A Roam Through Wyoming
A Roam Through Wyoming
August 17 — 2023 | Lander, Wyoming
Photos // Sofia Jaramillo
If you participate in the outdoor community, you likely have a crush. Not necessarily romantic in nature. No, I’m talking about the platonic admiration that comes from witnessing someone thrive in space. Those people who seem to possess a forcefield, a kind of moth to flame magnetic energy. I’d long seen AK from afar and had one-off interactions with her around Jackson. You know, the “we should connect” run-in but life has other plans, so neither of you ever quite get around to it. Regardless, no matter the setting, at various friend gatherings, on the mountain, and in social posts AK is always outfitted with this contagious big smile. AK first came on my radar as the founder of a local movement in Jackson called Glit Gang, her bio below reads:
Shredding the patriarchy, sprinkling positivity and with a link to biodegradable glitter? AK has an energy you can’t help but want to get closer to. Combined with her very active political and community advocacy and work in adaptive sports, my desire to hang with her has only blossomed over time. We all have an AK in our lives. And would you believe all it took was conniving an early summer bike trip to hang out with mine (AK, that is).
It's been an unreal spring and summer in Wyoming. The kind, wet and cool, that doesn’t come around all that often, and so you cherish it all the more. It has made for some unreal velvety green and floral vistas and unusually tacky trails. And so, we set our sights on camping around the single track and trails that reach just south of Lander and into the Red Desert area. I’ve long had this love affair with Gretel Erlich’s Wyoming, author of the Solace of Open Spaces, and the wisdom of Wyoming’s open spaces she has been able to translate. As she writes, “In the open spaces, time stretches and contracts, and you are left with only the present moment.” I figured the area would be the perfect canvas to ride our Julianas and to share inspired conversations over campfire as two women of color recreating and living around Jackson, WY.
The below excerpts were recordings from our few days camping and biking together. Our conversation touches on our lived experience as women of color from different backgrounds, how we perceive the world and our places within it and the town we call home, Jackson, WY. AK tells us about how she got introduced to working in adaptive sports and her journey to becoming very active in social and environmental issues.
EMILE: AK, can you give a sense of your background in your own words, whatever you feel comfortable sharing.
AK: I was born in Korea, and I was adopted into a family in Spokane, Washington that loves to ski. I'm very fortunate and privileged in that way. For as long as I can remember, I've been skiing. All I remember as a kid is being really cold and not wanting to get out of bed to go to the mountain. I didn’t really enjoy or appreciate it until high school. I went to college in Bellingham at Western. Unfortunately I think I only skied twice in college, just because I was going to school full time while working.
Once I graduated, I really missed skiing. I decided to take a winter to dedicate just to ski. Of course, Jackson is in all of the ski movies. So, I came out here for winter and tried it. I ended up falling in love with the area, and decided to stay for a summer. Now I’ve been in Jackson for almost six years.
EMILE: There's a saying that you come for winter, you stay for summer. And you never end up leaving. We've never really spent much time together. But you have this massive presence as someone who's very socially active in terms of community issues. Is that sort of an attitude you've always taken? Is there something unique about Jackson that lights you up and inspires you to take the issues on?
AK: I haven't always been this engaged in community and activism work, really only in the last few years. The Trump era, with so much anti-Asian hate, combined with living in a very white, wealthy town – seeing these huge disparities as I’ve struggled to make it work in Jackson as a low-income BIPOC woman ignited my fire. Overall, I knew I needed to read a lot more literature on anti-racism. Because even though I am a person of color, I was raised in a white household. In educating myself, I started seeing how everything is connected, and it is not a coincidence that the same people are suffering under all of these systems. In the last few years, I've honed in on more specific areas like disability and BIPOC inclusion in the outdoors. But there's still a big part of me that spends a lot of my energy fighting for climate justice and equity.
Emile: What is adaptive sports and how did you get introduced to it for work?
AK: Adaptive sports works with people with physical and cognitive disabilities, finding different ways to meet their needs so they can participate in recreation. I wholeheartedly believe that people with disabilities should not be sidelined.
One of my best friends Pierre had a bad bike accident, leaving him paralyzed. When he moved back to Jackson after rehab, I was able to ski and bike with him a lot again. And so I learned about adaptive equipment and what the process is to get someone with a physical disability on snow and trails. The adaptive program offered me a job, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
I really want to emphasize that just because I do adaptive work, I don't want praise for that, nor am I trying to speak on behalf of people with disabilities, only on my own experiences and perceptions from my work. There are so many people that congratulate you for working in the field. And it's weird, although unfortunately, I think I used to be one of those people before I got more involved and educated in this work. Now, I see it as essential for us to include everyone. It's all of our job to be more inclusive and break down barriers.
EMILE: What is something that surprised you about this work? Either internally or externally in terms of observations about yourself or the world?
AK: Internally, I realized that growing up nondisabled, there are a lot of ableist ideas I need to dismantle within myself and that I hope others can, too. Like being impressed with the capability of people with disabilities, which is insulting to be amazed that they're able to participate, and that they’ve had to overcome ableist obstacles to be there. Externally, probably the biggest thing I've noticed is how many different financial and physical barriers there are. There's a lot of different gear that looks different for everyone, and most of that gear is custom created and extremely expensive. Like a baseline adaptive bike is going to cost around atround $10k, and really nice adaptive bikes are upwards of $20k. And then of course adaptive ski equipment is expensive and so is access to these places. Then there's also physical barriers, like building entrances, stairs, bathrooms, or walkways that people cannot use because of their physical disabilities. And how many non disabled people abuse handicap parking spaces.
EMILE: I feel you. How do you stay so tuned in at the policy level, it seems like you do a lot of postings and outreach. You recently brought a lot of attention to our county commission with the rejection and subsequent confirmation of a new sustainability position following your efforts.
AK: My neighbor is a town councilor who I campaigned for, so we talk, and I've helped campaign for a handful of other people. I still go out and get coffee with them and catch up and see what is coming down the pipeline. And so that's kind of how I stay the most informed. I know that I could read the newspaper a lot more.
EMILE: I think that's probably the pure essence of being informed by being tied into your community, right? Like, we can't expect to be able to be the people who hold everything up. That's why we live in communities. To me, it's really cool that you are so woven into our community. Not only that but amplifying the issues and building momentum around action to address them. The approach you bring is emblematic of the fact that you don't necessarily need to be permanently rooted in a place to be able to affect positive change in that place. So, it's pretty rad.
It’s funny that Emile mentioned having “platonic admiration from watching someone thrive in a space,” because that’s exactly what I had, and still have for her. I specifically remember the first time I ever saw Emile was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Pinedale, WY. And in Wyoming, you remember the few faces of color you see. The next time I saw her was on a screen, either for The Approach or some other video of her getting rad in the outdoors. And that’s when I felt a real connection, to see another BIPOC taking up space in this very white state of Wyoming, and taking up space in the very white world of outdoor sports, too – even if you don’t know someone personally (yet), you can feel that connection and know there are shared struggles in your stories. Jackson is a small town though, and luckily our paths started crossing. When this bike trip presented itself, I had to jump on it. Camping trips have a way of allowing you more access to the depth and authenticity of a person, and I feel grateful I was able to see Emile in her element. Most people already know she is an amazing athlete and advocate, but on this trip I was also lucky enough to see her infinite plant and ecology wisdom, and experience her top-knotch cooking. It was truly a treat to be able to learn more about each other while playing outside.
AK: Well now for some questions for you, I think I want to start out with the question, you asked me: who are you? What brought you to this place?
EMILE: Yeah, sort of the quick and dirty is that my grandparents started raising me when I was 13. They brought a lot of stability to my life by raising me and introduced me to Jackson . So prior to them raising me, I had never really been outside or in nature in a real way, like all of it was completely foreign coming from a city. Now, having lived there for a long time, you realize there's the dark underbelly, but, you know, as a first timer, it was pretty amazing and informed the entire trajectory of my life. I started pursuing the outdoors and competency in the outdoors. Going to the University of Montana and pursuing environmental education, outdoor education and science. This allowed me to develop this whole, sort of sense of my own personal environmentalism and understanding of the natural world.I think that was really key for me, dealing with my own emotional healing was tuning in to the world's natural rhythms.
Fast forward to grad school, and then simultaneously having a lot of outdoor work and opportunities to begin filming, and moving into this realm of professional athleticism, has felt very strained, because there's all these ideas of what a real professional athlete looks like, and it's not what we look like. So dealing with that, and then realizing that what we do is not for the cis, white male audience or even audiences of privilege, who are already intimately aware of how to be in these spaces, but it's about cracking open access for other people who have never been exposed to it.
AK: Being a professional athlete that is not CIS, white male, how do you balance and take care of your mental health in those spaces that are becoming more inclusive, but still, obviously have a lot of racism and misogyny?
EMILE: To be fair, I think my mental health looks different almost every day. I still struggle with consistency. It’s something that I treat like a bicycle. Sometimes I'm on the bike, and sometimes I'm off the bike. Thinking of it as this ongoing process and not a destination really helps because it allows me to sort of absorb the really hard days knowing that this isn't going to last forever. Finding language so that you can speak to yourself and soothe yourself is really important. The other thing I have is finding a good network of people. Expanding my recreation community to be more representative of the world and representative of people who look like me has been really important. I am beginning to feel like I belong here.
AK: I love that. Is it rewarding when young people or people who do not have access to the outdoors, see you in films or other marketing campaigns? What do you hope that they see and feel?
EMILE: Yeah, I hope so. Because it's so visual, that they see themselves, that they see someone in a space that they didn't maybe know existed, or maybe they've seen these images before, but they've just never seen someone who looks like them. In many ways what propelled me into this lifestyle I now live is small moments of exposure. You don't realize how impressionable you are as a kid. I think that it's also a double edged sword for me. Even with my own struggles, I’ve had incredible access to privilege. It has allowed me the time and the resources to learn how to recreate safely and competently to feel some level of comfort in these spaces.
AK: Especially in the last few years, when everything has really picked up for you, what kind of growth and realizations have you had, internally and externally?
EMILE: One thing I've realized is how much of a disadvantage you face with self confidence if you come from a particular background. Because depending on your experience, you've either had the world projecting that you can or the world insinuating you can't. I appreciate the opportunities I've had to do the things that I've gotten to do, whether it's sort of the more glamorous and or the hard stuff. In suffering a bit through movement and by applying ourselves we realize what we are capable of not just in terms of our physicality but as people and as change makers.
The other thing is how hard it is to actually make permanent change. One of the issues I see in the outdoor world right now, is that in the industry’s rush to become anti-racist, in tandem with lacking proper education, has reinforced some really harmful patterns and legacies. I’ve seen so many folks sort of react by being like I'm not getting it right so I’m giving up. Well, did you actually have a deep understanding before you pursued this initiative, or brought on these underrepresented people? And now I'm finding that the industry is not as active or staying true to these initiatives as they once were and the money and priorities are shifting away again.
AK: I've read some articles that you've written for Outside and other publications, and we've touched on all these topics before, but there's so much more to a person than just the color of their skin and how they make ends meet. Like, there's so much more to you than being a black athlete. What are some other layers to you?
EMILE: I'm someone who is dealing with, like many people, being pulled in a lot of different directions. If anyone comes across my platform or any of my articles, I just hope that they feel like they can resonate, that there's something in them that can get them to where they want to be or to where they visualize themselves being. I really do think if you do the things you love, it will precipitate the things that you want in the long run. I definitely came from hard times, and I think it's just really difficult to convey just how resilient we are. I was a C student in high school. I was a terrible student. And I lacked self confidence around academia. As a kid I wasn't always in school, there are periods of time where I just wasn't in school. And so it was a shock to me, I never thought I would get into a school like Yale. I never thought I'd be able to be someone who's working with outdoor brands I admire, but if you keep at it good things will happen.
Much like the intricate trails we enjoy on our Julianas, the many overlapping themes in mine and AK’s respective experiences lead to a satisfying flow state. There is an ease of sharing that accompanies these conversations when you're engaging someone who has direct experience living a more marginalized reality. The way AK displays her unyielding determination and quest for social and adaptive equality and transformation is deeply inspiring, and frankly accessible for us all. Little actions like engaging your neighbor and just giving a f*@k can create big changes.. As we pedal through our stories converge, illustrating the immense impact of authentic connections and a shared aspiration for a more diverse future. Just as we move through rugged climbs and navigate unexpected descents, together we steer toward a horizon of change, banking towards a more just and equitable world.