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Colorado outdoor culture romanticizes slumming it while signifying privilege

Cody+Braesch+climbs+a+V3-rated+bouldering+route+at+Horsetooth+Reservoir+January+2019.+Originally+from+Berthoud%2C+the+Braesch+started+outdoor+rock+climbing+in+2018.+%E2%80%9CI+haven%E2%80%99t+found+anything+else+that+pushes+me+so+hard+both+mentally+and+physically+as+rock+climbing%2C%E2%80%9D+Braesch+said.+%E2%80%9CIt%E2%80%99s+like+a+constant+battle+between+the+limits+of+your+body+and+how+far+your+mind+will+let+you+push+past+the+fear+and+uncertainty+of+what+could+happen.%E2%80%9D+
Cody Braesch climbs a V3-rated bouldering route at Horsetooth Reservoir January 2019. Originally from Berthoud, the Braesch started outdoor rock climbing in 2018. “I haven’t found anything else that pushes me so hard both mentally and physically as rock climbing,” Braesch said. “It’s like a constant battle between the limits of your body and how far your mind will let you push past the fear and uncertainty of what could happen.”

Growing up in Colorado, I became intimately familiar with the great outdoors. Weekends were for hikes, week nights were for biking and winters were structured around powder days and maximizing the use of a ski pass.

I never really understood the social capital that being from Colorado has until I went on a date to Rocky Mountain National Park my sophomore year of college. The guy in question was from out of state, and upon seeing my lack of branded outdoors gear, he made the comment, “Wow, I look like the local, and you look like a transplant.”

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Outdoor culture is full of social and cultural status symbols, including branded gear. People can be valued based on every aspect of their interaction with the outdoors, including the severity of their commitment to the sport. Oftentimes, these standards are set by a white and affluent upper middle class.

Colorado State University Assistant Professor of Sociology Jessie Luna researches “how cultural politics intersect with processes of capitalism to produce and naturalize social inequalities and environmental change,” her College of Liberal Arts biography reads.

In 2019, Qualititative Sociology published Luna’s research paper “The Ease of Hard Work: Embodied Neoliberalism among Rocky Mountain Fun Runners.” The paper focused on “embodied status politics among white runners in Boulder, Colorado,” Luna’s bio reads.

“I lived (in Boulder) for six years,” Luna said. “I was involved in many of the outdoor scenes: I’m a rock climber; I’m a cyclist; I go backpacking; I go hiking; I go running. I fit right in to Colorado outdoor culture.”

Luna observed fun runners and how they treat social capital while acknowledging that she herself fits some of these social markers.

“My parents took me backpacking when I was 3 years old,” Luna said. “I fit the mold of Colorado outdoor culture: I’m white and middle class; I’m highly educated and thin. … There’s these specific forms of identity that fit really neatly into that Colorado outdoor culture.”

Luna’s work delved into the social capital associated with thinness, habitus, ease, individualism and hard work. She found that the fun runner culture in Boulder placed value on how hardcore one could be in running. In addition, the culture treats certain levels of running as relatively easy.

One excerpt from the paper reads, “Fun runners often use sarcasm and humor to make fun of — or at least poke fun at — the stereotypes of extreme healthism and extreme athleticism in Boulder. This comes out frequently in the expression, ‘That’s so Boulder,’ which targets the over-the-topness that is seen as stereotypical of Boulder.”

Fun runs are very common in Boulder. They’re typically more casual group running events.

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One person Luna observed was a working-class woman who attended with earnest interest in running. She had all of the nice gear for more serious long runs, but because she wasn’t familiar with the culture, she brought this gear to the wrong event. Her peers used that gear for a longer weekend run, while the fun run was for pizza and beer that had been “earned” after participating.

Running is just one aspect of outdoor culture in Colorado, and its social standards aren’t unique to the sport. Climbers, skiers and even hikers all participate in this value system, albeit in varying ways.

More often than not, these status symbols exclude minorities from participating, especially people of color and people without the expendable income to participate. This even extends to how open spaces are used. A classic example is how people of color are viewed in open recreation spaces as opposed to white people.

Books like “Black Faces, White Spaces” by Carolyn Finney; “Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism,” by Robert Fletcher; and “The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden” by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow are examples among many that explore just how much outdoor culture exacerbates racial and economic disparities.

Aspen, Colorado, in particular is well known worldwide for the outdoor access it provides. This luxury outdoor experience comes at the cost of those working for their livelihood in that area.

Coloradans pride themselves on getting in their ski days, but in towns like Aspen, that comes at the cost of others. Immigrant communities have held Aspen up on their backs for decades with very little reward for their work.

“In a lot of these upper middle-class, white, outdoorsy cultures, …  it’s sort of made to be easy and fun,” Luna said. “At the same time, it’s more often easy and fun for people who have a particular class and usually white racial background. There’s also exclusionary practices that go on, that people who are taking part in it are often unaware of.”

There’s been a recent move to promote outdoor recreation for everyone, but at the same time, many outdoors-oriented people don’t want outdoor spaces to be crowded. They prefer getting out past the crowds to places where no one else goes. And there’s a tension there.

While there’s an overwhelming amount of information exploring the in- and out-groups of outdoor culture, it’s unlikely that Coloradans will cease taking to the wilderness to shred the slopes or summit epic peaks, and honestly, that may not even be the solution.

“(There are also) questions of who’s deciding the proper ways to use our outdoor spaces and the ways in which it that can reproduce certain inequalities,” Luna said.

Going on a hiking date and being confronted with my “Colorado-ness” has largely been a funny bad first date story more than anything else, but it also illustrates something bigger in the culture of my beloved home state. Belonging in Colorado is tied to a relationship with nature — and not just any relationship with nature but the right relationship with nature.

Reach Ivy Secrest at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest.

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About the Contributor
Ivy Secrest
Ivy Secrest, Content Managing Editor
Ivy Secrest is The Collegian's content managing editor. Secrest uses she/her/hers pronouns and has worked for The Collegian previously as a reporter and as life and culture director for the 2022-23 academic year. As a senior in the journalism and media communications department, Secrest enjoys reporting on environmental and social issues with a special interest in science communication. She is president of the Science Communication Club and is pursuing a minor in global environmental sustainability with hopes of utilizing her education in her career. Growing up in Denver, Secrest developed a deep love for the outdoors. She could happily spend the rest of her life hiking alpine environments, jumping into lakes, taking photos of the wildflowers and listening to folk music. She's passionate about skiing, hiking, dancing, painting, writing poetry and camping. Secrest's passions spurred her career in journalism, helping her reach out to her community and get involved in topics that students and residents of Fort Collins truly care about. She has taken every opportunity to connect with the communities she has reported in and has written for several of the desks at The Collegian, including news, life and culture, cannabis, arts and entertainment and opinion. She uses her connections with the community to inform both managerial and editorial decisions with hopes that the publication serves as a true reflection of the student body's interests and concerns. Secrest is an advocate of community-centered journalism, believing in the importance of fostering meaningful dialogue between press and community.

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    MaryMay 2, 2024 at 9:50 am

    Typical view of people that want to see the “ugly” in people. Not that classism does not exist. But it exists in many aspects of life. Anyone can be a snob and make comments about someone’s sneaker brand or make fun of them using coupons at dinner or that they don’t live in an affluent neighborhood. Stop making it sound like minorities can’t participate. They can and many people welcome any and all newcomers and are just excited that people are out in nature enjoying the surroundings.

    At the gym I go to we see all sorts of people in all sorts of areas of health. I see obese people and others with canes. Nobody cares. There are lots of smiles and encouragement to those who don’t “fit” the gym narrative. Again, we are just happy people have made a decision for health and to move their bodies. If anyone is making fun of them…..well, they are just an insecure, critical person in general.

    So, if you are finding these negative critical people in the hills of Colorado…..I just suggest you stay away from them. They will rot in their own venom eventually.

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