Lately, I'm finding adventure photos on Instagram so peaceful and perfect that they border on numb. They're carefully curated, deliberately hashtagged, arranged to achieve an expected aesthetic: For example, a fit guy clad in trendy layers, pouring just-right French press into a bespoke titanium tumbler at a pristine campsite.
They're the stuff of dreams, sure, but also can feel pretty unrelatable to those of us who haven't given it all up for the #vanlife.
When Insta starts to either bore or infuriate you, though, you can turn to Gina Danza.
Yes, her account (@wildginaa) is brimming with familiar images; feet sticking out of tents, and arms stretch skyward from granite ridgetops. But this 29-year-old New Jersey native isn't your typical, airbrushed influencer.
She's not a professional athlete, and she didn't grow up in a Colorado mountain town with a yerba mate straw in her mouth. She's a normal woman with a regular job living in a big city (currently New York), scrambling as far as necessary to get her outdoor-adventure fix when she's got a day off.
And when she stops to document said day, it's not to include a quasi-spiritual quote misattributed to the Dalai Lama. It’s to authentically reflect on her experiences in the outdoors.
Danza's never self-important, and she's more straight-up than serious. She invites followers in with transparency and humor (and the occasional splash of encouragement from Champagne Papi). She does it because it took her so long to really get outside that it's become something of a mission for her to make sure you do, too. Especially if you don't fit the mold of the "average" hiker.
Which is how she might be described by some if they focused only on her biracial heritage (Italian and black), her gender, her job (she's a television producer) and her background – an East Coast childhood spent not on weekend camping trips with the family, but instead competing in track and field.
The first runner's high she can remember was acquired in the woods, while trying out for middle school cross-country, but it wasn't until she started at Pennsylvania's East Stroudsburg University, adjacent to the Pocono Mountains, that she started hitting trails for fun.
Fresh air is where she found her friends, connected more deeply with her fiancé, discovered her post-collegiate fitness and still faces her fears today. She puts her proud achievements out there right next to some "very clumsy and very embarrassing" moments without self-consciousness, and in doing that she empowers other fringe and fledgling adventurers.
"People are going to want to do the same thing that you just did, and you can't be like 'I climbed this mountain' and not give facts about what happened," she laughs.
Danza is effusive about her passion for spending time outside, quick to trade anecdotes and laugh at pitfalls, and her Instagram posts are more you-and-me than us-versus-them. But there's an earnest side to her, too. "I'm trying to make the outdoors more relatable to the normal person, especially people of color, because there's always the stereotype," she says. She pauses, remembering the flashpoint that inspired her Instagram account.
She was at an outdoor goods retailer last summer, checking out climbing harnesses. She had never done it before, but was thinking purchasing the harness would prompt her to start. "In the store, a non-colored person walked up to me and started a conversation, and at the end of it, he's like, 'Well, don't take this wrong, I hope you enjoy it, but normally I don't see black people in here and they normally don't climb or hike.' That's what he told me. And from that moment on, I was like, 'This is ridiculous – like, really?'”
Her experience at most outdoor stores has also put her in the minority as a woman: “I see, like, 90 percent men, too, and I feel like, 'Why am I walking into this area where I feel pressured?' you know, or feel weak. I don't want to feel that way.” From that moment on, she’s wanted to help make the outdoors more diverse.
Danza turned to social media to seek support. She wasn't exactly surprised by what she found: in a word, homogeneity. Beyond a few key accounts, like @unlikelyhikers and @blackgirlstrekkin, "a lot of these brands are not featuring people of color; I still see the tall, skinny blonde girl ...”
So she began telling her own stories.
Danza promotes an agenda of accessibility, sustainability, affordability and responsibility. She'll show how easy it is to, say, swap a plastic baggie for a reusable one to carry your trail mix while you're working your glutes on nature's treadmill.
In fact, she's about to launch a video series of outdoor-fitness routines that adapt what she's learned from collegiate workouts and kinesiology classes to time on the trail. (Think overhead log presses and stair-climber sessions with a weighted pack.)
"I want people to have a full mind-and-body experience with their hike," Danza says.
There's wisdom in everyone's experiences, Danza stresses. Her outlook – literal and philosophical – is one of many, and it's not superior. It isn't a competition. Despite the DMs pouring in thanking her for her inspiration, "I'm not Queen G of the Mountain, you know?" she laughs. "I'm just up here trying to get this view." Hiking is as much education as recreation. Contribute to the conversation. Be secure in your right to discover. Lace your boots, buckle your pack.
"What is familiar isn't always good," she posted recently, her hand shielding the spring sun from her eyes as she gazes across the valley below Storm King Mountain, "and what is foreign isn't always dangerous."
All Photos By Sam Hong
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