Hiker,writer, semi-nomadic traveler
Tiffany McClain is a mountain-chasing, wander-lusting, history-obsessing dreamer of dreams. Her adventures have taken her up mountains, down trails and all over the United States and Canada.
Name: Tiffany McClain
Hometown: Washington D.C.
Outdoor Activities: Hiking, seeking out naturally beautiful places to travel to, writing, appreciating effortless pleasures like sunsets and cherry blossoms
Where were you born: Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. Both of my parents were in the Air Force at the time.
Where did you grow up: St. Louis, Missouri.
What are your childhood memories of the outdoors? I think about going to Girl Scout Camp. It was my family’s idea to get me into Girl Scouts although at the time the goal wasn't necessarily to get outside. My troop was based out of the church we went to. Most of the activities we did were service oriented although there were also camping trips. It started with weekend trips with my troop and by the time I was ten I was going for two weeks during the summer each year. My mom was happy to send me off for two weeks but my grandmother was initially concerned. I remember the camp was in a small valley surrounded by hills. We did canoeing, archery, swimming and some outdoor cookouts. There was a program, ‘Kaleidoscope,’ where we did a mix of everything. I did that for two years. Then I did ‘Bits and Bridles’ which was focused on horseback riding. I really enjoyed that. I always looked forward to it and to getting away. I also really looked forward to the community.
In junior high school, I had an 8th grade social studies teacher who really liked the Tetons. Every year he would select a group of students, based on grade point average and interest, to spend a week at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was pre-Internet. I didn’t know what the Tetons were. I just knew everyone else was going and that I should too. I think I was the only one to apply for a scholarship. They bought me hiking boots and sunglasses that lasted until I was an adult. We got on a bus and drove from Missouri all the way to Wyoming. I remember dipping into this valley and seeing the Tetons for the first time. It was an amazing experience—beyond anything I could have possibly imagined! I spent that week learning about geology, decomposition, and the debate surrounding the re-introduction of wolves into the park. It's a memory that I have always held close even though it was years before I finally saw mountains like that again.
What brought you back to the mountains as an adult? I was 24 and I was in grad school. It was right before the beginning of my second year. I was feeling anxious and decided that I needed to see some mountains. Maybe a year before that, I had cut a photo of Banff National Park out of a magazine as inspiration and so I decided that that's where I was going to go. I registered for a multi-night tour and flew to Calgary to meet up with my group. There were about ten of us: a mother and daughter from Japan, a young woman from New Zealand, one Canadian, a German, and the rest were Brits. I was the only American. We spent the trip traveling between Banff and Jasper national parks, hiking and sight-seeing during the day and sleeping in hostels at night. I walked on a glacier for the first time during that trip. Our guide pointed out a long pole in the ice that was being used to measure how far it receded every year and it was the first time I really grasped how seriously scientists were taking climate change and what it meant for the environment. Being the only American on the trip was an unexpected learning experience as well. It opened my eyes to the way people in other countries traveled. Everyone else on the tour had taken off three weeks vacation or longer. They were seeing parts of the world that I had never seen even though they were geographically closer to me. The young woman from New Zealand had spent the spring working in Victoria, then a summer in Alaska and was now on her way somewhere else. I remember being really jealous of her life and especially of her trip to Alaska. I was determined to get up there.
How was your trip to Alaska?
I got to the Alaska the first time by taking a summer job in Denali National Park. I was still enrolled in graduate school and told myself that it was only going to be for a summer, but by mid-August I had decided to quit school and stayed in Alaska until the end of that fall. By the following spring, I had officially moved to Alaska and ended up being there for the next five years. I lived there for as long as I’ve lived anywhere as an adult. For the five years I lived in Alaska I worked in Anchorage; initially for the ACLU of Alaska doing LGBTQ advocacy work. I tried to leave but I came back to work for a Seattle-based nonprofit called Pride Foundation as their Alaska staff person. The thing I appreciated most about living up there is that you don’t have to go anywhere to experience the magic of nature. It’s right there all the time even when you’re living in the city. Moose sightings are just a normal part of life. You have the northern lights. People who live there will stop to watch a sunset and send text and Facebook messages to tell other people to do the same. Alaskans don’t take it for granted; they really pay attention.
The first time I tried to leave Alaska was in 2010. I briefly ended up working a seasonal position at the Grand Canyon. It was a good opportunity. I wanted a break from the work that I was doing and I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do next. It was the first time I hiked on my own a lot. I hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up. I did all my own research and read the books and learned about hydrating even when you’re not thirsty, eating when you're not hungry, why I shouldn't be paranoid about running into mountain lions, etc. I knew that I wanted to explore the canyon and not have to be dependent on others to go with me. It was a good place to experience that.
In search of diverse outdoor communities: After I left Alaska for the last time I moved to Portland. It's a really good place to be if you like the outdoors. On a Saturday morning you can go to the Gateway Transit Center at the edge of town and you will run into four maybe five meet-up groups packing cars for a day's outing. By participating in women’s hiking meet-ups I traveled as far north as The Enchantments in Washington state and as far south as the redwoods of Northern California. The Enchantments are lottery based hiking area not too far from Seattle. I did a backpacking trip to Colchuck Lake which is one of the lakes in The Enchantments. I don’t miss Portland but I miss my weekends there. I miss the hiking community and the ease of getting into the outdoors.
What I didn’t care for was the relative lack of diversity. People of color who live in Portland may disagree. My perspective is coming from a different experience than theirs. Even coming from Alaska the cultural whiteness of Portland felt unsettling to me. In Anchorage you have Alaskan native populations, the diversity from the military bases, and a sizable Pacific-Islander community within a city of only 300,000. When I moved to Portland I thought: "I lived in Alaska this won’t be a big deal to me." But it was. There’s a progressive culture but I saw some pretty overt racism there coming from people who thought they were progressive. There was also a lack of self-awareness and a lack of understanding of the history of racism and race relations in Oregon that I found galling.
I create a very small bubble for myself and surround myself with people with whom I feel safe with in every way. The white people in my life who I consider friends are people with whom I can talk pretty frankly about race. The straight people in my life are people I can talk pretty openly about LGBT issues. I keep a close circle. Outdoor meet-ups are interesting in that you link up with strangers who happen to like the same activities as you do, but there's still a lot that you don't know up front. There was this one women’s hiking group that I went on a lot of trips with. We limited our conversations to questions about hiking and gear and didn't really discuss our personal lives. We definitely didn't discuss our identities outside of hiking. It took a year to realize how many other queer women were in the group because none of the women had presented themselves that way.
From Portland I moved to Atlanta and then to DC. Atlanta was my reaction to Portland, I always joke. But Washington D.C. is more my speed. It's very walk-able and there are more things to do that I like to do. I like nature but I also like museums and lectures. I would say it's more of a middle ground for me and it still has a lot of what I like to do.
How does your family feel about your wanderlust? My mom, I think, is used to it by now but I do make her nervous sometimes. I have definitely stretched the boundaries that she imagined for me. Of course, my life feels normal to me. I’m actually just getting to the point where I’m starting to realize that it’s not ordinary. Some people will make casual remarks about not being able to know where I am at any given moment and not even knowing where I live. I didn’t really think of myself as being adventurous but I guess I am. I left home as soon as I could because I wanted to get out of the Midwest. I always thought I would settle down somewhere but I just haven’t.
I loved your post about reading a volume of Black Nature Poetry and feeling tired of everyone incessantly quoting John Muir: I feel like seeking Nature in Black literature was a result of all the journeying. When I was in graduate school I was studying history. Even though I don't have a PhD I feel like that’s still a part of who I am. Whether we're discussing people of color in the outdoors or the black travel movement—sometimes there's a tendency to present these as if they are a new thing. I think seeking out traces of ourselves in the past is important. I just so happened to be at the Potter's House in Adams Morgan a few weeks ago and I was surprised to find the volume of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. I’m also curious to go back and look at novels and essays—things I’ve read in the past where I wasn’t looking for it [Nature]—and look at it with new eyes. There’s a lot of nature in The Color Purple, Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
What are some outdoor issues that are important to you? I think increasing the accessibility of our national parks is imperative—not only as places for outdoor recreation but as places for learning. When I was living in Alaska I used to say I don’t understand how all of the kids in Alaska don’t grow up to be scientists because nature is everywhere! I was never really excited about science when I was growing up but national parks do a good job of contextualizing it. They bring it to life in ways that would be hard to do in a classroom. When I think of outdoor issues that are important I also think of things that disproportionately impact people of color like access to clean drinking water, climate change, environmental justice and protecting vulnerable communities. That’s why we need more carpools to the trail!