Written by Lindsay McDuffie
Photos courtesy of Adam Johnson
Exploring the outdoors today seems a grand and noble task. Too often, efforts to pull ourselves and our loved ones away from electronics and screens is a short-lived exercise in total defeat. Thanks to local nonprofit parks, however, communities can more easily connect with the physical world. Having access to the land isn’t always enough, though. Adults, teenagers, and especially children benefit greatly from passionate guides who can introduce us to new contexts of living -- the airy spaces of solitude which help us to mentally reflect, nurture, and grow with ourselves and each other.
Red Mountain Park, a 1,500-acre expanse in Birmingham, Alabama, is one such place. Offering everything from hiking trails to summer camps, ropes courses to ziplines, and climbing towers to segway tours, Red Mountain Park focuses on team-building, conservation, and education -- but most of all, simply how to have fun outside.
Shortly after we sat down, Meg Odom, Program Director at Red Mountain Park, humbly ordered hot and sour soup at a local Asian market and restaurant where we met. The starchy noodles and warm, spicy broth are a slated cure for her seasonal allergies. Meg had barely begun to sip her Eastern medicine before I launched my more Western approach for finding answers.
[MHO] I apologize for jumping right into it. What inspired you to work in the outdoors industry?
[Meg Odom] That’s okay! Working in summer camps is what originally gave me a love for the industry. I’ve always had a love for being outside, exploring, things like that. But to be able to show kids what’s possible in the world is absolutely thrilling to me. I started at the Pelham YMCA on their first day of summer camp. These kids had never been away from home. I had kindergarteners, first graders -- it was nuts. At the end of the day, I was covered in paint and dirt, and I was like, ‘This is what I wanna do forever!’
Then I had an opportunity to work at Hargis Retreat, which is an outdoor camp. That’s really what I’m into, getting kids outside, and getting them away from electronics, gymnasiums -- which is where they can be active, but being active outside was what I really wanted to be involved with. Then I worked at Forever Florida, a 2,400-acre nonprofit park in the swamp, that also has ziplines.
Then I found Red Mountain and started as an entry-level adventure guide there. I was given a lot of opportunities in a short amount of time, and I appreciate all my mentors for that! (Laughs) Now I’m in the position I’m at now. It’s been awesome.
What makes Red Mountain’s summer camps different from others?
One thing I’m appreciative to Red Mountain is, we do a traditional summer camp, but we also don’t. I get the kids to tie in, do different ascents on ropes, and they get to try this stuff out. I feel we’re getting away from that in other camps, where it’s very controlled and planned. What we do at Red Mountain is give them more of an opportunity to be more independent, because they’re outside, because they’re in an environment to do so.
At Red Mountain, we only go on the ropes course for maybe four hours out of the whole week. The rest of the time, we are literally playing with dirt, playing with trees, looking at the environment around us, hiking, looking at the map, learning how to engage with the forest. We show them the options, showing them that it is possible to just be outside and enjoy yourself.
Why should kids bother with summer camp, then? Can’t they do this on their own?
Most of these kids have absolutely great parents and wonderful neighborhoods and things like that. But sometimes the kids that we have don’t have access to a parent that is present all the time, or maybe a safe neighborhood to go play in. The kids that do have that access, will go do that. But the kids that don’t, it’s safer to just stay in their house.
What challenges do you face, transitioning your campers from an inside life with electronics to one spent almost entirely outside?
That’s interesting, because I’ve never heard someone phrase it like that -- you know, ‘What’s the challenge.’ Because, as soon as you get a kid to put the phone down that first time, it’s a no-brainer -- they’re hooked. Being outside and interacting with their environment is so much more thrilling than looking at their phone. It’s an easy sell.
Maybe only one time in my nine years of experience working with camps, I might have had one instance where I really had to have a conversation about electronics. It wasn’t even because he wanted that phone. It was more about feeling safe, like he could leave the phone and still trust the people around him. It wasn’t necessarily an electronics issue more than it was a safety blanket for him. In case things went badly, you know, he wanted that out. Getting him to rely on himself and rely on the people around him was more of the deal than that electronic.
In addition to Red Mountain, you also coach kids climbing teams at Birmingham Boulders, an indoor climbing gym. What happened? I thought you enjoyed being outside.
If I can be real with you for a minute…
By all means.
Any time I’d try to go to the gym, I felt so awkward. Why am I running in place? Why am I lifting these things? I couldn’t make any sense of why I was there. I lost interest. But rock climbing is goal-oriented. It’s so accessible, to just walk up and climb. You need all this instruction and you feel awkward [at a regular gym]. But when you show up to a climbing gym, it’s just like, I’m gonna climb up that wall! And that’s it. It’s intuitive. And, you still get a workout.
My first day at the climbing gym, everyone was so friendly, so inviting. That also hooked me. I’m a pretty social person, so that was a huge draw, how friendly the community was. And not just how friendly they are, but if you fall on hard times, the climbing community rallies around those people.
What struggles do you face with rock climbing?
Girl, I feel like rock climbing is a relationship. I’ll have a great two months, I’m loving the time I’m in the gym, I’m really pushing it. Then after two months in the gym, I’m not really engaged. I’m just going because I know that in two months, it’ll be good, and it’s worth it. So you just have to push and be there and just try to enjoy it.
The other struggle with bouldering is the mental battle of lead climbing, being above your last anchor, trying to make a hard move. I try to get way out of my comfort zone and push myself there. Because that is what’s fun and challenging, two things that originally got me into the sport.
"I try to get way out of my comfort zone...because that is what's fun and challenging, two things that originally got me into the sport."
Climbing can be a dangerous sport if you don’t know what you’re doing. What gear do you rely on?
In terms of gear, Sterling Rope I’m a pretty big fan of. I think it’s mainly because I’ve spoken with reps personally. They’re so friendly about discussing their processes with you. They’re really open there.
Red Mountain uses their own gear and supplier, but personally, I like Black Diamond for my harness, because it fits really well. I’m pretty tiny, and they make them that fit a size down.
As far as belay device, I’m a huge fan of the Grigri. There are arguments on both sides, but the Grigri works really well if you know how to use it. There is some risk involved in people assuming it just locks off. But I think a Grigri is a pretty solid device for climbers that are a bit more experienced.
What about shoes and clothing?
For shoes, I use La Sportiva Solutions. I had a hard time finding something that would fit my heel box and low arch, and holy moly, those things did it. They’re great for overhangs, which is primarily what I like to climb. I love big, juggy, overhanging moves.
I’ve got my staples for what I buy clothing-wise. I swear by base layers. They are worth the investment. You need to stay dry while you are cold. I really like capilene as a bottom base layer. As a top base layer, I like something that’s more natural, like wool. Icebreaker or Smartwool, brands like that. Capilene tends to hold odors a little bit more than natural fibers. But if I’m going to layer something on top of that again, then the cap 4, the heavy thermal, is my favorite for something more heavy.
The Halle Pant from prAna is the bomb, because that thing, you can hike through briars and everything and not have a scratch on your body. I do usually come to Mountain High, because y’all have the best women’s selection, locally, in terms of gear that I actually need. I can be pretty much guaranteed that I’ll walk in with a mission and walk out with that piece. And, y’all give discounts to people who give to the SCC, the Access Fund, and people who work for parks and things like that. So that’s awesome.
Tell us more about the SCC and Access Fund. What are they, and who do they benefit?
The SCC is the Southeastern Climbers Coalition. They’re responsible for the upkeep of regional acres and purchasing new land for climbers to have access to. Access Fund is the big parent organization, the one that’s in charge of bringing in the big dough and allocating it to smaller groups.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
The biggest thing for me is, that if you do get involved with a sport, especially something that has to do with the outdoors, you should look into options that you can give to. Or, if you don’t have a financial way to give, you can sign up to volunteer for a trail day there. You won’t ever know how much that little time, that little trail day, goes. It goes a really long way. If there’s nobody out there protecting it, with the Access Fund and all that, then we won’t have any of these places left to go.
Go see Meg at Red Mountain Park, and the many other employees and volunteers that foster Alabama’s public access to forests, rockfaces, and campgrounds. Thanks for all you do, Red Mountain!
For our detailed list of climbing spots in Alabama, click here.