When Melissa Johanning began Womxn Who Wander in January 2018, she thought she’d either end up hiking alone or, at best, with a few friends. To her astonishment, 30 women showed up to that first meetup, eager to enjoy nature together.
“I was almost in tears because I was so excited,” Johanning said.
The mission of the group is to encourage women to enjoy the outdoors and to provide space for them to connect with other women. At minimum, hikes occur on a monthly basis on trails within a two-hour radius of St. Louis. They range in distance from just 1 or 2 miles to 10 — the longest the group has tackled so far. Although attendees are required to register on Eventbrite, every hike is free. The one exception so far was a paddleboarding excursion on Creve Coeur Lake this past summer, when women were asked to pay for their rental.
St. Louis women have responded positively to the group’s mission: Two years in, Womxn Who Wander has more than 600 members on its private Facebook page.
“I’ve had a lot of people say they now feel safer and more confident in their ability to enjoy the outdoors; it means a lot to them because they’ve had a desire to do this but weren’t sure how to go about it or were fearful of going alone,” said Johanning, a barefoot massage therapist and owner of Connected Barefoot Bodywork. “This provides an opportunity to have that outdoor experience with someone who is leading and guiding them. I hike every trail beforehand, so I have knowledge of the area.”
Johanning uses two phrases to describe the spirit of Womxn Who Wander. The first, “find your fit,” refers to the come-as-you-are nature of the group. “It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are about the outdoors, how athletic you are, your nationality, sexuality, financial status, or whether you were born a woman,” Johanning said. “If you identify as a woman and want to spend time outdoors, you are welcome to join us.”
Accessibility is an important part of living up to this philosophy. That’s one reason hikes are free. Johanning also brings along extra hiking boots for women who don’t have gear and is happy to pick up hikers or arrange carpools for women who can’t easily get to the meetup location. “We’ll try to make it happen for you,” she said.
The second phrase, “find your freedom,” refers to the informal nature of the meetups. Johanning wants hikers to feel free to stick with the group and engage in conversations or go at their own pace for quiet introspection. “Often when I’m in nature, I like silence and want to have time for myself, and I want other women to feel comfortable doing the same,” she said.
Before founding Womxn Who Wander, Johanning explored other groups. Most of these, she says, were focused out West in the mountains or desert. “Those are beautiful landscapes, but we have great outdoor options here, too,” she said. “One of the reasons we’ve been such a success in Missouri is we’re not intimidating to people who aren’t experienced in the outdoors. We don’t one-up each other on our experience. We honestly talk more about food than anything else.”
In 2019, Johanning began an ambassador program to be able to offer more hikes throughout the month, including some weekday options, and to offer more accessible hikes for individuals in wheelchairs or other physical limitations. There are currently four ambassadors in the St. Louis area; the application to apply is on womxnwhowander.com.
The ambassador program is also freeing up Johanning to plant the seeds of other Womxn Who Wander chapters in the Midwest. Other big plans include the group’s first weekend camping event, complete with workshops, yoga, art classes, and more, as well as more opportunities for additional outdoor activities, such as paddleboarding and possibly biking.
The soul of Womxn Who Wander, however, will remain hiking. “We like wandering,” Johanning said.
Although now an avid outdoorswoman, Johanning didn’t start her own foray into the outdoor world until she was in her early 20s, motivated by a time-consuming and stressful job. When she started branching out into things like tent camping, she was told she couldn’t do it, that she wasn’t strong or capable enough.
“That only made my desire grow, to prove to those around me and myself that I could do it,” she said. “My hope is that Womxn Who Wander empowers its members to find that strength within, to know that they are able, at any age, to try something new.”
Author: Stephanie Zeilenga is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.