Blood and Backpacking

Heading out for an overnight in Grand Staircase-Escalante

I’m in the early stages of planning a trip to Moab, and amidst looking up the best rides and climbs and campsites, I’ve started thinking about my last trip to Utah.  I went with a group through my college’s Outdoor Recreation program, and while my husband went on the Moab trip, I picked Grand Staircase-Escalante.

We spent most of the trip doing day hikes, but there was one overnight backpacking trip on the itinerary, and I looked forward to it all week.  So, of course, I got my period when we were about 45 minutes from the van – where I had left all of my feminine products.  The most frustrating part was that I hadn’t forgotten my period.  I had a full supply of items in my larger bag that we were leaving steadily behind us.  No, what really annoyed me was that my period was a full week early.

One of the female trip leaders explained this wasn’t uncommon, given that I had been considerably more active than usual in the last several days.  Another trip participant offered to share her tampons, since her period was almost over.  The rest of the women commiserated, and I continued on thoroughly embarrassed but wiser.  Problem solved.

Well, mostly.

Grandpa and the Panther
Illustration by Garth Williams for Little House in the Big Woods

I should mention that for a good portion of my life I’ve had an unreasonable but persistent fear of mountain lions.  I have a theory it started thanks to the Laura Ingalls Wilder story and accompanying image of Grandpa and the Panther.  Whatever the reason, the fear was still persistent that week in the Utah desert – manageable most of the time, but almost debilitating when circumstances aligned correctly.

We camped that night in a creek valley between two cliffs.  A small stream bordered our campsite on one side, providing both a water source and a picturesque feel, and I fell asleep listening to it gurgling over rocks on its way to the larger stream just east of our site.

When I awoke several hours later to a feeling I usually think of as “I needed a new tampon a freaking hour ago” the sound of the creek was gone.  Our lovely valley was now a wind tunnel, and as I crawled out from between the other two girls in the tent to deal with the situation, it shook the trees and tents relentlessly, creating enough of a racket that I couldn’t hear the stream until I was kneeling directly beside it to wash up.

Maybe it was the fact that I was crouched down and by necessity focused on my hands rather than the surroundings.  Maybe the wind lifting the hair off my neck as I bent over reminded me that I was perfectly positioned to be attacked from the trees above.  Maybe it was just the thought that blood attracts predators and I’d come out here thanks to an abundance of the damn liquid.  Whatever the reason, I found myself frozen with my hands in the icy water of the stream, cursing the trick of fate that had made me a girl and therefore led directly to his moment.  Mountain lions lurked in every corner of my mind, projecting themselves onto the surrounding landscape and drawing steadily closer.

They say you don’t know what you can do until you don’t have a choice, and as I sat frozen by the stream in the blustery darkness, I realized there were essentially two options in front of me.  I could remain terrified and useless for the five or so hours that remained of the night, waiting for the imaginary mountain lions to descend, or I could wring out my underwear, wash my hands, and go back to bed.  Put like that, the choice was so simple it seemed ludicrous.

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Making M&M Pancakes

By dawn, the wind had died down and the campsite, bathed in the early morning light, reverted back to picturesque and welcoming.  We made M&M pancakes for breakfast, then packed up and headed on to the next adventure, which involved hiking through a thigh-high stream.  Yesterday, the idea had seemed daunting, even overwhelming.  On the heels of my midnight revelation, it was easy to break down into two simple paths: go forward with the rest of the group, or go back alone.  And I wasn’t about to be left behind.

Our lovely/terrifying campsite

The Magic of Confidence in Mountain Biking

It’s amazing the difference that five years can make – and I don’t mean the improvements that come from five years of constant practice.  Five years ago, my husband (A) discovered that mountain biking existed in Iowa and I became his (very reluctant) biking partner by default.  To my embarrassment, I don’t think I made it through a single ride in 2012 without either screaming, cussing, getting mad, or crying, and at it was usually a combination of those. Would you believe that A wasn’t very fond of riding with me? Surprising, right? And just as “surprising” – mountain biking was about as low on my fun scale as going to the dentist.

So, when A quit biking in college, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken, and when he picked it up again this spring I approached the entire idea with trepidation. I certainly never thought I’d suggest venturing out into 95 degree woods and chasing him up hills for my Friday night activity.

And yes, you guessed it – that’s exactly what I did multiple times this summer. Part of it I considered good training for the two mountain bike races I (voluntarily) signed up for. The other part was just fun.


Part of the difference is obvious, physical changes I can point to and quantify. I’m riding A’s 2012 Trek Cobia now, complete with front suspension, 29″ tires, and grips that I adore. Five years ago, I was on a fully rigid Trek at least as old as I was – and looking back at the photos, I’m pretty sure the frame was too big for me. I’ve ran a half marathon, two 10k’s, and enough 5k’s to lose count; in 2012 I simply didn’t believe I could run farther than a mile. Of course long rides and steep climbs are easier now!


But to attribute my improvement to better gear and stronger legs ignores a great deal of other things that have happened in the interim. College meant that work was either done or it wasn’t, no one cared to hear your excuse. I’ve gone through about 26 interviews, three internships, and now work in a field where you could die by stepping in the wrong place at the wrong time. My company could lose thousands of dollars on a contract if I don’t pay proper attention to details. (I’m still occasionally blown away when I stop to consider how much I could mess up.) In the world where I live now, throwing up my hands and screaming is simply not an option.

As often occurs in life, I rarely have a clear picture of just what has changed or how far I’ve come because the shifts are so gradual.  If I’d kept biking for those five years, I undoubtedly would have improved.  But then I never would have gotten on the bike remembering torture, and instead experienced magic.  And I very much doubt I would have realized that it is not the changes in my body, but those in my mind, that truly made the difference.

I still can’t keep up with the hubby unless he lets me, and I may never be able to.  But the photo above was taken in the exact location where I crashed, screaming, into a ditch on my last ride in 2012 – and this time I was laughing from the exhilaration, going fast enough that A’s camera didn’t quite have time to focus.

It’s been cold and rainy here recently, and my focus is turning towards what I can do indoors through the winter.  But this year, there is no sigh of relief that my reprieve has finally arrived.  No, this time, I’m already getting excited for what next year can bring.

Identity Crisis?

I’ve discovered something about myself in the past six months, although I have a feeling the issue has extended back much further than that.  In short, I struggle with combining – or perhaps acknowledging? – different aspects of my personality.

20180407_175749.jpgI don’t just run; I need to be A Runner.  I love having a decorated, comfortable apartment – but when I’m feeling outdoorsy, it isn’t enough to GO OUTSIDE and do things.  Nope, I need to get rid of all those things that made me so happy and proud only a few months ago, to clear space and go minimalist so there are no distractions from the view out my window.  (It should be noted that the latter is my parents’ decorating technique and it drove me absolutely insane during the last few years I lived at home.  Plus my views aren’t nearly as good as theirs.)

Strangely, the one area where this has never fazed me is my education and career.  I’m the girl who majored in civil engineering and minored in English without batting an eye.  I spend my days buried in technical drawings and hanging out with a field crew that is 99% male, and come home to write romance novels for fun in the evenings.  And yes, some of them do end up with the occasional damsel in distress.

Lately, some of this blase approach seemed to be translating to the rest of my life.  I’ve gotten rid of half my decorations enough times to know that I’ll replace them in a few months, so they can be tolerated.  The things that really bother me are evaluated for longer than 30 seconds.  Sometimes they really don’t fit my lifestyle anymore – but it’s not because I just found an awesome article about minimalism on Pinterest.


Then I got my hair cut, and everything I’d made peace with came up again.  To be clear, nothing specific changed about my hair.  It was a trim, and not a single guy I work with could tell me the difference if held at gunpoint.  The impetus was, as it always is, the salon environment.  I know it’s coming, since I specifically picked my hair salon to also fulfill my bi-monthly pampering needs.  Complimentary glass of wine while I read your $10 magazine?  Don’t mind if I do.  Head and shoulder massage followed by a paraffin dip for my hands?  Please.

But.  When I specifically bring a dress and flats to work so I don’t have to go in wearing my typical polo, jeans, and boots, I can’t help but feel a bit like an outcast.  This leads to walking in feeling like I have a neon sign over my head, flashing lots of nasty “un” words.  Unfeminine.  Unladylike.  Unworthy.  My hands are too rough.  When I sit in the chair, I’m not used to keeping my knees tight together, and the full-length mirror in front of me is quick to point that out.  Did I actually shave the side of my knee?  How fat are my thighs, anyway?  And oh my goodness, what do I say to the infinitely more stylish person peering over my shoulder and asking what I would like done?  “Please do something with my hair that makes it look good and takes less than ten minutes a day to style.  And whatever you do, do not cut it too short to go up in a ponytail.”

Luckily, this is the point where I get a head and shoulder massage, and by the time we move to the shampoo chair I’ve remembered why I keep coming here instead of finding a place where they don’t look twice at steel-toed boots.  Either the stylist or I have managed to bring up something we have in common – cats and weekend plans are usually good – and I’ve mostly forgotten that my toenail polish has needed a touch up for about three months.  It’s not exactly comfortable, but I at least feel like a girl who resembles my normal self.

I think it’s getting easier every time I go in.  Or maybe I’m just more likely to remember leggings and close-toed shoes next time.  Progress!


Running Revelations

I went for a run a couple days ago.  This is notable only because it was my first run in about two months, which meant that a) I had forgotten just how much some muscles hurt

, and b) I wasn’t in nearly as good of running shape as I would have liked.  And since I’ve spent the summer biking, the entire experience felt excruciatingly slow by comparison.

Distance running and I have a rocky relationship.  I absolutely refused to run long distance (or really anything longer than 200m) until college and then only two or three miles for several more years.  Last year I ran a half marathon, mainly to prove to myself that I could do it.  It was surprisingly fun – at least the race itself was – but this year, I started the summer deciding that instead of going longer, I would go faster.  Care to imagine how that went?

20170924_115143All of that annoyance came back as I slogged my way along my shortest running route.  I knew I’d chosen to run, knew

it was insane to expect a good pace on the first day back, and continued to berate myself all the same.

And then, perhaps helped along by reaching the high point of the run and starting back down in relief, something snapped into place.  It always hurt when I ran.  My calves ached as they warmed up, my feet hurt after a few miles on hot pavement, my thighs and sides and shoulders all took a turn when I pushed my mileage.  Never once had I leaned into that pain, embraced it and made it part of me and pushed on.  Sure, I’d finish the run.  But stick to the pace I wanted until I literally couldn’t put one foot in front of the other?  Stick to the pace to the point of creating more pain?  Nope.

There’s a quote I love and use frequently when I have too many things going on.  Incidentally, it comes from an author who’s audio books got me through a lot of miles at the end of my half marathon training: “Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels.” (Quote and my hours of distraction are thanks to Laura Vanderkam.)

After trying to keep up with my husband over countless miles of bike trails for three months, I knew perfectly well that I could push through pain, and my improving biking times were clear proof that it yielded results.  But run faster?  Nah.  I just wasn’t a distance runner.

Much like not having time, the problem wasn’t a lack of ability – it was a lack of effort.

That changed the feel of the run a bit.  Instead of bemoaning the fact that I’d never be the runner I dreamed about, the one who effortlessly ran 25-minute 5k’s as a matter of rote, I spent the next mile trying to decide what it really was that I wanted from running.  Did I want Strava times to brag about, which meant I needed to embrace the pain and change my entire idea of training?  Or was it a workout I could fit in given a pair of tennis shoes and half an hour?  If the latter, I needed to learn to be a heck of a lot nicer to myself.

As fate would have it, I ran into an old friend in the last stretch and stopped to talk, given a rest just when I stopped looking for one.  The decision will take longer, and I’m starting to think it might fluctuate for as long as I run.  Somehow, though, knowing that how I run is up to me makes everything less stressful.

Maybe I’ll go for another run this weekend.


Hello and Welcome

20180720_193603Hello, there.  My name is Jen, and I’m the “girl” in Girl, Unabashed.  I’ve been writing for fun since I was about five, so I suppose it’s only natural that I would end up creating a blog–and to be honest, I’ve been thinking about starting one for roughly half a decade.  Whenever I sat down to make it happen, though, none of my ideas ever seemed to coalesce.  To have a blog worth reading, after all, one must have something worthwhile to blog about.

Then my husband made a comment that I couldn’t get out of my head.  “One of the things that I really appreciate about you is that you never make a big deal about being the only woman present.  You just show up and do your thing.”

Confession time: until he called it out, I hadn’t even noticed how much time I was spending in male-dominated activities.  I have a degree in civil engineering and work in construction project management (both 8-30% female, depending on who you ask) so I’ve spent a fair amount of time as the only woman in the room or on the jobsite.  Being the only female in the mountain biking group doesn’t even register – but after Anthony’s comment, I started paying more attention.  Sure enough, the next group ride we went on had a wide range of men, from a 12 year old boy to a man in his sixties.  But other women?  Nope.

I’ve been incredibly lucky: the men I work, ride, and climb with make it easy to forget that I’m any different.  However, the more I thought about my experiences (heavy period while camping the night before a mountain bike race, anyone?) the more I realized that I might be able to offer a unique perspective – and show other women and girls that there is absolutely a place for them among the men, even if the details aren’t all the same.

The topics on this blog will vary from week to week and certainly season to season, and not all of them will strictly address the things that make me “different.”  My plan is to approach each post with the idea that while my experiences might vary from my husband’s and coworkers’ by necessity, adaptation, not avoidance, is always the goal.  All of life is an adventure, no matter exactly what it looks like.