Ryan Feidt: Overcoming Self Challenges

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Well, I hope you’re not claustrophobic because this story might freak you out. If you are an avid climber, on the other hand, you might want keep reading. This semester I decided to do something different: I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute‘s Resilience and Revolution of the Colorado Plateau course. I didn’t do any research about the area I was going to before I left because I thought it would be a nice surprise to me. And surprised I have been; not only is WRFI academically challenging, it’s physically challenging too. As the first of five sections of the course comes to a wrap, I’ve reflected back on what I’ve done.

It was day six and our second layover day. Dave, one of our instructors, said today’s hike was one of his favorite in the canyonlands and that I would be going to a place unlike any I had been to before.

Being a climber, I tend to enjoy learning about rocks. While hiking through the canyon, I was surrounded by big bulky, loose sandstone. In my opinion these big juggy, sandstone holds have the potential to make great climbing, but sandstone breaks with the slightest pressure. My other instructor, Ryan (who also is a climber), pointed out this weird black stuff on the canyon wall called desert varnish.

Now apparently nobody fully understands varnish. From what we know it’s basically water mixed with iron and manganese oxide to form a solid outer layer. This means it turns the delicate sandstone to a sturdy surface. What we don’t know is how it’s created. Some say it is made when rainwater is mixed with clay. Others say bacteria create it. The point is, varnish makes really good holds when climbing.

As we continued our hike, the ground started to split apart into a tiny canyon. That is when Dave said we are going down there. He was right; I have never been to a true slot canyon before. The entrance to this slot canyon was not easy. It was a six foot slither down, under a boulder, into an ankle deep pool of ice-cold muck water. To make matters worse, there was only three inches of dry canyon to land on before the pool. I was first. I tried to slip through the hole but I didn’t like going into it blind. Instead, I had to take the more challenging route of going over the boulder where I had to give extra effort to land in the dry spot. I’m an amateur climber and a pretty in-shape person so part one’s descent wasn’t too hard for me. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. One of my classmate’s foot took a swim. I was -am still- proud of all my classmates for challenging their fears head on and making it past part one.

The first descent was a breeze compared to the second descent. We all sat in a side room deeper in the canyon. We were roughly twelve feet below the earth’s surface, and after scoping out part two, I realized there was at least another ten foot incline down into the sunless darkness of the canyon. I had to drop through a hole no more than twelve inches in diameter, with a destination that could not be seen from above. I slipped in feet first. By the time I was chest deep in the hole, I had yet to feel the ground. My feet were dangling and I didn’t know how far of a drop I had below me. I slowly lowered myself. As soon as my arms were fully extended I reached the ground. I descended even deeper into the canyon, knowing I was soon approaching a narrow spine followed by an unavoidable puddle. I had to be twenty five feet below the surface of the canyon rim. When I finally reached the narrow path, the walls were only eight inches apart. Successfully squeezing through this stretch meant I was to fall into the unavoidable pool. Nervous, I just had to go for it. My head was facing to my right without enough space to turn it, feet ducked out, unable to turn them, and my chest completely exhaled just so I could fit. It was only a few feet to pass through, but breathing was limited, so I stopped whenever I could take a breath, and so I could get a glance of the pool ahead of me. I saw the walls were just close enough that I could challenge myself to get across the pool dry. I spidered across this lengthy stretch of water, seriously testing my strength and stamina, but I came out dry.

Part three was a breeze. Although narrow, it was a three hundred meter stretch of flat slot canyon hiking. At the end of the canyon there was an opening overlooking a two hundred foot drop into breathtaking, green canyonland. At this moment I realized the Colorado Plateau needs to be preserved. This place is too beautiful to be developed or damaged.

I set some exhausting challenges that day for myself, and I will only be setting more as I progress in this course. But right now, I need help with my current challenge. I need you to go from a reader to becoming the voice for the Colorado Plateau. I need you to spread the word that the Colorado Plateau needs help in being resilient to the challenges that humanity is pressing upon it.

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Sierra Deimling: The Hunt for Attentiveness

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If you’re a WRFI student meandering down Horseshoe Canyon and it happens to be both Easter and April Fool’s Day, consider yourself lucky.  We departed our sandstone haven of a campsite and headed down the canyon that special holiday morning, eager to explore more of the canyon’s wonders.  As we walked I pondered my reading from earlier that week. Practicing natural history was something I had never heard of prior to reading Thomas Fleischner’s essay “Natural History and the Spiral of Offering.”  Becoming a natural historian requires “intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more than human world.” I was too caught up in trying to implement Fleischner’s idea into my hike to suspect any Easter of April Fool’s affiliated mischief from my instructors.

WRFI instructors Dave and Ryan have been helping us practice natural history by creating activities centered around one of eight principles of natural history.  The principles include attentiveness, reciprocity, expression, vision, accuracy, humility, affirmation, and gratitude. The activities have undoubtedly been the most pleasant school assignments I’ve ever been given.  One day our group sat silently at the head of Horseshoe Canyon as Dave instructed us to focus on just one of our senses for several minutes to teach us attentiveness. We listened to the chirps of the canyon wren. We felt the damp sand grind between our sore toes.  We smelled the stagnant pool of water littered with juniper berries and pine needles. We saw the Earth hold us like tiny fish in an enormous bowl. So, yeah, natural history assignments don’t suck.

We continued to descend the canyon and my mind wandered from natural history to Easter eggs and family.  My family spends Easter in the wild, and while I was stoked to be with WRFI, I was missing the Deimling Easter egg hunt.  My stomach sadly growled at the thought of my sister ripping into Cadbury Eggs while I crunched on more stale granola.

Dave and Ryan stopped us at the bottom of a draw to give us our natural history activity of the day, focusing on the principle of receptivity.  We were to walk up the draw and stop every 20-ish steps to do part of a yoga sun salutation, involving sweeping our hands high to the sky and down to the earth.  I slowly cruised up the draw and did everything I could to be receptive, not once thinking anything suspicious of the activity. You can imagine I was quite taken aback hearing another student scream they found a chocolate egg.

A scale large enough to measure my stoke upon realizing I had been tricked into going on an Easter egg hunt does not exist.  Picture hiking through the desert for days, where both water and chocolate are extremely scarce, only to find candy in a prickly pear cactus!  Discovering a juniper tree decorated in Hershey’s reminded me of a hunt my parents would set up. I was ecstatic.

Of the eight principles of natural history, three were particularly relevant to our surprise hunt, with attentiveness being the most obvious.  If someone else didn’t yell that they found candy, it’s likely I would have made it up the draw completely unaware that I was flanked by treats.  Realizing how unattentive I had been made me wonder what else I had missed during the course. How many wildflowers have been ignored in my pathway?  How many lizards have darted across my toes while I wasn’t looking? How many shooting stars have been shielded by the shelter of my sleeping bag? I don’t want to miss candy in the desert, but I especially don’t want to miss these special natural phenomenons.

A second principle the hunt helped me embody was our word of the day, receptivity.  To be clear, I did not conclude that if you successfully practice natural history the land will offer you processed sugar.  The meditative portion of the hunt helped me receive endless opportunities to connect with the land. I receive astonishment from watching incandescent sandstone pierce the crystal blue sky.  I receive a sense of caution from pricking my finger on a petite barrel cactus. I receive clarity from looking at the fragile ecosystem as a whole and remember why I am a WRFI student and environmental studies major.

Above all else, the hunt brought me gratitude.  Grateful to be guided through this land by two instructors who care about us enough to get up early and hide candy in desert crevices.  Grateful we hiked for six days without seeing a trace of civilization. Grateful to be spending my semester covered in dirt, sleeping on red rock, happy as can be.

There may not be any more surprise Easter egg hunts around the corner, but the lessons of natural history will remain with me.  I am preparing to wander the Dirty Devil Canyon with Fleischner’s principles in mind. I will pay attention to the varieties of lichen brightly splattering the rocks.  I will reciprocate the good the land does for me by leaving no trace as I travel. I will sing wildly and off-key with my friends to express the joy I feel in canyon country.  I will visualize my place in this ecosystem once I’ve left it, thinking about how I can defend it. I will embody accuracy by filling my brain with the knowledge of others, not diluting my experience with my opinion alone.  I will be humble under the grandeur of the cliff faces. I will affirm my ability to survive with my pack full of resources by marveling at the coyotes surviving on next to nothing. I will forever and always be grateful for my time taking in the Colorado Plateau.

Allie Leber: Learning to Dance in the Rain

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In all of my 16 and a half years of education, it wasn’t until I started taking adventure classes in college that I realized how rarely we are asked to problem-solve in our everyday lives, to put ourselves out there and do something truly challenging. Sure, we ask kids to figure out how to score well on a four-hour-long multiple choice test, and how to juggle five A.P. classes with playing a varsity sport, but our world has evolved to emphasize academic challenges, often leaving out other types of challenges. When I started working on ropes courses, this fact became extremely apparent to me.

Children would come to climb, often for the first time, with minimal problem-solving skills. Kids would frequently start to climb an element, begin to feel tired or frustrated, and then look down at their belayer to ask, “what do I do now?” We almost always responded, “you climb.” It’s not the answer the kids were looking for, but it was almost always effective at getting them to continue on and at least try to solve problems for themselves. Yet, I don’t blame the children themselves at all for their initial responses.

In our world of modern conveniences, we’re used to instantaneous answers. If we don’t know the answer to something, we Google it. If we can’t fix something, we call someone else to do it. We’re used to instant gratification, and we’re certainly not used to discomfort. I don’t mean the kind of discomfort felt when someone sits too close to you on the subway, or when a lecture hall feels unbearably warm and stuffy. I mean the type of discomfort that requires deep introspection in order to push through. I mean the type of discomfort you feel when you’ve been outside kayaking in the cold, in two straight days of nonstop rain, with no foreseeable end to the rain in sight.

From this very experience—one that, until recently, I never expected to encounter—I realized that in our everyday lives, when we’re wet and cold, we pretty much always have the promise of a warm dry shelter waiting for us. I also learned that, when you don’t have that promise, you have to find other ways to stay positive and motivated. I never realized just how much I rely on my warm dry house, and just how pathetic most of us feel without one. It seems to me that the only way we can ever learn to truly appreciate the simple things is to go without them for a little while.

In doing this, I realized that experiencing such difficult and uncomfortable times can only help us build character. It reminded me to be grateful and appreciative of the basic conveniences with which I and so many others are blessed, and it reminded me that it is possible to be creative and strong-willed, and to push through the discomfort we feel in all aspects of our lives. As our wise intern, Ben, aptly reminded us as we discussed a completely different topic (our fear of the future post-WRFI), “most obstacles are mental, not physical.”

So why was it that, in the past, I could always recognize that a kid who thinks they can’t climb to the top of an element is facing a mental block, not a physical one, yet when faced with the obstacle of physical discomfort, I (and many others) could not recognize the uselessness of having this type of negative mental barrier?

I believe this mental barrier of negativity only results because we are so unfamiliar with this discomfort. I also believe that once we’re used to solving one type of problem and pushing through one type of discomfort, we gain momentum at it. Therefore, it is crucial for us to continue doing so. We should keep finding things that make us comfortable, things that seem like we aren’t capable of doing, and then push through them.

We are living in a time when people are expressing more and more dissatisfaction with their lives. We are consuming more and more goods, and yet have very little to show for it. Statistically speaking, the number of people who describe themselves as “happy” has been on the decline since the 1950s. Why is this? Bill McKibbon, professor of religious studies at Middlebury College, suggests that “we need time with family, we need silence for reflection,” and that “we need connection with nature.” He quaintly titles this need the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Effect.”

He asserts that we have lives rich in material, but deprived in the aforementioned areas. He also asserts that we need to achieve the inverse. “We don’t need candy,” he reminds us, “we have candy every day of our lives. We just haven’t figured that out, because the momentum of the past is still with us: we still imagine we’re in that Little House on the Big Prairie.” So how do we change this attitude?

I propose that we challenge ourselves by putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. While the average person may be asked to do seemingly impossible tasks like doing eight hours of work in three, how often in the course of our everyday lives can we say that we pushed through something truly demanding? How many people can say that they kayaked and camped along a stretch of nearly 50 miles of the Missouri River in freezing rain?

This type of challenge may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. What’s important is that we continue to find things we think are too difficult or uncomfortable, and we tackle them. While this type of experience may not necessarily sound like the best or easiest way to spend time, it certainly seems like a step away from the “candy”- the things we get far too much of, and toward the things we lack: “reflection,” “connection,” and “adventure.”

Danielle Sidor: Real Food

Danielle Sidor Blog PhotoIt’s funny how road tripping and being in the backcountry for two months has brought me to realize how much food plays an important role in shaping who we are. Living a backcountry lifestyle has forced me to think about food in ways that would easily be overlooked at home in the city. Who knew that one of the things that I would miss most about being home would be cooking?

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher and professor at the University of Montana, states the value of cooking and choosing one’s food perfectly:

“Cooking demands some awareness of the world you live in. You have to know and navigate it through the decisions you have to make- going to the farmers market rather than the supermarket, selecting this lettuce rather than that. Food like this is no more expensive than junk food and it has the virtue of displacing the hidden machinery of McDonald’s food engineering with the comprehension and competence of the cook.”

Making these conscious food decisions has not been easy. I’ve struggled to find the balance between excessive and not enough, between comfort foods (cookies) and whole foods (raw almonds), and between perishables (fresh fruit) and processed foods (meat sticks). As Wendell Berry puts it,

“A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.”

Except my food “standards” have changed out here. I’ve realized that foods society has told us are perishable are not actually as perishable as we think. Blocks of cheddar labeled “refrigerate after opening” have tumbled around my backpack for weeks insulated only by long underwear and t-shirts. Healthy eating habits are thrown out the window and junk foods that you never would eat at home become mentally, physically, and emotionally comforting foods. After three endlessly rainy days paddling the Missouri all you want to do is sit in your tent and eat a whole row of Chips Ahoy Cookies.

When you’re packing everything out that you brought in, you realize how much packaging waste is generated from food. Granola bar wrappers, oatmeal pouches, tea packets, applesauce packets, foil tuna pouches fill your pack. This really made me realize how much packaging is saved through buying in bulk. But buying in bulk is hard to achieve when access to and selection of grocery stores is limited and unpredictable. Our grocery shopping has ranged from tiny roadside Conoco gas stations to large town co-ops to chain grocers such as Albertsons. Sometimes when you’re faced with 20 minutes to grocery shop for everything you need for the next two weeks it can be quite daunting. No time to read ingredient labels for added sugars and corn syrup, to check where your apples were grown, to look for non-gmos and added fillers, and to seek out sustainable business practices. No time to compare and weigh options if there are any.

And then I take a step back and think about the people who live in these small and remote Montana towns we visit. Oftentimes these people only have one option of what to buy. As I walked in to the Lame Deer trading post for a grocery resupply I was immediately surrounded by sugary cereals, white bread, processed meats, aisles full of candy and salty snacks, and a very small section of fresh fruits and vegetables. The reality of food deserts in marginalized communities really began to hit me. This was a low-income community with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The aisles were full of dried, canned, and processed foods low in nutritional value and high in fats and sugars. I became cognizant of the wealth of food options I am fortunate enough to have in my daily life. I realized how desperate the need is to take action on changing our food system.

Thinking about how to take action to create equity within our food systems left me with a flurry of questions: How can we help people eat locally and seasonally within their own communities even when their communities are in the arid prairie of southeastern Montana?  How different would our diets look if we began to do this? How can we begin to bring back a sustainable food culture which fosters an acute awareness of the world we live in? How can we begin to see food as a part of who we are and what we stand for?

Brooke Reynolds: Shifting from the “East of Billings” Mindset

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WRFI Instructor, Nick Littman, posing along the Tongue River. Photo Credit: Ryan Marsh. 

Towering yellowed Cottonwoods loom above me, filtering the sunlight through their dancing leaves so that amber light ripples across my hands and face.  The world is completely silent except for the sweet song of the wind and the gentle rhythm of paddles dipping into the cool, calm waters of the Tongue River. Not a single cloud touches the cerulean sea of sky.  Here, there is a sense of serenity pumping through my veins and it seems the same for those around me (except maybe not for Clark). Something is uniquely beautiful about this small, meandering prairie river and its arid valley of a home; we all know it and feel it with every new bend and riffle.

John Hamilton, a farmer in the Tongue River Valley says, “People think of eastern Montana as a wasteland. They don’t realize what we have down here.” John is right… they don’t.

Never have I seen the moon so bright, the sky so frighteningly big, the earth so calm, and so fierce as I have here on the prairie in eastern Montana. There really is not a word to describe it correctly. And yet, this landscape has long been ignored because this area, the Tongue River Valley, and the rest of the bioregion is “East of Billings.”

People are funny things. We have this weird conception that some places in this world are better than others, that there are places on this earth that people deem worthy of every environmental preservation regulation in the book, and that there are places that are only worthy of being toxic waste dumps because of they lack our conventional view of beauty.  Flora and fauna do not have this insane bias. They live and grow where they can live and grow. Sagebrush grows on the prairie because that is where it can exist, not because it is more beautiful than other biomes or other biomes are more beautiful than it.

Humans do not do this. We exist, or want to exist, in places that we have socially constructed as being beautiful: mountains, oceans, vast deserts, lakes, and rivers. This construction has caused us to live within a specific paradigm: wasteland vs. Eden.

I’m tired of our society viewing some land as waste, as a place that can be ruined in order to preserve other “prettier” places. No land is wasteland. It has value. There is value to the people that call it home and to the people who once called it home; there is value to the fauna; there is value to the flora. And, no matter where you go, you can find beauty in a place. Maybe it is the way that the sun hits the horizon line every sunset, or how the rain gently falls into the caressing earth, or how the earth tucks itself into bed every night.  No place’s value should be determined by its beauty, or really be given a value at all. All places are beautiful and valuable in their own unique way.

The Tongue River Valley is threatened with potential coal development, something that will irrevocably alter the landscape, likely in an unfavorable way. Yet, the coal developers and the state of Montana do not seem to care, because the Tongue River Valley is “East of Billings,” a wasteland. To reiterate John Hamilton, “They don’t realize what we have down here.” If they did, they being the government of Montana, coal development would not even be considered. This place is too precious, too remarkable.  And yet politicians and bureaucrats think that the Tongue River Valley and eastern Montana is an unpopulated, flat landscape. Which it is; but it is also so much more.

And so we need to change our worldview of land. No land is meant for waste. All land is worthy of existing in its most natural, or healthiest state. Mentalities like “East of Billings” cannot exist. Otherwise, our earth will be destroyed, since we will not properly take care of all of her land.

Wherever you go, look for those moments like those I had on the Tongue: the sunlight rippling across my skin, the quiet voice of the wind, the soaring trees up overhead. Find these precious observations and hold onto them, because they will make you realize that no land is wasteland.

Kiki Kane-Owens: The Universality of Biophilia

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One morning during our backpack in the wooded wilderness of the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown, MT I woke up to a pink morning sky and the remnants of the night prior’s full moon on the banks of Swimming Woman Creek. I walked into the woods to have a moment alone, pulled some rock-licking hippy crap and hugged a tree for a few minutes—it looked like it needed it, and I felt it asking for one.

Later that morning we sat in a circle around the campsite’s fire pit and started class for the day which was focused on discussing biophilia: human’s love and desire to be connected with the natural world. We discussed the way in which biophilia is manifested and the perceived gradual disappearance thereof in the modern cosmopolitan world while each of us outlined the way in which we developed a love for nature. Many pointed to the central role that the open and wooded landscapes they grew up played in the creation of their relationship with nature, asserting that access to green space is of paramount importance. My biophilia, however, was not born of access to green space or awe at natural landscapes; it was born within the concrete walls of New York City.

Growing up, I spent weekend afternoons sitting outside of my Dad’s restaurant, a little café called The Crooked Tree Creperie. It sat in the middle of Manhattan’s East Village on the bottom of St. Marks Place and was marked by a tall crooked tree in the middle of the block. I spent each day with a motley crew of locals and passersby as my dad kept an eye on me through the window. As the hours of the day came and went along with the short conversations, the crooked tree was a constant. Every so often, I would glance at it, noticing its bark, its leaves and the way it moved with the wind. It provided as a reminder of nature and its beauty in a life consumed with people and their creations, it provided a comfort of familiarity.

I watched that crooked tree transform throughout the seasons and years. In the early spring, as the snow on the sidewalk melted it grew little green and brown bulbs that turned into pink as the temperature rose and the weeks passed. The cornucopia of bulbs eventually popped into florescent big green leaves in the summer that turned into the yellow and red leaves that scattered the sidewalk in front of the Café in the fall. As winter came, the tree’s branches rid their leaves and became bare—holding the snow up off of the sidewalk. I don’t know what type of tree it is, nor do I care, it’s just a crooked one that has become important to me, a piece of nature I felt personally connected to.

Since my tree-watching days, I have developed a true love and respect for nature using my crooked tree as a proxy for that. My tree allowed me to think of natural beings as important entities to which I could develop a personal relationship. Biophilia is not an inaccessible privilege of those living in our world’s more natural environments; it is a universally accessible privilege. The development of a relationship with a single natural being brings forth the idea that natural things are worth loving, a sentiment that spreads outwards and breeds love for the natural world as a whole. So it is to say, to develop a biophilic mindset, you don’t need much more than a single blade of grass and some time.

Maize Smith: An Ode to Red Ants Pants

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I was ecstatic when our mud covered van pulled into the sleepy town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. Among the post office, two gas stations, and a few bars sits the Red Ants Pants store. I could barely contain my excitement at the site of floor to ceiling stacks of workpants that greeted me inside the casually decorated storefront. As I stared up at the pants I thought back to the last time I needed to buy work pants…

In the summers, I lead youth trail crews in Idaho, an occupation I am probably too boastful about. Empowering youth, especially young women, through hard work in rural places provide the most exhausting and most fulfilling experiences of my life. Felling trees, moving cow sized boulders, and swinging a pulaski requires high quality, durable, well fitting pants. Halfway though the season I was due for a new pair of pants, my used Patagonia work pants had worn so thin the patches wouldn’t hold. So, I ran to the nearest ranch store to grab some new duds. I headed to the women’s section out of instinct, only to find one single table of Carhartts. My choices were between regular or “slim” fit. I tried on a few pairs in various sizes and, not to my surprise, none of them fit, especially not the “slim” fits. Red faced, I started combing for other options when a store clerk asked if they could help me. I asked if there were other work pants for women in the store. She sheepishly replied no and urged me to transfer my size to men’s pants. After a few warranted complaints, I obliged. The men’s work pants were stacked floor to ceiling, numerous brands, in a million different sizes. I tried on pair after pair after pair, nothing fit quite right. But, I needed pants, so I settled on a pair that were too long and rode high enough to touch my upper ribcage.

These pants did their job… kind of. They kept the sun, dirt, and bar oil off my skin, but they did not fit. How the hell am I supposed to dig topline and keep a bunch of teens swinging their tools if my pants keep cutting off the circulation to my brain?

Hence, my ecstasy when entering Red Ants Pants, these weren’t just any old pants, these were hardy pants made for women. Let me say that again, pants made for women. Well fitting, well made, pants for working women.

And the pants just scratch the surface. Not only does Red Ants Pants create a high quality product for hard-working women, they have become an integral part of the small town community in White Sulphur Springs and Montana in general. For instance, the creator of Red Ants, Sarah Calhoun, made a conscious decision to base Red Ants in an old saddle shop in White Sulphur Springs, a former timber town located in one of the poorest counties in the country. When the store opened its doors in 2006, Sarah worked hard to become a meaningful part of the community, but also support women and girls in rural spaces. Which lead to the creation of the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival and the Red Ants Pants Foundation. The music festival brings together the people of Montana and beyond for three days of great music, local beer, and camping on a ranch just outside of White Sulphur Springs. The festival brings additional customers to local businesses and also raises money for the Red Ants Pants Foundation, which then supports leadership roles for women, the protection of family ranches and farms, and the preservation of rural towns. As a woman working in rural Idaho, I understand the value of connecting to places through your livelihood, especially for women who were historically told these spaces and this work was not for them.

I sure as hell am not the first, and won’t be the last, to admire the work of Sarah Calhoun. She built a small business that has extended its reach far beyond pants. Red Ants Pants has built community and support for women to realize their immensely beautiful potential in all spaces, and look damn good while doing it.