Photos and Interview by Andy Cochrane
Eight years ago, I met Jorge Moreno, just a month after we both moved across the country to the Bay Area. I joined a running group, and he was the first person I said hi to, under the lights of a local track at six in the morning. His laugh and grin are infectious– it makes you feel welcome, even if you just showed up. Jorge loved to say “yes” to anything that would help him learn and grow and the rest of us learned to follow suit. Since that serendipitous Tuesday morning, we’ve been on dozens of adventures together, backpacking, trail running, biking and paddling in remote places around the country.
Oddly enough, both Jorge and I now reside in small towns in Wyoming, about three hours apart. He works at PGM ONE and is based in Lander, and my home base is in Jackson. Last year, right as fall was turning to winter–we made plans to reconnect on a three-day backpacking trip in the Beartooth Range of southern Montana, an easy half-day drive from Wyoming. The plan was simple – hike a loop, partially on trail and partially off-trail, giving us the space to trade stories, laugh about mistakes, and banter about future dreams. Our friend Connor, who we also met in the Bay, joined us last minute.
I left my apartment after work on Thursday, making a quick stop at the grocery store on my way out of town. The three of us shared pizza and beers that night, before getting up early the next morning to depart out for our trip. But instead of writing a trip report about our 50-mile jaunt through the woods, I want to share more about my friend, Jorge. He’s a role model and a leader in the outdoor community, yet he comes from a very different path. On our second night, we sat around a fire and reminisced about old memories– hiking trips in the Sierra, biking around the Bay, the coincidence of how we met, and watching each other grow up. Here’s a piece of that conversation.
What did ‘outside’ mean to you as a kid?
That word means something different for me now, but to help more people be comfortable outdoors, we shouldn’t put “the outdoors” on a pedestal. When we were young, we spent tons of time outside, in part because there was no room to be inside. We had no choice but to be outside. My grandma and my mom and my uncle would send us outside, but outside meant playing on the street. Football, racing around the apartment complex, wall ball on the side of the carwash, and a playground across the street. We spent a lot of time outside, just not in the woods or on trails.
What would you say was your first backcountry trip?
Probably an overnight hike in Big Sur in early 2014. That’s the first trip I showed up with my own things, like a tent we had bought for Coachella right before that. We hiked 7 miles and I definitely brought way too much. My pack was huge. I brought a speaker and was that guy on the trail playing Tycho. I learned quickly to pack light but, funny enough, even for the month-long trips that I guide, I still download songs on my iPhone for the kids. On really hard days I’ll play them some hits and it’ll blow their mind. Just a small thing that helps them a lot. The Big Sur trip was a lot of firsts, like my first fire not in a fire pit, sleeping in the backcountry, cooking a dehydrated meal and so on.
When did you start seeing inequities in the outdoors?
It wasn’t right away. Not long after that trip, I started working at an outdoor store, which gave me a new lens on the industry. I met all kinds of customers and connected with a lot of our partner organizations. That’s where I first heard of Latino Outdoors and was immediately drawn to it, realizing that there were people like me also getting into camping at the same time. I started asking questions and meeting Latino families, which helped me to understand why outdoor places didn’t feel available to them and to see the obvious disconnect. No one had to say “this isn’t for you” but the message was clear. You’re not welcome.
That’s when you got involved with Latino Outdoors?
Yeah, around then. A year after that first trip, I had some basic experience. I was comfortable setting up a tent, cooking food, and sleeping on the ground. Nothing crazy. I sent the organization a long email about my story and made it really clear that I wanted to get involved. The response came quickly: come join for a hike. I remember taking the bus out to a grocery parking lot in San Rafael, meeting a lot of families, and started to grow with the program. Since then, I’ve been an ambassador, helping bridge the gap between these outdoor spaces and people that didn’t feel comfortable outside. I started donating a lot of gear to families and helping lead monthly outings. A big turning point for me was when NOLS donated twenty Wilderness First Aid scholarships to help us lead safer and more responsible trips. That really opened the door for me to become a wilderness guide.
How soon after did you start thinking about working at NOLS?
Maybe a year later. I was still working at the store and we were hosting a NOLS alumni reunion. I got to watch a lot of their videos and meet a lot of graduates. And yeah, nearly all of these people were white, just like the customers of the store. I guess I just saw the opportunity–I had something to give to this group, to help bring new people into this world. At the time, I was doing a lot of personal backpacking trips in the Sierra and felt comfortable with the skills. And I had a lot of support, like you, telling me I could do this. So, I applied to be an instructor just over four years ago. I remember being worried about how I would pay for it but was fortunate to get a partial scholarship and, in April, went on the month-long instructor class. Right after that I was offered two trips that summer as a guide.
What made you feel like NOLS was the place to create more diversity in the outdoors?
I was very skeptical at first. I remember thinking that I would just use that month-long program to improve my skills and bring it back to Latino Outdoors, but I was surprised by all the work they put in, like partnerships with inner city schools around the country. I knew there was still room for a lot of progress, but, accepting that contract was the best decision I’ve ever made. It changed everything for me. My first NOLS contract was back in New York, where I grew up, where this whole journey started. I was in the Adirondacks, taking kids outside who grew up in places similar to where I grew up. I got to be the instructor that bridged that experience for those kids.
Very full circle. And you still stay in touch with that first group, right?
Three years later those kids reached out when they were about to graduate from high school and asked me to be their keynote speaker at their graduation. It was one of the biggest honors of my life.
I’m glad we’re all hiking together again. It feels full circle for us, too.
Absolutely. I did almost all of my first hiking and camping trips with both of you but haven’t seen either of you in a long time. You drove me to Lander when I moved here, so it’s fun to show you a new place that I’ve guided trips in and spent a lot of time in. Putting a backpack on and eating salami was what brought us together. I’ve missed sharing long miles on the trail together. We’re fortunate we have public lands like this to explore.