#DefendersofFun is a look into the adventurous lives of outdoor advocates working to better the outdoor community and protect the wild places we have fun in. Their stories, their words. Share your outdoor story on Instagram @DefendersofFun #DefendersofFun.
“The apartment was a two bedroom, but six of us lived there. My sister and I would sleep on a bunk bed in what should have been the dining room, and my mom—who came there from Puerto Rico—slept in the living room. It didn’t seem weird at the time!
I was born in the Bronx but we didn’t stay there long. We moved four times within Danbury, Connecticut, while I was growing up, but we started on Main Street—a lot of people from different cultures start there when they come to the city. There was this place called Rodger’s Park nearby that had community baseball fields, and our school was across the street. The principal knew my mom and grandma worked—dad wasn’t around— so he would meet us in the morning and walk with us over to school. My older sister and I would chill with our art teacher after class. We were able to take advantage of these places, and they felt like an extension of our small apartment.
Behind where we lived there was a Laundromat. It was huge—there were probably 60 machines in there. The owner was our landlord, Sal, and I think he really loved our family because he gave my mom, grandma, and aunt some work and let us kids use the parking lot as a backyard. Even though we didn’t live in a neighborhood, the people who lived around us made it feel like one.
When the school year ended, my sister, my cousin, and I would go back to the town where my mom was raised in Puerto Rico and spend the summers there with my grandma. We would be amazed that all our aunts and uncles had grown up in this one-room place. All the neighborhood kids would be so excited that we were coming. We didn’t need screens or air conditioning. We only had a spigot with cold water—but, let me tell you, we were begging to get thrown in that cold water at the end of the day!
When we traveled around the island, we walked—my grandma did not want to get into a car. Sometimes we’d be like, “It’s getting dark, someone will offer us a ride home, right?” But nope, grandma would make us walk. Believe me, she’s the reason why I like to walk such long distances now. We’d wake up early, set up for the day, pack our food—when I meet people from Latin countries, they ask why it’s called “camping” or “hiking.” For them, walking and sleeping outside, it’s just a way of life.
“I think I reminded people what a joy it was to be out there snowboarding, how f*cking cool it is to go outside.”
When I was in my mid-20s, my girlfriend took me snowboarding for the first time. I rode my first chairlift in Maine, up this mountain that was maybe 4,000 feet, but to me that was really high. I’m sitting there, staring behind me on the lift at how high we’re going, looking so cheesy—the people behind me were probably like, “What is he looking at?” I think I reminded the people I was there with what a joy it is to be out there snowboarding, how f*cking cool it is to be able to go outside and do this.
The people I started snowboarding with back at home would say, “Man, Jorge, you’re reminding me how much fun it is to drive three hours up to Vermont and call out of work. It’s like we’re playing hooky from school again!” My first time flying out West, my first time being at this high elevation, my first time seeing an actual ski mountain bowl, I was 28 years old.
I met people from all over the country at this ski share house I was part of on the East Coast, and I ended up running a race in San Francisco with some of them and I fell in love with the area. I’d been with the same company since I was 19 years old—I’d started out changing oil and washing construction equipment—so I sought a job with them on the West Coast, and within a month I was making the move.
A friend of mine told me to check out the November Project to find new friends. This is how I was introduced to my good friend Andy Cochrane and more than 100 other people that just wanted to get outside, people who were different than me in so many ways, but who were all willing to wake up early and workout and find similarities in one another.
Andy started inviting me on a lot of his trips. One time he invited me to camp out on Angel Island, but I didn’t bring a tent or sleeping bag, so I spent the night trying to sleep really close to Andy—this guy I just met—for warmth. One time he invited me backpacking. I’d never packed a backpack before, I have a lot of questions, and Andy’s advice is: “Pack it the way you think you want to pack it.” It was great advice, really, because you realize pretty quickly if you packed too much and you never make that mistake again. In the span of about a year, Andy and I didn’t spend more than two weekends without doing something outdoors together. I think Andy saw something in my reaction to the outdoors and it energized him, kind of the same effect I had on people snowboarding.
“I didn’t bring a tent or a sleeping bag, so I spent the night trying to sleep really close to this guy I just met for warmth.”
I stopped working for the company that I’d worked for since I was 19. I had no plan, no idea what I’d do next. On a trip with Andy, he shows me this video called “Mile for Mile,” and it’s a film from Patagonia about trail runners. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I realized around the same time that I needed to get a job that was going to put something in my bank account. I’d scoop ice cream or work at a grocery store or something, it didn’t matter.
So, I walk into the Patagonia store. The dude at the counter has a beard like me, so we start talking and he tells me they’re hiring. I get called in for an interview, and I’m so embarrassed by some of the questions—like how much environmental work have I done? What do I know about Patagonia?
I was just honest with them. I told them where I was from, how it’s taken me so long to be introduced to the outdoors, how I’m learning that a “compost” isn’t just something that rich people with big homes have, and how now that these things have been put in my path I know it’s inevitable that they’ll be part of my life. That Patagonia store was hosting a beach clean-up that Monday, and I felt compelled to go. I show up and start talking to random people—these are all people who work at the store, but I don’t know that yet—about my life and my story and how stoked I am on the outdoors. I end up getting a flat tire, and while I’m standing there, who just happens to be walking toward me but the manager of the store and his baby. I got a call to come work there about a week later.
My coworkers are all really involved in their communities and with different causes, and I’m not quite sure what my thing is yet. Fast forward a year later, and and I form a relationship with this guy named Scott Briscoe—we’re both brown people in a store that gets a lot of customers that all look the same—and he travels to different schools and speaks to kids about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. I start realizing that I’ve been going on trips with Andy and our friends all this time, and I’d never taken the time to go, “Wait, everyone looks the same here except me. Why is that?”
“Their approach to a rainy day hike is the same one my family would have had—umbrellas.”
Scott ends up convincing me to apply to work with an organization called Latino Outdoors, and the founder, José Gonzalez, invites me to come about 30 minutes outside of the city for a meet up. I show up and it’s raining, and families start coming out of cars and buses and meeting at this market there, and suddenly I’m surrounded by aunts and grandmothers and teenagers and little kids, and they all remind me of home.
The funny thing is, they’re all carrying umbrellas. I’m sitting here in a rain jacket and waterproof pants thinking, “Son of a bitch. I feel like I need to tell them that I never used to own stuff like this! It’s only because I work at Patagonia!” Their approach to a rainy day hike is the same one my family would have had. It was a reminder to stop overthinking stuff—it’s a front country hike, and, shit, it’s just a little water!
I started thinking about what makes Latino Outdoors different, and I realized that it’s because we aren’t making people sign forms and do trail clean ups. We’re just reintroducing them to the outdoors, and letting them naturally fall in love with and want to protect these places.
For you and me, it’s easy to make connections and find a couch to crash on if you want to go hiking in Utah. But other people don’t have those connections in their lives. It’s so easy to tell a father that he can reserve a campsite for $29, drive up to it, and spend the day fishing with his family there. It’s so easy to tell someone they can rent snowshoes for a long weekend for just $20. It took me until I was almost 30 to get introduced to the outdoors, and I want to understand why that is.
“It took me until I was almost 30 to get introduced to the outdoors, and I want to understand why that is.”
That’s why I applied for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—here I am filling out an application at 37 years old for an industry I was just introduced to a few years ago. I don’t have the experience, and I don’t have the money—it’s a $5,000 course, and that doesn’t include your first responder training, your flight, the money you lose by not having a job during that time.
NOLS ended up giving me a $4,100 scholarship. I leave for my training at the end of the month, and I found out the other day that the money I still owed was already paid in full back in February. My friends took up a collection and paid it for me without telling me. A few years ago, I was learning how to snowboard, and now I have this community doing these things for me, these people saying, “Jorge, we see you. We know the impact you’ll make one day, and we want this for you.” When you think you’re being unselfish, and then people do something like this for you, it grounds you. Man, I get really tied up by it.
I want to keep paying it forward. There are so many people who still need to be introduced to the outdoors—we can’t assume just because they aren’t out there that they decided not to go. I hope through NOLS I’ll be able to see what the obstacles are—maybe they’ll be clearer to me then. I want to show people that you don’t have to have thousands of followers on Instagram and go to the top of mountains—you can scale it back. You can take it to the ground level. You can appreciate it even more from there.”