When I first met Becky Short in April of 2001, she was leading a horse and talking 90-miles an hour about backpacking. She was dwarfed by the animal, but her skill in corralling that horse with a firm hand, and her ease in lassoing the nearby cowboys with a keen (and often uproarious) sense of humor spoke of an underlying, quiet self-confidence. I liked her immediately.
Yet Becky was not born into a family that kept horses, nor had she ever backpacked as a young woman. She was a painfully shy child among a brood of sisters that "did not do things that involved dirt or bugs." Bright, educated and single, Becky was the mode Texas woman of the new millennium. Although she was not a child of the outdoors, she had always loved to walk and be outside. But she craved more than the occasional walk in the park or stroll around an urban lake, so she joined the Sierra Club - an organization renowned for terrific outdoor activities.
When the opportunity arose for her first camping trip with the group, she borrowed a tent and sleeping bag, packed her warmest clothes and stopped at a sporting goods store to purchase an air mattress. The directions on the box were encouraging, "Self-Inflating." What could be better, a good night's sleep with no needs to exhale to dizziness while inflating the mattress?
The first night was miserable. As was the second. The ground was hard and cold, the mattress of little - if any - comfort. On the third night, Becky donned all her clothes, laid the sleeping bag on top of the self-inflating mattress for cushioning and shivered through another night in her tent. The next morning, while helping with dishes, she remarked to a friend that she was returning the mattress.
"That thing was not comfortable at all. The ground was just as hard with that mattress as it was without it," she said.
Thinking for a second her companion replied, "Maybe there is something wrong with the air valve." "What air valve?...."
Although the mattress was self-inflating, its valve was not self-closing. And its owner paid the price.
Becky Short's first encounter with an air mattress is typical of the dilemma many women face when they decide to peek outside the confines of the city. Historically, men are introduced to the outdoors through fathers or grandfathers who gained that knowledge through their fathers and grandfathers. For example, my grandfather taught my brother and I how to tie knots, use a surface bass plug, and to clean fish. My father taught us both to hunt ducks. My younger sister, however, never was invited to learn any of these skills. She typified the experience of so many women, who do not get the same opportunities for introduction to the outdoors as do their brothers and spouses. As a result, many (if not most) women enter adulthood having had little or no opportunity to learn outdoor skills as a child.
Now, husbands or boyfriends often try to introduce their wives or friends to fishing, hunting, camping and canoeing - an experience that is sometimes neither fun nor enlightening. Women often sense a presence of condescension in their male teachers and are often overwhelmed, frustrated and threatened in these teaching environments. In short, the dirt roads that lead to the outdoors are much narrower for women than they are for men. But there are new roads opening.
Perhaps a bit stiffer for her first camping experience, but not in the least deterred, Becky Short spotted one of those roads on a flight to Dallas. Looking down from her seat, not at the landscape below but at a magazine in front of her, she began thumbing through the pages of a July edition of the Southwest Airlines flight magazine. There she read an ad for a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program called, "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman." The next workshop was to be in Brownwood, Texas the following October. She immediately enrolled.
Becoming an Outdoors-Woman was the brainchild of a college professor. Christine Thomas, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, realized that there were few avenues for women to travel to the outdoors and that a feeling of being unwelcome in a man's world, a lack of outdoor education and few female role models were a significant road blocks on the few roads that did exist. Dr. Thomas developed the idea for a series of workshops aimed at providing instruction in a broad variety of outdoor programs in a non-threatening atmosphere. The first workshop date was set, and limited to 100 participants. She held her breath hoping that 100 women would enroll. The final count was closer to 200.
Texas Parks and Wildlife borrowed the Wisconsin model, developed a workshop agenda, enlisted voluntary instructors and reserved the Brownwood 4-H Center for an October 1993 workshop. The first TPWD workshop was a success and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) quickly became part of the agency's outreach strategy.
At her first BOW workshop in, October 1995, Becky Short enrolled in "water" classes; canoeing, kayaking and sailing. In each session, she tackled the task of learning with fervor and fell into the water at least once in each class. But despite her frequent dips in Lake Brownwood, she never felt as if she had failed or that others around her judged her as anyone but a woman trying hard to learn new skills. Becky was hooked.
While Becky was finding her sea legs, other women were learning to fish for bass and clean their catch. Still others were learning the basics of firearm safety, archery and outdoors-cooking from some of the best instructors in Texas. Perhaps of greatest importance was the fact that these classes were largely being taught by other women. As she saw these women teaching outdoor skills, Becky's thinking began to reflect that of most women who participate in BOW activities: "If she can do this, so can I."
At subsequent workshops, she took other classes in horseback riding, backpacking, camping, fishing, outdoor cooking, map and compass use, bird watching, and boat handling. She also met other women who had similar interests. After having had the opportunity to try a series of activities, Becky settled on kayaking, horseback riding and backpacking as her preferred outdoor experiences. She was off to the outdoors - and not looking back.
Within a matter of months, Becky was setting up her own tent, camping and backpacking throughout Texas. And she was doing it with other women she met in the BOW workshops. She can read a map and use a compass. Starting a campfire is not a problem and multi-day backpacking hikes through Big Bend are as comfortable to her as a walk around a local park. Moreover, the self-confidence she has gained carried over into other parts of her life.
"When I have days where traffic and work seem overwhelming, when I am tired and discouraged, I just remember that I am fully capable of taking care of myself. I have proved that to myself - by the skills I have learned, by the fact that I can camp, backpack for days and find my way across country. I can cook outdoors and strike my own tent. When I think about that, I know that whatever difficulties I face in my life, well - I can handle them. All of this came from my BOW experiences."
The Texas BOW program offers a wide assortment of outdoor activities to women throughout Texas. Virtually every area of the outdoors experience is taught at one or more of the BOW events each year. Each year, Texas women learn to fly fish, identify native vegetation, use a GPS receiver, canoe and kayak from some of the top outdoor professionals and volunteers in the state. In fact, a participant could attend all the workshops scheduled this year and never take the same course twice!
Each workshop is located at a different site during the year to provide women shorter travel distances and the opportunity to see different parts of the state. Cost of the three-day workshops is minimal, and includes all instruction, food and lodging. A few scholarships are available for each workshop, as well. For more information on schedules, class offerings and workshops sites, contact Ashley Mathews, TPWD BOW Coordinator (512) 389-8198 or visit the BOW website at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/education/bow
Oh, one other thing. Becky Short began her outdoor trek just six years ago by having the courage to venture outside her self to try new things. Today, she is one of the most knowledgeable and well-received backpacking teachers in the BOW stable of volunteer instructors teaching backpacking. She has hiked the Grand Canyon and Big Bend. She even owns her own kayak.
Not bad, Becky, not bad.