The Call of the Wild: An Alumna Pushes Herself to the Limits

by FAITH BRIGGS '06

Photos by Cam Mcleod

At the age of 16, I was hailing down a pickup truck on a dirt road in the mountains of Honduras, trying to get to a hospital because I had gotten parasites. I will spare the details. I still have the box from the pill I was given by Doctora Norma, whom I will always remember for saving me in her tiny office in Gracias, Lempira. She listened to my stomach, laughed a little bit about how this was an extreme case, and explained in Spanish that this one little pill would solve the problem. The box is pink. It has little green and blue worms all over. They have teeth and horns. The English translation on the box isn't a perfect one: "cure for the common earthworm." 

If it weren't for Hotchkiss, I would not have visited Honduras and, thus, would not have started down this path of adventure in the outdoors.

I started at Hotchkiss in 2003, a late admit over the summer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My parents were moving to another small town, I was tired of being the new kid, and then, I found Hotchkiss via Google. To this day, it's the most important discovery I have ever made.

At Hotchkiss, I learned the term "global citizenship." It was one of our community buzzwords at the time, and it changed my world. I left the country for the first time in my lower-mid year, the only one in my family to ever leave the lower 48. I spent two months with the American Field Service in Panama and fell in love with the opportunity to experience a new culture. The following summer, I volunteered in Honduras with Amigos de las Américas. This was one of the most incredible times of my life, albeit with a few difficult moments.

Twelve years later, the adventure bug that bit me at Hotchkiss brought me to Columbia Sportswear. For ten months in 2016-2017, I was one of Columbia's "Directors of Toughness," traveling the world and testing gear under every possible weather condition our beautiful planet could throw at us.

Columbia chose two people who had the will to test themselves and show the world that with the right gear, you can push yourself to the limits. They wanted people with proven grit, a love of the outdoors, and an ability to share stories with an audience. They weren't looking for a pro, I learned; they wanted someone who might shine under the pressure of tough circumstances in the outdoors. I applied intending to go on a fun interview, never thinking that I might be offered this dream job. Yet, as a lifelong runner, a media scholar, and a participant in the 2016 Find Your Park Expedition, a campaign that brings media influencers with content creation experience into America's national parks, I fit the bill. Along with my soon-to-be adventure partner, Mark James Chase from the United Kingdom, against our wildest expectations, we were chosen from more than 4,000 applicants. 

It has been an incredible year, and one of the most important lessons for me has been about the power of an introduction — not only the opportunity to try something new, but also having someone open their world to you. 

I grew up in the Hudson Valley, and while I always played outside, I didn't have a concept of "the great outdoors." My family did not have the means for vacations. Wilderness, mountains, rivers, canyons and deserts were places not in my purview. They were places you read about, inaccessible places. At Hotchkiss, I was afforded the opportunity to travel, my first introduction. These faraway places became accessible. I began to understand myself in a new context and to form a new definition of community. My experiences complicated my understandings of race, class, socioeconomic background, and religion. My sense of belonging expanded.

After Hotchkiss, I attended Yale University and majored in African American studies and film studies. I've always been drawn to media because of the importance of representation. From filming a documentary in rural Ghana to working for author James McBride and then joining the Discovery Channel, everything I've done post-Hotchkiss has been fueled by a desire to diversify the images that exist in our shared mainstream imagination. It is hard to imagine ourselves in a place where we've never seen anyone that looks like us. When limited profiles exist, understandings of those people are similarly limited. I work in film because I want to create more diverse images. Sometimes, it's a photo of an unexpected person in a beautiful place that can make someone believe in a new version of herself. Sometimes, that never-before-seen image can be the introduction needed to widen our perspective of who we get to be in the world.

The team at Columbia Sportswear and all of the people I met on our amazing journeys offered me countless introductions. I trekked in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia with the permission of the Kogui indigenous elders who live there. I drove a team of sled dogs in the Yukon across a frozen lake, the most remote place I've ever been. As a sprinter asked to run cross-country at Hotchkiss, I'd felt outside of my comfort zone. Never could I, nor Dr. Kirby, my beloved coach, have imagined myself going from 5Ks in Lakeville to a 55K in the Swiss and French Alps during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. 

Throughout this year of new experiences, I was often overwhelmed by the encouragement of strangers. During my ultramarathon, each village along the course came out to cheer with their families and hang extra bells from their cattle for the race. At every step, whether halfway up Mt. Shasta or kayaking down the Klamath River, I met amazing people who wanted to share their passion for the outdoors. Their passion has become my own. Standing in the middle of a river in Kamchatka, Russia, and getting to the top of a steep ridge with a beautiful view during a 100k race in the Andes has made me truly understand the urgency with which we have to protect these places. These experiences have also helped me to know that we belonged in these spaces,
and they belonged to us.

While I'm used to being behind the camera, at Columbia I was thrust in front of the lens. As an African American woman, with dreadlocks and tattoos, many times I've been in places where people don't expect to see someone that looks like me. While, at times, that experience can be uncomfortable, I'm proud to be a part of attempts to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in our public lands and to urge companies, parks, and individuals to offer the big introduction: "Come out and join us. This is our land. You should be out here."

I think so much about the importance of outdoor activities for mental health. It's been a large part of a mourning process for me after losing one of my dearest friends. The challenges of going down ski slopes, pushing up mountains, or biking through the desert in insane temperatures have helped me show myself what I'm able to do when I dig deep inside to find reservoirs of strength I was not aware I had. I want everyone to have these opportunities, and that's the space where I'm now seeking to work. I want to share my experiences and offer an introduction to others into "the great outdoors."

Looking forward, I am in development on a film project that involves running close to 300 miles through the national monuments identified for modification by the current administration. I want to use what I have: the introductions to our public lands I received this year, and my primary resources — my perspective, my filmmaking skills, and my body — to be part of this conversation. 

Something my parents taught me that was further embedded during my time in the classrooms and on the track at Hotchkiss is that we all have a responsibility. We can "each one teach one"; we can each offer an introduction to someone else, which could very well be the introduction that will change their life.

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Faith E. Briggs is a content creator with a focus on representation in media. Propelled by her recognition of the impact of media on inner-city youth, she pursued her undergraduate degree at Yale University in African American studies and film studies. After graduating, she joined the film production program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts before transferring to complete her master's in documentary journalism at New York University. Faith worked as an author's assistant to James McBride for three years before joining the documentary department at Discovery Communications. After working with Columbia Sportswear as on-camera talent in the Directors of Toughness marketing campaign, Faith is now producing media that connects diverse communities with the outdoors. She is a board member at Soul River, Inc., a non-profit organization that connects youth and veterans through fly fishing. She is currently developing a documentary and 265-mile running project that explores the controversy surrounding the status of U.S. national monuments under threat by the current administration.

This story appeared in the winter/spring 2018 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.