“Yo Cuento Outdoors”
Latino Outdoors is full of passionate individuals all with a common goal … La Tierra Madre! An international volunteer Latino-led organization changing the outdoor narrative. They are focused on expanding and amplifying the Latino experience in the outdoors; providing greater roles for leadership, mentorship, professional opportunities and serving as a platform for sharing cultural connections and narratives that are often overlooked by the traditional outdoor movement.
When I joined Latino Outdoors as an Ambassador for Texas three ago I remember thinking what a great opportunity it would be to have an outdoor Latino presence in the city of San Antonio. Little did I realize how much of a positive impact this organization would have on my soul . A few months later I was invited to the first Latino Outdoor Leadership Campout in California at Malibu Creek State Park.
This was the first time I would meet my LO Familia. It was also the first time I formally met Mr. Richard Rojas. He is Chairman on the Latino Outdoor Advisory Board and a (Retired) District Superintendent for the California State Parks. His story is beautiful, inspiring, and doesn’t stop there. He is a pioneer and a very lucky Latino. Lucky to have lived a dream many of us are just learning about. “Vamos afuera con Mr. Richard A. Rojas, Sr.”
- What is your earliest memory in the outdoors?
Growing up, my family lived in a quiet working class neighborhood in Southeast Los Angeles County. We had a large backyard with apricot, peach and plumb trees, an expansive lawn and my favorite, an abandoned chicken coop that my brother and his friends converted into a fort! As a kid, I remember looking up at the tall fruit trees and telling myself that I would climb and conquer them one day, which I did. I quickly learned that the view of the world was a lot different the higher up you sat or stood. Something I would never forget, especially leading hikes and ski treks as a park ranger in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Digressing, my first memory of being in the mountains was at about two years old. My parents took my older brother David, my older sister Linda and me on a trip to the Angeles National Forest to play in the snow for the day. Not long after that first trip, my parents planned a trip for us all to visit Yosemite National Park. Reinforced over the years by family stories and photos, our family’s trips to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, the California North Coast Redwood State Parks and Lake Mead National Recreation Area impressed upon me the importance of caring for and enjoying these very special places.
- How did you decide on the Outdoors as a career?
When I was about eleven years old, our growing family needed a larger home. Instead of moving, our parents built a big new house in our large back yard and rented our smaller house to tenants. One of our first tenants was a young father, his wife and their young family. The father’s name was Bill and his wife’s name was Diane. Bill was quite an outdoorsman who loved to hike, camp, hunt and work on cars and build things. My brother David and I used to help Bill with his various projects, including building a small runabout boat in his garage!
On my first camping trip with Bill and Diane near Little Rock Dam in the eastern Angeles National Forest, a US Forest Service (USFS) ranger stopped by our camp and visited. It was deer hunting season, so the ranger was patrolling the campground and checking hunting licenses and talking to campers about hunting safety. I remember that morning vividly. The ranger was a tall man, dressed in a USFS tan shirt and green pants, wearing a ball cap with the USFS logo. When the ranger drove up to our campsite, he waved to us, got out of his truck and said “Howdy!”
Bill welcomed the ranger and asked him if he would like to join us for breakfast? He replied, “No thank-you”, but said that he wouldn’t mind taking a break and sitting with us for a few minutes. The ranger reached for his green colored Aladdin-Stanley stainless steel thermos from the seat next to him and then joined us at the camp table. Bill and the ranger talked for what seemed like forever about deer hunting, fishing, favorite types of rifles and fishing gear before I jumped in and was able to ask the ranger a couple of questions.
With a lot of excitement, I was able to ask the ranger two questions. First, I asked him to describe for us his daily routine. And second, I asked him to share his favorite part of the job. With a big grin on his face, the ranger proceeded to share with us how he started his day from his office, which was located next door to his home. While there, he would usually check reports for lost or missing persons, reports of any hazardous conditions within his patrol area, and then he’d submit his patrol plan to his dispatcher so that they would know where he should be throughout the day. A day on patrol consisted of checking camper registrations, inspecting fishing and hunting licenses, cleaning restrooms, fixing signs, fences and camp furniture and meeting and greeting forest visitors.
The ranger’s answer to my second question really surprised me. He said his favorite part of his job was talking to campers and hunters like us, sharing stories and making sure that our visit to the forest was safe and memorable. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a forest or park ranger. Years later, my wife gave me a green colored Aladdin-Stanley stainless steel thermos for my promotion to supervising ranger. And whenever I was on patrol and approached a family or kids in the park, I would always greet them with a friendly “Howdy!” Just ask my kids, they know.
- How do you maintain a connection to Nature?
I enjoy hiking, camping and riding my hybrid bike whenever I can. For the last 24 years, my wife and I have hosted an annual family and friends group campout. It all began when we invited a few high school friends and their families to camp in our backyard when we lived at El Capitan State Beach. Soon, our group grew from 20 to 100 campers and so we would do our best to reserve group campsites along the Central Coast large enough to accommodate our ever-growing group of campers.
Over the years, it has been wonderful watching our children, their cousins and the children of our close friends grow up and learn to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors. On every campout, I arrange for our group to participate in a park clean-up project. Not only does the park staff appreciate our volunteer help, but our young campers and their parents have learned how important it is to become good park stewards. Now that my wife and I have five, soon to be six grandchildren – our lives our always full with new outdoor adventures and excitement!
- What is a fond memory in nature for you?
As a journey-level park ranger in my mid-twenties I was offered a transfer from the beaches of Orange County to Donner Memorial State Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time, California State Parks was about to enter collective bargaining and employee transfers were to be based solely on seniority in grade. With only five years experience under my belt, I knew it would be a long shot to even be considered for the job.
As luck would have it, after my interview, I learned that my reputation for working hard and my desire to learn everything I could to be a good ranger overshadowed my novice mountaineering skills and experience. So, during my time in the Sierra’s I challenged myself to learn as much as I could about alpine mountain hiking and camping, fishing, snow-shoeing and Nordic skiing. Our Sierra District Parks were popular with visitors, especially for the challenging and adventurous hikes, skiing, snowshoe and winter camping programs we led as park rangers.
During my last winter at Donner, I volunteered to co-lead one of the most difficult treks we offered to visitors in the District – a Nordic ski hike to Schallenberger Ridge. Schallenberger Ridge is located southeast of Donner Lake at 7,169 ft. and is named after Moses Schallenberger, an 18 year old member of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy immigrant party who survived the winter alone in 1944 at Donner Lake, two years before the ill-fated Donner Party arrived there. And, while the ridge is only 1,200 feet above Donner Lake (5,965 ft.), in mid-winter the area surrounding the ridge is known for steep avalanche chutes and icy cornices along its peak. One the sunny winter day we led our hike, it was 32 degrees, sunny, clear and there was an 8 foot snow pack at lake level, which meant we would encounter icy footing along the sun exposed ridge top.
Ranger Bob Burke, an experienced Nordic and Alpine skier would lead the hike and I would serve as sweeper, the person responsible for making sure that none of our hike participants were left behind. As luck would have it, I was the least experienced skier on the trek! And, as Ranger Bob and the eight other skiers on the hike zipped up the steep trail using their finely tuned herringbone technique, I trailed behind making slow progress using more of an ugly duckling waddle than that of a seasoned master-skier. Lucky for me, Ranger Bob and the rest of the group were more excited about me tackling the hike and making it to the ridge summit safely than they were about me having great skills and decades of experience on them.
I arrived at the top of Schallenberger Ridge about 20 minutes behind the rest of the group who were just finishing up lunch. Before I could sit down and take a much-needed break, Ranger Bob and the others greeted me with a slap on my back and a sincere congratulation for reaching Schallenberger Ridge summit safely. As I briefly sat to eat my lunch and drink some water, I was amazed at the incredible view visible from high above Donner Lake. The early afternoon air was crisp and clear and it seemed as though I was sitting on top of the World.
In that moment, the view of the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains that stretched from Donner Pass on the west all the way to the Nevada border on the east made me appreciate the hardships that the early emigrant families endured to make the journey to California for a better life. It also reminded me of my own childhood, sitting atop our family’s apricot tree and seeing our backyard differently for the first time. For four and a half years, I hiked, climbed, drove around and skied the area at the base of Schallenberger Ridge.
It wasn’t until I sat atop the ridge that I realized that I wanted to be more than just an average park ranger. I wanted to be a leader, an advocate and an ambassador for other kids like me and families like mine who grow up in the City and might not ever experience the wildness of nature like I experienced that day. Conquering Schallenberger Ridge was an epic moment and motivated me to dedicate my career to improving diversity, equity and inclusion for State Park visitors and staff for the rest of my career.
- What advice would you offer to a poc in the outdoors?
Shelton Johnson, an African-American National Park Ranger who currently works at Yosemite National Park is probably best known by most Americans for inviting Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gale King to camp at Yosemite NP for their first time. But, what many do not know is that Ranger Shelton is an incredible naturalist, a history buff (a Buffalo soldier re-enactor) and an accomplished photographer too. He often reminds young people of color to learn about, appreciate and hold sacred places like Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and other wonderful national parks and wild places, as they make up the fabric of our American legacy too.
I could not agree with Ranger Shelton more. As young Latinos/as begin to discover the wonders on our National, State, Regional and local area parks I encourage everyone to read about their histories — how did they become protected and what are the stories that these special places tell us about our own contributions to America’s past? Knowing a park’s history will also give you insight on why visitors are so eager to visit and explore the park themselves.
If exploring the outdoors or a new park on your own is outside your comfort zone, then I encourage you to join one of the many outings hosted by Latino Outdoors, your local chapter of the Sierra Club, County or City Park and Recreation Departments or many REI and local outdoor gear retailers. You can also find many great books on hiking and camping in your area by searching Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and other online resources.
Lastly, if you are curious at all about learning about jobs or careers in the outdoors, you have to look no further than the amazing people who work and volunteer for Latino Outdoors like Alfonso Orozco, Michele Pinon, Laura Nava, Juan Telles, Andres Esparza and Guadalupe Sotelo. I bet if you send any of them a DM via our LO Facebook or Instagram pages, they will respond to you with incredible enthusiasm and helpful insight. It’s no secret that our LO volunteers and staff inspire me every day to do everything that I can to support their work in developing our next generation of Latino/a outdoor leaders!
- Thoughts, ideas or reflections?
One of my best supervisors and career mentors was Steve Treanor. He graduated from the University of California and by all rights should have been a famous attorney, university professor or theologian. But instead, he became a California State Park Ranger, eventually promoting to become the Southern Division Chief for California State Parks before retiring.
Steve often ended our meetings with a thoughtful comment or word of advice. One I think of often is “Dare to be mediocre.” In other words, never settle for average when you know you can be amazing. The hourglass of time passes way too quickly so do not waste a single minute. “Let’s do this!” — Estamos aqui!
Thank you Richard for continuing to inspire our community with what you have accomplished in your field. Your love for the outdoors is totally obvious in the way you share your stories. I remember when I heard you speak at the first LO campout and thinking “what a lucky man”! LO would not be the same without you and you are right … Estamos aqui!!
Josie Gutierrez~Program Coordinator San Antonio, TX