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Becoming a Wild Woman

How a city girl from Amsterdam started running up mountains around Asheville and faced her fear of the outdoors.

As a city kid growing up in Amsterdam, my teenage hobby was reading and my nickname in P.E. was Bollie (Chubby). On family outings “into nature” we went to Het Amsterdamse Bos, a manmade forest sandwiched between the city and Schiphol Airport, the main hub of the Netherlands and its 17 million people. A “hike” on the flat manicured paths of this forest would look like this: I’d follow the signs resembling mushrooms telling me up to the tenth of a kilometer how far I still had to walk to the petting zoo or cafe for a Heineken bier for mom and dad, a limonade for me and my sis. 

Getting lost in the woods? No chance. Less than one percent of the Netherlands still has large-scale wild nature. And when it comes to animals and birds, rangers of Het Amsterdamse Bos encourage hikers to spot their “big five”: the Marsh Harrier, the Kingfisher, the Scottish Highlander, the grass snake, and the squirrel. Not that I ever saw this magnificent wildlife, surrounded by squealing kids on the playground or at the Trim Route with stationary exercise equipment. 

So clearly I was unprepared for my first week in Asheville, when my new mailman, of all people, pointed out a black bear just down the block. I moved here in 2012 when my husband got a job at Mission Hospital and quickly learned there were some new things I’d be getting used to in western North Carolina. Soon enough I knew what to do when the text chain of my new neighborhood friend group read: “Bear with cubs on Pearson drive.” I’d bring my kids inside, then gaze at the gentle giants searching for trash scraps from a safe distance, never interfering or feeding them. 

New friends showed me more about life in Asheville, where social outings revolve around exploring the outdoors. More often than to a playground or pool, we’d take our kids to hike a mountain or swim in a swimming hole. An invite for a run didn’t mean a two-mile shuffle along neighborhood streets, but a six-mile trail run on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail with creeks, wildflowers, and epic views. Spotting wild geese, grasshoppers, and yes, those black bears, I felt like I was running through a Mary Oliver poem.

It feels like everyone in Asheville runs, hikes, bikes, climbs, or paddles, so I decided to lean in and, despite my apprehension after years of city living, embrace the activities of my new friends and neighbors.

I thought biking would be easy. The Netherlands has an estimated 23.9 million bicycles (more bikes than people) and I practically pedaled out of the womb. As a kid I biked three miles to school and back, and in my twenties my bicycle was my only mode of transportation, getting me from A to B cruising along Amsterdam canals. But just the thought of speeding down the Blue Ridge Parkway on two wheels gave me road rash. And even the easy mountain bike trails in Bent Creek had way too many trees to slam into. Plus, I didn’t really know what to do with gears. When your country is flat as a pancake, a backpedal is all you need. 

Riding a bike in North Carolina made me feel like a toddler in need of training wheels. Meanwhile my kids quickly lóst their training wheels, navigating trails at the Biltmore, Explorer Loop in Bent Creek, and Dupont Loop in Brevard. On family outings we hit the trails and I…hit the ground, flying over the handlebars, once indeed slamming into a tree. With a bruised ego, I took biking lessons at the Bike Farm in Brevard. Motion Makers group rides on Wednesday (“no woman left behind”) and Saturday rides with the Blue Ridge Dirt Skrrts have also been great as a novice mountain biker. Now even a klutz like me loves speeding down a mountain. 

In running I made bigger strides. Back in my native country, a 3.3-kilometer loop in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark was a sporty way to balance out my party life. But in Asheville a Santa 5K turned into a regular routine of trail running, and then coach Norm Blair of Jus’ Running convincing me to run the Shut-In Trail Race, 18 miles up Mount Pisgah. 

I’ve recently realized a pattern has emerged. I’ll pick an activity, find the right people, educate myself, and go do it! Applying this to other pursuits that have crossed my path, I’ve now paddled on the French Broad River, danced in a Farmers Market flash mob, learned to ski at Cataloochee, jumped in waterfalls, and got photographed naked in the woods by René Treece, who specializes in capturing your wild essence in nature. 

Growing up in a big city, I didn’t know what I was missing. But since moving to Asheville, I’ve tapped into new parts of my curiosity and faced my fears, thanks to the city’s proximity to the outdoors and the nature-focused, open-minded people who foster a welcoming community. Here you can always learn something new, do something scary, grow a little more, and go wild. 

Cover photo: The author, running the Shut-In Ridge Trail Run in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Jus’ Running.

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