Outdoor privilege. A woman sitting on rocks on a peak of a mountain

words by Lynn Lieu. Photo by Kimberly Lieu Kulak Photography ::

I was around 5 years old when I experienced my first stressful situation.

I remember staring at the washing machine for the entire hour it ran. The hum. The rumble. The repetitive beating of the cycle. The anxiety that came with not knowing whether he would be okay. Then that final bzzzz the normally obnoxious buzzer, which signaled relief.

Lynn as a young girl holding a stuffed animal

My childhood consisted of enjoying the big world of imagination. Photo courtesy of Lynn Lieu

It was all over.

He was clean: my best friend, my adventure buddy, my teddy bear. Clean from building the most epic mud pool any backyard sandbox has ever seen.

I went outside a lot as a child — it just wasn’t anywhere farther than my backyard.

“Going outside” in my early years meant an hour or two of messing around behind our house while my mom prepared dinner. “Outside” was a place for wizarding, fighting monsters, and building forts with amazing pools. It never meant activities like backpacking, climbing, or hiking.

The gift of indoors

My parents worked hard to give me the privilege of “indoors.” They came to the United States in the ’70s from a war-torn Vietnam where plumbing was a luxury and living outdoors wasn’t a choice — it was often the only option.

For them, coming to America meant a brighter future for their kids, one in which washing a teddy bear is the most stressful event of the week. As children, they never dreamed of extravagances like pre-prepared food, washing machines, and countless hours of television programming.

The indoors was the gift.

The “great outdoors” was just a phrase. Going outside recreationally, or having outdoor privilege, was an idea I didn’t understand until later in life.

Embracing the outdoors

Last year I met a boy. This boy, I thought at the time, might be trying to kill me.

On our first date, he took me to what my indoor-loving family would call a “remote location,” one with “limited cell service,” he said.

That location? Alabama Hills, nestled at the foot of Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierras of California. It was once a place for Westerns where the likes of John Wayne and Gene Autry roamed. Its landscape is strewn with tall, millions-of-years-old rock structures protruding out of the ground a climber’s paradise.

It’s also the place that I found the next chapter in my life’s book of adventures.

For the first time, I confronted a 90-foot outdoor wall. Halfway up, I started feeling the same worry that brought me back to the hum, rumble, and repetitive beating of the wash cycle that stressful moment where I wasn’t sure of the outcome. But as I did at age 5, I rode it out, and I finished my first climb.

In that year and a half, I spent nearly every weekend outside climbing, camping, hiking, and, ultimately, finding myself.

Enjoying outdoor privilege, a woman rock climbs in Alabama Hills

One of my first sport climbing leads was the Shark Fin in Alabama Hills. Photo by Ektos Unlimited

Understanding outdoor privilege

It’s strange to think I can power myself to travel to distant locations and see what the world is like when left to its, and my own, devices. When you’re standing 100 feet off the ground with the crux above you and only one direction to go, it puts things into perspective. It defines you in many ways.

At the end of each climb, I realize just how lucky I am to have the privilege to be where I am. To be able to pick where I want to go and how to get there it’s not an opportunity everyone is afforded. And I don’t take my outdoor privilege for granted: I pick up a bag of trash at crags I climb at, respect the local wildlife, and stand up for public lands.

When I tell my mom about my adventures, she makes the same face as when I showed her my mud-covered bear: that “what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you” face. But I saw that her expression wasn’t one of disappointment or disapproval. It was expressing a difference in lifestyles, a difference between her “indoor” and my “outdoor” privilege.

And that outdoor privilege I’m afforded means celebrating the gift of both the indoors and the outdoors that my parents fought so hard to provide.

Everything my parents provided for me indoors gave me the ability to appreciate everything outdoors. While luxury for my mom was air conditioning and modern technology, luxury for me was not having to worry about any of those things and being able to go outside — for fun.

My backyard is now a whole lot bigger.