No one in my family has ever been accused of being outdoorsy—especially me. Though I am partial to leopard-print stilettos, I use a Japanese mascara made with beeswax, and my manicurist knows that Marabou is my favorite pink polish (even if it is named for an ugly stork). Growing up, there were no trips to the lake, no campouts, no kayaking down wild rivers. I was raised to believe that communing with nature was something you did either inadvertently, like brushing up against poison ivy, or from the safety of your car, like feeding pellets to greedy ostriches at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, near Glen Rose. And I never did understand why, when it came to vacations, other families eschewed staying in hotels with room service and shopping at air-conditioned megamalls in favor of sleeping on the ground, eating canned chili, and pooping outdoors.
So when a friend recently invited me on a girls’ camping trip to Enchanted Rock, I accepted with more than a little trepidation. With no outdoor skills to speak of, I was seized with fear that my inbred ineptitude would ruin the trip—or endanger my life.
Luckily, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department puts on a crash course in Wilderness 101 twice a year for indoorsy city girls like me: the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshop. The program offers a range of classes—everything from land navigation and plant ID to muzzle loading and knife sharpening—and gives women a chance to learn new skills in a “nonthreatening” environment. (This seemed a bit sexist to me until I remembered the time a boyfriend tried to teach me how to change a flat tire—and I taught him how to never speak to me again.)
I arrived at the Texas 4-H Conference Center in Brownwood with a trunkful of borrowed gear and the absolute confidence of someone who has no idea what she’s doing. My cell phone had lost service some sixty miles back, and I was already twitchy with latte withdrawal. I tried to maintain a Girl Scout’s cheerful outlook. I wasn’t exactly roughing it, what with cafeteria-style meals and, more important, indoor plumbing. But my optimism vanished when I walked up to my cabin and was greeted by a mob of aggressive red hornets. I hightailed it back to my car. As I prayed to Saint Dominic, the patron saint of hapless campers who are under attack by a plague of insects, I noticed a small chip in my day-old manicure and cursed myself for not bringing along some nail polish. I began to realize this could be the longest 72 hours of my life.
Including myself, there were 68 eager students at BOW, and we all wanted to be Rhonda Esakov. An area chief hunter education instructor from Georgetown, Rhonda’s the kind of gal who goes out searching for untagged mountain lions for fun and uses a modified AK-47 to shoot deer. She handed me a pump-action shotgun, and even though it was a training model, my sudden and overwhelming urge to aim it at something was all too real. But before we got into the finer points of killing defenseless animals, we needed to learn a few other things. Like how to start a fire using a magnesium bar and some dryer lint and how to get into a watercraft with a firearm, both being skills I never knew could come in handy.
For the next lesson, Rhonda announced that she had gone hunting that morning and shot a beautiful buck but that he had darted off and we needed to find him. Out we went into the scratchy brush to track the blood trail. As I tiptoed around all the “roasted peanuts” on the ground, a thirtysomething mother of three from Schertz called out excitedly. We assembled around a rock splattered with a bright-red concoction of glycerine, milk, and food coloring. I felt like an idiot: I thought we were looking for the real thing. “Likely a lung shot,” my classmate said proudly, remembering what we’d learned earlier—and I’d already tried to forget—about effective shot placement.
I scrunched up my nose, and we continued to bob and weave through the bushes and trees till we found Rhonda’s “kill.” Though it was just a pile of deer hides with a pair of strategically placed antlers, I felt sorry for the poor soul and decided I’d rather not annihilate any of God’s creatures. Except for those demonic red hornets.
Of all the leisurely outdoor pursuits I was hoping to learn at BOW, fly-fishing struck me as the least offensive and most romantic (Brad Pitt can help me out of my waders anytime). Casting requires gracefulness and patience, both qualities I have. Or had. After standing in a sunbaked field for more than an hour, flicking a nine-foot rod back and forth with rote boredom, I felt like a marathoner in the Sahara. With visions of spawning rainbow trout in my head, we finally trotted down to Lake Brownwood. But it was more than ten feet low and was the aesthetic opposite of the babbling Montana brooks in my A River Runs Through It dreams.
My instructor, an expert angler from Sweeny named Skipper Kessler, tied on a hook for me, and I stepped to the waterline. I pointed the rod down, then whipped it back and watched as my loop unrolled and the fly alighted . . . on a cracked oyster shell that was sticking up out of the mud a foot from my soggy Nikes. Skipper reminded us that when it comes to throwing flies, it’s not about distance—it’s about accuracy. I had neither. I got set to cast again, but there was a kink in my leader. The business end of my line was flailing in the wind, and I grabbed for it like it was a falling knife. The hook caught my finger. Skipper’s eyes went big. “Well,” he said, “at least you can say you caught something.”
By the end of the weekend, my luck had turned, and I was experiencing the euphoric relief of a survivor who had lived to tell tales of her courage. I felt a heady rush of achievement as I ticked off a mental checklist of my new abilities: I know how to dig a cathole. I can pick out the Pleiades in the night sky. I’ve called a screech owl. I can practically pirouette in a kayak. Plus, I’ve gone three days without checking a single email or wearing eyeliner, which I can’t say I’ve done since middle school. As I threw my muddy shoes in the trunk, I saw that my manicure was utterly wrecked. I hadn’t even noticed.
For more information about the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshop, visit tpwd.state.tx.us/learning/bow.