'Unlikely Hiker' Jenny Bruso Blasts Open the Idea of Who Belongs in the Wilderness
“Don’t believe the hype about what it looks like and means to be ‘outdoorsy,’” reads the caption under an Instagram photo of a sweaty, satisfied woman standing in front of University Falls in the Tillamook State Forest. “Nature doesn’t give a fuck.” That’s Jenny Bruso, 35, a self-described “queer, femme, fat, former indoors kid” known online for her project Unlikely Hikers. Her mission is to blast open the idea of who belongs in the great outdoors—through her frank, funny hiking blog and Instagram account, which highlights the stories of other anti-stereotypical adventurers. A grinning black man on a trail, a woman in a headscarf touring a canyon, explorers in wheelchairs, trans hikers—her Instagram subjects are far from the camera-ready “antelope people” glorified in gear shop ads. And with a roster of group hikes and “Queer Adventure Storytelling” events, she’s just setting out.
I did not grow up outdoorsy at all. My parents tried to take me and my sisters camping a couple of times around San Diego. We didn’t like the dirt, the bugs, or going to the bathroom outside. [Later] I never really saw myself in the outdoors, at least the way the outdoors is marketed. The typical outdoors person is usually a man. Usually white, thin, and affluent. That’s not my reality ... far from it.
In 2012, my first date with my partner, Brie, was a hike up the Maple Trail in Forest Park. I pretended I was into it because I liked her. It changed my life right then and there. We got to a viewpoint and something clicked into place in my head. I found myself hiking more and more. Nature was calling to me.
I find a lot of healing in nature. I grew up in an abusive household [and] have lived on my own since I was 17. I was a DJ and for much of my life I dealt with depression and anxiety through alcohol and drugs. It’s hard to be depressed when you’re taking in all that nature has to give you. Even when I’m in a really bad place, when I’m hiking I get distracted by the rhythm of moving. And I love it. I feel like I get to carry that relief with me.
I GET TIRED of seeing the same kind of [hiker] over and over again online. How many times can you see photos of a flawless, thin, white woman on a summit looking like she got airlifted in? I tell you, that’s not what I look like when I’m on a summit. I look haggard and like I just worked my ass off to get up there. I’m invested in being another face for the outdoors.
Unlikely Hikers kind of happened to me. I started calling myself by [that name] on my blog and people just grabbed onto it. I started the Instagram account in June 2016. It took off immediately. When people see the diversity of people featured, it really is a lightbulb moment. Like, this is for me, too.
One Unlikely Hiker I feature regularly is Will, a.k.a. Akuna, who is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He’s a vet, a black man from Louisiana with an intense story of PTSD and depression. He hikes to heal his trauma. And there’s Carol, a.k.a. “No Chill,” who is hiking the Appalachian Trail. She was attacked outside of her apartment last August and stabbed multiple times. She sold all her possessions, moved into a van, and was hiking around the country. She’s a fat woman, and it’s really cool seeing pictures of her on the trail—you just really don’t see people like that on thru-hiking sites at all.
In this culture, being fat is one of the worst things you can be. On the trail, there’s an assumption that I don’t know what I’m doing [due to my size]. I get a lot of funny, unsolicited encouragement, like: “Oh, you’re almost there! You can do it!!!” And I’m not even struggling. When I’m in gear stores I am often ignored. Actually, my size doesn’t keep me from doing anything in the outdoors.
I love the Cape Horn trail in the Gorge. It’s only open about six months of the year so it feels elusive. It’s a super-varied terrain: you’re in the woods, you’re out in fields, you’re climbing rocks, there’s waterfalls—it’s a roller-coaster of a hike.
I’m kind of a hermit. I usually hike alone. But I’ve started organizing Unlikely Group Hikes. I want them to be a different experience: It’s not about crushing miles and bagging peaks, it’s about being in nature and moving your body in any way that feels good.
In conjunction with Portland Monthly’s Oregon Woman issue, our second annual Woman Up event (May 12–13) will bring together experts from across the city—and state—for a weekend of wellness and a celebration of the bold women shaping Oregon’s future and those who’ve paved the way. Get tickets!