Photos and Interview By Shannon Corsi
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Huong Tran is an avid outdoorswoman and mountain biker. She is an active member of Salt Lake County's Search and Rescue team and works full time at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Tran's love of the outdoors started with a fourth-grade field trip and used a pair of rainbow ski boots. As an Asian-American, Tran overcame cultural barriers in learning to love the outdoors. Now the outdoors are an essential part of who she is. Between long shifts in the lab and emergency SAR missions, Tran finds time to connect with nature on her mountain bike, hiking or kicking back on the lake.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role within Salt Lake SAR.
Huong: My name is Huong Tran. I'm 28 years old. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and participated in outdoor activities from a young age.
For work, I’m a part of the Anatomic Pathology Division at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Essentially what I do is, I receive tissue biopsies, organs, legs, you name it and analyze them for the pathologists to make a diagnosis. I also assist in autopsies. That's been really interesting lately.
In regard to Search and Rescue, I’d actually dabbled in a couple of rescues prior to officially being on the team. It feels like you’re making a difference for the community and that is something I wanted to be a part of. So I joined the team and I absolutely love it. The people are great. The team is great. The work that we do is great. All of it feels really amazing.
What's your favorite new skill set that you've had to learn through SAR?
Huong: I think climbing! I had never climbed before. I mean, I've tried rock climbing, you know, at the rock-climbing gyms here and there. But with SAR, I had to learn rope technique, tying knots, how to utilize them, put them on your harness - I had never done any of that. I always had someone do it for me, so that was really cool learning all of that and super useful.
What do you find special about living in the Salt Lake City area?
Huong: The fact that the mountains are basically in your backyard. Say you get off of work at five and you're like, oh hey, I want to go bike, it’s absolutely doable. That’s what I love about Salt Lake City. Everything's so close and there's such a wide variety of terrain here.
What are some of the greatest challenges you've had to overcome living in SLC?
Huong: Honestly, being a minority here. Salt Lake City is predominantly white. Growing up, I didn't have a lot of ethnically diverse friends. I had some here and there, but for the most part, I was surrounded by white people. They’re who I looked up to all the time. Trying to remember my culture, my heritage and practice that on a daily basis was not a thing during my childhood.
As a minority, there are a lot of cultural barriers to overcome. There are certain standards that we are held to as Asian-Americans. You have to get perfect grades. You have to be smart, proper, dress a certain way, act a certain way. You have to fit this specific mold that everyone else has laid out for you and you have to be someone that everybody looks up to. Trying to fit within that mold and the expectation of being perfect is so incredibly hard.
Then on top of that, you're in America and in order to fit in, you have to be white. And if you’re not white, then you have to act white. You want to fit in with all these kids you’ve looked up your entire life, and all you want is to be their friend; to be accepted. So, you're trying to find this balance between who you are culturally, who your parents tell you to be, who society tells you to be and who you actually should be.
This idea also fits into the outdoor industry as well. It’s predominantly white. If you don't look a certain way, or do things a certain way, you don’t belong in the outdoors. I remember first getting into the outdoors. I felt so intimidated. I didn't know where to go and I felt like I was out of place. I didn’t know what trails to go on, how to get there, where to get outdoor equipment, and I got weird looks all the time. I think just even being a woman too, the culture isn’t friendly to minorities or women. It was especially hard finding a sense of belonging, not seeing people who looked like me within these outdoor communities.
Despite growing up in a mountain town, the only outdoor thing I did during my childhood was skiing and that was only because I went skiing on a class field trip in the fourth grade. I never got into hiking, biking, or any of those other activities until much later in life. My family was essentially focused on surviving, you know, we didn't have that luxury. And so, there wasn't any of that exposure until a lot later.
How do you find balance between your professional career and mountain pursuits?
Huong: I work 4-10s right now, from Tuesday to Friday. I work a pretty early shift, from 5am to 3:30pm. That leaves me quite some time for outdoor activities in the evenings and on the weekends.
For SAR, we're on call 24/7. Whenever we get a call out, we drop what we're doing and go. Typically, the rescues are during the evenings and the weekends. So, it's a matter of trying to squeeze in bike rides while managing SAR callouts. Most of the time, we hope that we don't get called out, but if we do, we get down as quickly as possible, rack our bikes, and then head to the staging area. Afterward, if the rescue finishes in a timely manner, we’ll just get back out again and resume our bike ride.
I think I've been really lucky to have people in my life who have been very supportive and flexible with their schedules. My friends and family understand what I do. My workplace understands what I do. And I am extremely grateful to have those people in my life.
What are your outdoor pursuits and hobbies?
Huong: So, I've actually only been biking for about three years. I got into it because of my friends. They've always loved biking and they encouraged me to get a bike too. So, I started out on a road bike then eventually upgraded to a mountain bike.
Road biking was fun. But mountain biking, man, that was really fun. Of course, it was scary and really intimidating at first, but I just jumped into the deep end and went for it. Prior to that, it was hiking, camping, spending time on the lake, that kind of stuff. Well, it still is.
What is one of your most memorable experiences with an outdoor activity?
Huong: The first time I went skiing with my family! The first time I had ever gone skiing was on a fourth-grade field trip with my classmates. I went home that day after having a blast skiing and told my parents about it.
My dad's all, you know what, that sounds fun, and that was extremely surprising. It was a huge thing coming from him; being a minority family with three kids, where my dad was first-generation and the sole breadwinner. Work was his life. His saying was, “Fun is trivial.” It was all work and no play. So, to hear him say that and for him to invest in renting skis and taking the entire family out was a huge, huge thing. We didn't really have much time to bond as a family, to go out and enjoy the outdoors. We didn't have that privilege. So, it was very surprising. It was fun. And it's one of the fondest memories I have.
We kept it up for a while. We got some stuff at the Desert Industries Thrift Store and it was great for a couple years. I had these rainbow ski boots that I thought were awesome. I was sporting them all the time as a child, it was just so fun. I remember going every other weekend for a while, and then it just stopped.
What role does nature play in your life and how do you choose to connect with nature?
Huong: I think first and foremost, nature is my way of relieving stress. A lot of the things that I do, especially being in the healthcare field within the pandemic is stressful. It’s really important to be able to find a way to release all the stress. Search and rescue can also be extremely stressful too. Just seeing nature, spending time outdoors, smelling the trees and hearing the sounds of the environment is just really good for my mental health.
As a SAR member, do you have any advice for folks heading into the outdoors this summer?
Huong: Bring water, bring water, bring water!! Also, bring proper gear, wear proper clothing, and proper shoes please. Salt Lake County SAR is volunteer based. We aren't getting paid for it. The amount of time and effort that we're putting into it is time that could be spent doing other things. We do care about you guys, but please, for your safety and ours, be prepared.
Again, bring water, and research the trails if possible. Alltrails.com and Trailforks are great resources! Bike shops, and outdoor gear shops have information as well! Or, if you don't know, reach out and ask me! I'll try to help research it for you.
A popular trail that we have here is called Mount Olympus. It's super steep. It's long, it's exposed and it gets really, really hot up there. Every single year we have people who are ill prepared and don't bring enough water. This typically leads to long and or overnight rescues on our part.
That's the biggest thing; please be safe, bring water and proper gear.