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Riding the Wilderness 

I came for the spaces we call "the outdoors."

For this week's Outside Guide, we asked local outdoors advocates to weigh in on the topic of sanctuary in the outdoors.

Like most people who moved to Bend from somewhere else, I came for the spaces we call "the outdoors." The miles of empty roads and trails for bike touring beckoned. Whether it is a quick overnighter from town by myself or a multi-week trip somewhere far flung with friends, bike touring feeds my souI. It is my time to unplug and to relish the feeling of independence and self-reliance; to navigate through old forest roads and slowing life down to 40 to 60 miles a day; and to discover the perfect dispersed campsite as the hunger pangs for dinner start rumbling.

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In these uncertain times, it is too easy to romanticize our outdoors experiences. The American vision of the outdoors evokes a feeling of pristine wilderness areas without people. I am a trailblazing adventurer. I conquer mountains. I go toe-to-toe with nature, if just for a moment. But there is a vast disconnect between the contrived challenge I've created for myself, the fleeting euphoria of bike touring, and the reality of the history of the spaces in which I travel on two wheels.

For thousands of years, indigenous people lived, traveled, traded, fished, and thrived here. The vision of the outdoors as unblemished by people is a fallacy and one that erases the existence of the original stewards of this land. These pristine outdoors spaces only became so because we violently removed the people who already had lived there in harmony with the earth for generations. Who, then, was allowed back in once this so-called blank slate became the American wilderness?

I struggled with the theme of "Sanctuary in the Outdoors" because the concept feels tone deaf against our national backdrop. Sanctuary implies a sense of safety, but that is not the reality for indigenous people, black people, people of color, or people who look like me. As an Asian woman, society tells me that the outdoors is too dangerous. I am too fragile and incompetent to be in the outdoors by myself. Surely the fear of being raped or assaulted in the woods would keep me home. Even that fear is relative. While other people are what make me feel the most unsafe in the outdoors, I do not have to worry about being murdered due to my relative proximity to whiteness.

While there are no easy solutions, we can all take time to reflect on our relationship with the outdoors and find some understanding in how we impact those who share those spaces with us (as well as those who are excluded from those spaces). So I leave you with the words of Jolie Varela, the founder of Indigenous Women Hike — "To move forward we must acknowledge this sad and violent history. We need to take a deeper look at 'Great American Heroes' like John Muir. We must no longer be complicit in the erasure of Native peoples from these spaces. We must Rethink the Wild."

—LeeAnn O'Neill is a partner with Allyship in Action, a local equity and social justice consulting company, and spends her spare time advocating for people who ride bikes in Bend and trying to convince other WTF folks (women | trans | femme) to fall in love with bike touring.

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