Unlikely Journeys: Jenny Bruso

Unlikely Journeys: Jenny Bruso

To celebrate Pride, we teamed up with Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers to help raise awareness and advocate for LGBTQIA inclusion in a place we love; the outdoors. We sat down with Jenny who shared candid insights about her personal journey founding an inclusive hiking outlet, the complicated value of social media and her efforts to challenge the stereotypical image of an “outdoorsperson.”
Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers

TG: Unlikely Hikers has seen a lot of success lately, did you know it would become so big this quickly?

JB: I knew that it had the potential to be “a thing.” I knew that it was something that a lot of people would relate to but I did not expect it to blow up the way that it did, or as fast as it did. I didn't really even know what I wanted from it. I mean, honestly, the initial goal was just to change my social media feeds. I was tired of seeing the same stuff all of the time and I just wanted to see something different. I was like "I'm going to create the different thing." 

TG: Before you started group hikes, you were writing about your outdoor experiences. Was there a specific moment where someone said “you should do a group hike” and you decided to start Unlikely Hikers?

JB: I’m pretty much a solo hiker. I like to hike alone or with one other trusted friend or my partner. That’s what I wrote about. When I started the Unlikely Hikers Instagram, one of the first things people started asking me repeatedly was how they can come to an Unlikely Hikers group hike. It took me almost a year before I planned the first one. I was very reluctant because my solo hiking time is so precious to me; it's my therapy, my disconnect. The thought of leading a group of people seemed like the opposite of what I was trying to get from my own solitary time.
“The root of it is to tell a different outdoors story”

JB: (continued) Also, I had never been on a group hike before. Initially, I wasn't interested. I was curious but I had a lot of fears about going and being the slowest, being left behind. It's a funny fear because almost everyone is feeling it, regardless of body type.

I decided that if I was going to try leading a group hike, I was going to need to join a group hike. I went on a couple and it turned out that I was the slowest. While I was not left behind, it kind of felt that way.

When it came to my own group hikes, I had that frame of reference, which informed how I would conduct Unlikely Hikers. For one, we stay together as a group so that there isn’t that dynamic of “the person who's left behind.” We [intentionally] have at least one or two people keeping up the end so that someone doesn’t have to feel like “the person farthest at the back.” I want to make people feel included and wanted.

TG: Is that fear of being left behind something that could unwind the thing that you're trying to recharge?

JB: Yes, absolutely. Being left behind brings up weird mind stuff. It's like weird little mind demons come out even when you are really accepting of your speed, or your abilities, or just having a reverence for your body doing things for you. Being left behind makes a lot of weird internalized stuff come out.

I really want to foster an experience where people don't have to deal with that kind of stuff. By joining group hikes, I learned what to say when somebody starts to go down the rabbit hole or somebody says "I'm holding everybody up." I’m like, "no you're not you're just moving the way that you need to move and that's what you’re invited to do here."
TG: There's such a narrative around getting to the top and winning the mountain, but sometimes that's not even the most memorable part. How do you see that with your experiences along the trail?

JB: In Oregon that mindset is pretty pointless. I would say that half [if not more than half] of the time, there's no view from the top because it's cloudy and socked-in with fog. Metaphors on metaphors… (Jenny smiles)

Are we not there for the journey? Are we only there for the endpoint? The endpoint is a very motivating thing but it's what happens along the way that’s what keeps me there.

It’s the time where I am walking, and with every step, the weird stuff going on in my mind gets smaller and quieter and drifts away.

TG: Is there a counterbalance that happens between your solo hikes and leading group hikes? Does one feed the other for you?

JB: I had anxiety about group hikes changing my time with nature. But group hikes are just another way of experiencing nature. Getting to see the way other people encounter this place that means so much to me adds a whole new depth to my relationship with nature. The two get to coexist together, they are both about healing, mental clarity, and sense of place.

Nature is so unconcerned with us; meaning that in nature there is a place for all of us. It’s not concerned with who we are as individuals. What I love about getting out there is getting to a place where I get to leave behind the minutiae of daily life that harms all of us.
“I always say, I want to be crushed by the mountains, I want to know what the mountain has to teach me.”
TG: Do you feel like instagram has created strange social pressures. How does social media factor into what you are doing with Unlikely Hikers?

JB: Many people who are going out hiking for the first time don’t know what to do or what to bring with them. What I love about social media is that it's demystifying these first encounters. [Thanks to social media,] people know where they can go, they are learning about what other people do when they’re there.

I don’t like to police the way other people experience nature. I don’t have a problem with people going out there and doing it for "The Gram." While I’m not out there to capture images for Instagram, I love documenting my experiences and sharing them. It has a lot of value to me on a personal level because it’s like being there again. It reminds me of the beauty I encountered and the feelings tied to those moments. If that encourages others, all the better.

There is a lot of criticism right now with how overrun our parks and wilderness areas are and a lot of blame is placed on social media. I want to challenge that. I think putting that on newcomers to the outdoors is a little "gate-keepy."

Access to nature is a privileged thing. A lot of people don’t grow up with that access.

TG: Unlikely Hikers brings a new point of view that is disrupting the traditional mentality that new people won’t respect natural areas. How have you seen that in our Unlikely Hikers journey?

JB: The people who I am featuring and connecting with through Unlikely Hikers are probably the ones that are the most passionate about being good stewards of the land. Especially people who are newer to the outdoors. They want to do the right thing.

For me, being a Queer, marginalized person I feel a sense of social justice about everything, all of the time. Naturally, that comes with me into nature. Since I get so much from nature, I want to give back at least some of what I get in whatever capacity I am able. I’m not unique in that, a lot of people I am meeting, going to conferences with, and speaking to through Unlikely Hikers, they feel that way too. They are the people talking the most and doing activities to be good stewards of the land.
TG: Unlikely Hikers seems to extend beyond LGBTQIA perspectives as its sole focus and seems to advocate a larger perspective of inclusion. Is that part of your approach to creating a larger story in the outdoors?

JB: Yes. It’s for all kinds of underrepresented people, and underrepresented stories. Being in the outdoor industry, I’ve noticed there are some voices that are less represented than others. I think that queer voices and especially trans voices, are not getting the attention they deserve.

Of course, I’m bringing my own queer perspective to the discussion. I want to highlight queer people in the outdoors but not more-so than others. I feature people of color, other fat people, people with disabilities but I also like to talk about mental health and politics. Unlikely Hikers is so encompassing. I like to have different discussions about what the outdoors gives to us and what we’re hoping to achieve in the outdoor industry and culture.

The root of it is to tell a different outdoor story. I don’t want to police anybody’s experience with the outdoors, but I want to challenge the narrative of crushing mountains and dominating the land. I always say, I want to be crushed by the mountains, I want to know what the mountain has to teach me.
“Other people’s advice will take you halfway there, but it will not take you all the way. You have to try new things.”
TG: Did your experience being a “DJ/city kid/party girl” give you a different perspective on what is possible in the outdoors?

JB: The way I view the outdoors is so vast in possibility. It’s so open.

I think that "categorizing" can close off certain experiences that may serve us very well. I’m grateful to have had experiences being a party girl because it has informed multiple parts of my relationship with nature.

I think there’s a lot of ways to be. A lot of times when people ask me questions about my party life, their really fascinated with this “bad girl turns good” story, but that’s not me! I’m still that person. I’m just another evolution of that person. Everything I went through at that time I had to go through.

I’ve existed in so many forms of myself already. That’s just the way life is if you allow yourself to be in it. I’m always on a journey of figuring out who I am. It is a circular thing. The best I can do is accept that and not fight against it or get focused on the destination.

At one point I had a huge alcohol and drug problem that took over my life. It was really damaging for me. I got to a place where it was killing my imagination, and as a creative person it was a kind of death.

But, I had some of the best times of my life. The Bruso’s love to party! I still enjoy drinking and dancing and going to the club. I still love DJing and if I could do it without getting swept up in the culture of nightlife, I would. But having it be my job and my entire social environment is too much; these genes won’t let me.

Hiking and camping became my new addiction. While, I now have a healthier balance with it; I really did run from one thing to another. I was using hiking and camping to avoid drinking. It forced me to be sober for a few days, which was really good for me.

Of course, I believe would have started hiking eventually, I do live in freaking Oregon after all.  

TG: What is one thing you would never go on a hike without?

JB: Obviously, water.

But, my biggest thing is the right footwear. You can’t let other people tell you what is good on your feet. I have found that there are a lot of strong attitudes about gear in the outdoors. Most of my friends hike in their trail runners, and while I like those shoes, they don’t work for me on every trail. It takes trial and error.

Other people’s advice will take you halfway there, but it will not take you all the way. You have to try new things.

TG: What is a goal you have for Unlikely Hikers in the next couple of years? How would you like to see Unlikely effect the outdoors.

JB: I’m going to tell you the really boring answer. This all happened so fast that I’m still figuring it out. Right now my main objective is trying to figure out how to make it my living. Not with the goals of becoming rich and famous. But to keep my focus on the work. Right now I’m figuring out how to do all this right. Unlikely Hikers happened fast. I did not think I’d be running a business. I’m just trying to figure out how to do everything I want to do and go grocery shopping.
Check out Unlikely Hikers here. And follow along on Instagram and Facebook.
Special thanks to Jenny Bruso for her time and insight. Questions provided by the Tanner Goods staff. Photography & Illustrations by the Tanner Goods staff.