something that people with privilege—transportation, equipment, funds for fees, etc.—can participate in as recreation.
“It’s part of the human condition,” Michelle continued, “To make things new, to repackage them, and it then becomes something elitist and now only certain people can do this activity because the barriers to entry have become greater. And then we give people a hard time if you say something wrong or have a sleeping pad that’s not appropriate for the climate—you own something that doesn’t match—and then you’re looked down on. It is a little bit intimidating.”
But that doesn’t stop Kenya and Michelle or their nation-wide community from getting outside.
We Hike to Heal and ODJT isn’t about women finding themselves. Kenya describes it as creating yourself. “If you were to roll a mirror in her I would be able to see myself. I’m not lost. We know exactly where we are. It’s about deciding to be what type of woman do I want to be. How do I want to exist in this world?” This isn’t something that women consider often but rather take cues from our families, society, and the media on what types of women are acceptable, regardless of how uncomfortable that can be. Kenya wants women to explore the qualities that they admire and want to bring out in themselves.
Creating yourself is essentially about awareness. “It’s very hard to unknown things, once you recognize a pattern it’s difficult to ignore that. That’s the first step,” Michelle said. “When you know that you are reacting in your default mode, which is avoiding or deflecting, once you see that happening and you can ask yourself, ‘Am I doing this because this is what I want to do?’” The process isn’t quick—it doesn’t go from terrible to amazing. It’s all about the incremental changes that you make and subsequently notice, she said.
In creating We Hike to Heal and ODJT, Kenya and Michelle have learned that mixing business and pleasure isn’t as fun as it sounds and that money matters.
“The biggest lesson for me,” Michelle said, “Is that working with your partner is very tough. Almost to the point to where I wouldn’t necessarily advise against it but proceed with caution. It adds another layer to our relationship. We’re both very passionate about the ODJT, but in different ways. Our passions have created it to what it is today. We need both aspects of it. If I’m honest, that’s been the biggest thing for me.”
For Kenya, it’s less personal and it’s about business. “When you start something that’s very organic or helping people or working with yourself, the money aspect can be complicated. It’s hard on everyone—hard on a business owner to understand how much it’s worth, hard for community members to connect with ‘Oh this costs money.’ You want to give everything away, but I can’t do that because it’s my full-time work. It might look glamorous, but money is an issue.”
Without sponsors like Merrell, nothing that Kenya and Michelle have created would be free. “It’s a lot of fucking work and money. It’s hard because this stuff should be accessible. I don’t want $5 or $10 to stop someone from having this life changing experience. However, if there’s something to buy, we need you to purchase it,” she said. And the truth is, “Target doesn’t ever email you without asking you to buy shit,” Kenya added.
But with all of that said, Kenya is clear that she always wants to express gratitude. “This was something that happened by surprise. For us to be interviewed and be sponsored by Merrell—this is really really humbling. Sometimes we’re so busy we don’t think about it,” she said. “We have to pause and be grateful for the support. We will continue to do everything we can do be of service to the community who has supported us so much.”
Kenya and Michelle are learning as they go. Despite navigating all the things they didn’t anticipate—from what it’s like to be black in the outdoors to working together as a married couple—ODJT and the We Hike To Heal movement is redefining what it means to be a woman in the outdoors.
Want to get involved in #WeHikeToHeal and the Outdoor Journal Tour? Follow Kenya and Michelle on Insta at @outdoorjournaltour and @wehiketoheal and visit their website at outdoorjournaltour.com and wehiketoheal.org.
Kenya and Michelle don’t just “do the mountain,” they “do the desert.” In April 2019, Michelle and Kenya joined the Merrell team in Tucson, AZ, putting their work in practice as they hiked the Bear Canyon to Seven Falls trail in Tucson, AZ on O’odham, Tohono O’odham (Papago), and Hohokam land. All photos by James Harnois Photography.