The ease at which a dirt trail can connect women and encourage each other in the like-minded art of exploration is like tapping into the perfect sugar maple in spring. I’m grateful for people who organize gatherings for others to enjoy, as the brave ones take on the task of leading the way to create honest human interaction while trying to unplug from a wired world. But what if it’s this online connection that actually leads us there?
An outdoor adventure can be extremely powerful in making friends of strangers, although the feeling of isolation and fear of venturing into the wilderness as a solo woman is a real fact of life. I didn’t know that there were other women who liked to hike for hours in all weather conditions just to come back to the start. For all its trials and tribulations, social media has allowed for connection despite proximity in this beautiful province of Ontario. Hustle Hikers is a new local women’s gathering of outdoor lovers who share in the ability to build each other up through instant camaraderie. I wasn’t the only one who felt the pull toward this social media-based group when myself and 25 other women, who were complete strangers to each other, packed our bags and headed north to the Ontario woods to take a chance and spend a weekend together.
I think we were all collectively ready to break free from our homes, from our known paths and from our comfort zones. The woods and the unfamiliar were calling our names. Did we know our names apart from our Instagram handles? Not yet. We headed out into the wild to meet a group of complete strangers with a communal hope of making friends of outdoor-loving women—and we were not disappointed.
We met at the Hardy Lake trailhead where, one by one, vehicles pulled into the snow-covered parking lot. Stepping out into the cold to change into our winter hiking gear, we could see the glances of brief smiling eye contact saying, I’m friendly, are you friendly? A few walked to the centre of the lot for an exchange of greetings, signalling that this could be the gathering spot safe for others to approach—as if we were children on a new playground. Excitedly, we all found ourselves huddled together with rosy cheeks, shuffling side to side to keep warm. As the conversations and laughter flowed easily between one another, I knew that I was the stranger amongst the group that must have had many previous treks together already. Bianca Maria, the founder of Hustle Hikers, brought such an ease to strangeness. Once her welcoming was complete, it felt like I knew her already. To the trail we went, the crunching of snow under our feet playing the symphony we longed for. Hours and hours spent hiking that faithful loop, it was as if we all emerged from the trees even closer. I didn’t anticipate the instant kinship and kindness that each and every individual possessed. Lucky for us, this was just the start of the weekend.
We heard there was a snowstorm on its way, but no one seemed to want to head home early. We were all dedicated to this unexpected experience. That was a worry for later, because we were too busy living in the unknown of the next few days. Piling back into our vehicles, there was much more of a buzz in the air from shared trail experiences and knowing new names—the drive to the rented house full of bunk beds was a reciting of newness on a phone call to home.
The weekend included homemade meals prepared by Hustle Hikers team members, who we learned all came together to plan and execute this gift of a weekend. I didn’t think I would gather around a giant wood table elbow-to-elbow in my 30’s with a group of strangers at a sleepover, but here I was. Akin to being a child at camp, within hours we all felt at home. Although our social media accounts are what go us to this table (quite literally breaking bread), eye contact and laughter was all that we wanted. Strangers became my friends, and the sun hadn’t even set yet. As we all started opening up and sharing past stories of mountains, trees, hilltops and waterfalls, we started to realize that a large portion of the group did not in fact know each other prior to this day. I thought my story of being the stranger amongst the friends was my own, but we were all fooled by the effortlessness that it took us all to become instant friends. We all thought we were the odd-one out. Turns out we were all just looking for the same thing—connection in the outdoors.
For the rest of the weekend, laughter grew louder, names became clearer and adventure was abundant. Our child-like wonder came out at every opportunity, from sliding down snow-covered stairs, water crossing encouragements and building campfires from scratch. Even at the times we could have been deterred, we found the joy in the thrill: icy 45-degree angle driveways in a snowstorm became a team-building exercise of ingenuity and strength in pushing vehicles to freedom. The cheers echoed with every safe passage. As snow fell around me, I kept questioning where I could go to meet this many women who want to push vehicles up hills just to head down uncertain stormy roads, to hike up footpaths and look at their thousandth tree? No place I’ve ever encountered. Evenings after the exhausting yet satisfying hikes were spaces of reflection with mindset, goal and vision board sessions. Dawn was for stretching with yoga classes and dusk was for full bellies and sharing tales.
We will reminisce on these days for decades—the beauty is that we are part of it as it unfolds. Perhaps the magic of it all is because in the woods you can’t have expectations. As hikers, we know that you must go prepared, but that we must take the trail as it comes. We treated this inaugural weekend in the same way. We let go of (or perhaps ran from) expectations and we were open to the unveiling of whatever adventure could offer. Luckily for all of us, this outdoor social media-based club is only beginning and there are many more adventures to come. Every retreat since that faithful first one has been full of new faces looking to create new stories too. What stays constant is the raw individual desire to make memories as a group and walk a dirt trail, just to come back to the start.