I’m someone who’s always enjoyed the (romanticized) idea of being an “outdoorsy” person. You know, someone who enjoys hiking, camping, and unplugging for days at a time with just a backpack and a tent...but as you can probably glean from my article title, you’re much more likely to find me hanging out at home scrolling through TikTok at 1 AM than roughing it outdoors. So I asked my friend Rebecca, an experienced solo camper, if she would share her experiences navigating the outdoors with me for this piece and was elated that she was willing to be interviewed.
Rebecca is one of the most thoughtful and caring people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I love the way she thinks about the land she camps on, safety, and how she articulates her hope for people of color and women to feel empowered to explore the outdoors. She also provides resources for anyone who’s interested and willing to go into the thick of it and try camping for the first time. You will find those resources at the bottom of the article.
For Yo!’s readers, would you please share a little bit more about yourself and what you love most about being outdoors?
Thanks again for having me, this topic is very dear to my heart. I am Rebecca Joy Ozaki, born and raised in Chicago. On my dad's side, I am Yonsei, and my mom immigrated from the Philippines in the ’70s. I’m from a family of activists and creatives - like really intense, brilliant people and my brothers are my best friends. Since I'm a Capricorn, I will also talk about my professional identities, which are important to me. I’m an organizer with elders in Chicago, doing things around care work and running healing circles with our elders. I'm also a social worker and focus on intergenerational trauma and healing. I'm starting a doula training to become a death doula too!
To your second question, a lot of things! I feel like time just moves differently when I'm in nature. I feel connected to the world and myself in a way that I can’t do when I'm at home and in the grind. It’s almost spiritual for me to be out there.
I thought you’d be perfect for this piece because you go solo camping! When did you first begin camping in general?
So when we were growing up, we used to go on these sometimes fun, sometimes horrible, but mostly epic road trips with our family. I have three brothers plus my mom and dad, so growing up we would drive from Chicago to California to see our family in Long Beach. We would always take a different route getting there, and my dad was intense and never wanted to stop to sleep anywhere! I feel like part of it was because there were so many of us that they didn’t want to fly or couldn’t afford it, so we’d always go on these road trips and stop and camp, or when we were in California we would camp. We also used to camp with our grandparents. Our church used to have annual campouts at the Yogi Bear Campsite close by, so it’s a story I tie to my family and something that connects me to them too.
That’s awesome! When did you make the leap into solo camping?
After my dad couldn’t convince us to do these road trips anymore, my friends and I started going on annual camping trips. We did it for like five or six years and then there was one year we just couldn’t get our schedules together to plan a trip. I remember, it was like the day before we had the campsite booked for and I didn't think I was going to go. But I kind of just woke up that morning and decided to try it and push myself. It was something that was scary for me and I only went for a night, it wasn't that big of a deal, but I remember it feeling like a huge deal, especially as a woman of color! My friends and I would go camping at the Indiana Dunes, it's now a national park, so I think that was where I went. I remember being there because my grandparents used to take us there too. By that point, they had both passed away, so I wanted to do this in their memory.
When you’re camping or hiking how are you navigating and thinking through your personal safety as an Asian American person, as a woman, etc?
I still remember that first night that I went camping and I couldn't sleep at all. I was terrified. Every single stick or branch that broke, I was up. I also think I got sleep paralysis at night and I was so, so, so, scared! I will say, the feeling goes away a little bit as you keep camping, but not completely. I’ve camped in National Parks or remote areas and people ask, “Oh, are you scared of bears or cougars?” and I'm more scared of people than I am of bears. Because oftentimes the places I go are in the middle of nowhere and on the drive there I’ll see like a million Trump signs or other signifiers like that. It’s such an indicator that as a woman of color, I’m not safe anymore. It’s ironic because people think Chicago isn’t safe, but I felt less safe when I was going on those first trips and driving through those remote areas.
Anytime I get to a campsite, the other campers are mostly white, so I'm always looking for another person of color and even though it doesn't necessarily mean I'm safe, it does make me feel safer to see especially other women of color out there. I remember one time seeing an Asian American family in the campsite next to me, and feeling a lot of relief. I felt like they had my back even though we didn't say anything to each other.
How does that navigation change when you’re alone vs with others?
I'm hyper-vigilant when I'm by myself and super aware because you have to be present in the first place, but also because I'm by myself. A lot of my friends are also folks of color, so whenever we’re camping in a group there's something said to us. Whether it's intended maliciously or not, it’s still racist and that's happened a couple of times. Even though we’re all looking out for each other, it’s never 100% safe.
My partner and I were supposed to go to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee earlier this year, and there was COVID, but the reason we didn't go was because of all the hate crimes happening to Asian Americans. We were both nervous about it and decided not to go at all, which is the first time we had to talk through that and the first time I’ve had to cancel a trip for safety reasons.
I think that’s a good segue because it’s hard to talk about safety right now without also talking about the rise in violence towards Asian Americans and also safety concerns about COVID. Has your perspective on personal safety changed re: being outdoors/in nature in the last 15 months? How so or not?
I try to be aware of everything on my drives to a campsite and in my surroundings that I need to notice. Like the Trump signs, and actually on the flip side, in Arcadia the opposite happened. I saw a lot of like Black Lives Matter signs and that made me feel so much better. COVID adds another layer of signals to be aware of. Seeing large crowds and who were wearing masks, not just in camping, but in general, is also a signifier of whether or not the area will be safe for me. Another example is if I see blue lives matter flags, it is a huge signifier that the area won’t be safe for us. There are also just certain states I just hate driving through because you have to watch your back more because of the state’s reputation and politics.
I feel like when I talk about camping, there are so many things that I'm scared of, but I still do it and that's because I like how I feel when I'm there. I go on at least one solo camping trip every year, sometimes a couple of times. I haven't gone this year yet and I was thinking about what would make me feel comfortable going. So, I booked a campsite for later this month and the difference this time is that I have a dog now and I'm taking her with me! I hope that it'll feel different but I'm still wary about it. I think I’m still wanting to go with friends rather than alone right now.
What have you learned, about yourself or otherwise, through your experiences being in nature alone?
I've become more confident since I’ve been doing this every year. I'm very much, like a lot of women of color are, a caretaker in my family. So when I'm here at home or in Chicago or working as an organizer, I constantly have to think of everyone, which I am happy to do! But, when I get to go camping and just go by myself - yes, I still have to be hypervigilant, but it's focusing on my moment. I'm able to respond to things, build a fire, put up a tent, and it forces me to be present.
The other thing is that the “outdoor world” and how it’s displayed on social media is super White and it sucks! It's so masculine and they don't look like us on the cover of an outdoor magazine and I hate that. It's so ironic because these lands in the first place belong to Indigenous people and they’ve gotten privatized and taken. Now one of the first things I do before I go to a place is do research on the actual history of the space. It's important to me because it’s hard to completely decolonize camping and what it means for people to be able to have access to camp and be in nature. But, I feel like that's a good first step that I have been pushing myself to do to really try to understand the lands and how we're connected to them, rather than just accepting colonizer names for rivers, for example. That really helps me to stay grounded and connected.
I love that you do that! That's amazing and so connected to the spirit of caretaking you shared at the top of this interview.
Thanks! It definitely takes practice to remind myself that I'm in this place and it wasn't always White people and how will I actively remember that? So, I highly recommend trying that or sometimes going to the town outside of where you're camping is just as interesting! So another thing I'll try to do, and encourage folks to do, is if you have the option to support the local town outside of where you’re camping, do that instead of going to Walmart because that’s how folks in that place are able to stay employed and get their income.
I am not an outdoorsy person, my partner is and would love to go camping sometime. What would be your top few tips you’d have for baby campers like me?
- If it's your first time going camping, you don't have to go anywhere far. Especially in California, there are places that are an hour outside of your area that are so different that you can go to.
- Learning your history is very important and I hope more people start to do that to understand that land is not ours and it's not owned by the people who bought it.
- Accessibility is huge, it's a privilege to be able to be outdoors because gear is so expensive and websites or blogs make you think you have to own so many things. You also often need a car to get to places to camp, but I'd say borrow gear if you can. I'm always down to let friends borrow whatever they need because it can get really expensive.
- When you're starting, go with your friends! It’s so much more fun to go with a community at first because then you can all just learn and be together, and the safety factor will feel different too.
- Trusting your gut and intuition is the most important thing out there!
Anything else you’d like to share to encourage more Asian folks and women/femmes to get outdoors?
One thing I'll recommend for anyone who is on the West Coast is to go camping on Angel Island, the equivalent to the East Coast’s Ellis Island. I went when it was off-season, but basically, you take a ferry and when you’re on the island, you can learn about the history of Asian folks coming to the United States. When I got to stay there, it was just me and a bunch of raccoons and maybe one other person was there. But, I feel like that is also a place where you can feel yourself rooted in the land and history and really be able to ground yourself there as an Asian American person. I would definitely say Angel Island if you can, or visit for a day.
I just feel like we need to reclaim the fact that Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks have been on this land forever and have played a huge role in cultivating the land. So, we just need to remember that and we deserve to take up space too.
Below are some of Rebecca’s favorite POC-run Instagram accounts to follow as resources to help you prepare and feel excited about camping and enjoying nature!
You may also reach out to Rebecca to hear more stories of her adventures solo camping or to say thanks on Instagram @rj_arcadia.
A huge thank you to Rebecca for taking the time to be interviewed, sharing these beautiful pictures and your story with me and Yo!