Willow Belden: What Was Lost “Out There” Will Be Found

“It’s the simple things” – is what I thought about when I interviewed Willow Belden for our latest What’s Your Why?episode.  Her award-winning podcast “Out There”is not only about people who love nature but also about how people discover the outdoors even when they live in a cement jungle in the city. I think it’s why the West has become so popular. People want to escape the hectic grind of the urban city life. Being outside and enjoying nature is for everyone – everywhere - people of all shapes, sizes and abilities.  I hope you enjoy the podcast! And please leave a comment. Thanks Willow!

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Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why.

Emy DiGrappa (00:38):

Today we are talking to Willow Belden. Willow is the host and founder of the Out There podcast. And it is an award winning podcast and we can't wait to hear her adventure. Welcome, Willow.

Willow Belden (00:50):

Thank you so much.

Emy DiGrappa (00:52):

So it's been fun listening to some of your podcasts and just your style. And, one thing I've learned from podcasting is you just develop your own unique style and it's like you develop, it's your personality. And you have a really nice way of telling a story.

Willow Belden (01:11):

Well, thank you. It's certainly been a process finding our voice as a podcast because I came to it from a public radio background. I had been a reporter with Wyoming Public Radio. And so my training was in news reporting, which is a very different style of storytelling. So it definitely took a while to get where we are, but I'm glad you like it.

Emy DiGrappa (01:38):

Tell me your journey. Where did you grow up?

Willow Belden (01:41):

Oh, that's always a hard question. We moved around a lot when I was growing up. We, I guess, New York City was kind of home base. That's where I'm from originally. But we, I also spent a lot of time in rural Ohio and also some time in the north woods of Maine. So all east coast. Again, we moved around a lot. My mom was an artist. She was a set designer in the theater. And so she did a lot of her freelance work out of New York. But, it turns out that being a freelance artist doesn't provide a very stable income to raise a family. And so she also then took a job teaching theater, which is how we ended up in Ohio for a large part of my childhood, as well.

Emy DiGrappa (02:33):

And so what was your journey to Wyoming?

Willow Belden (02:36):

My journey to Wyoming, I had just finished grad school and I was trying to figure out what to do next. And, I was actually turned off from journalism after grad school. I guess that's maybe a bad thing to say. But, I wasn't sure that I really wanted to be a journalist anymore after going through journalism school. And so I had taken the summer off and I went and decided I'm going to spend the summer in the middle of nowhere in Maine. My family had this little cabin, which my grandparents had bought land there way back when you could afford it, when it was dirt cheap. It has now become a desirable place. But at the time, it was very affordable. And so my grandparents had built this cabin. I said, "Well, I'm going to just go hang out there for the summer and figure out what's next."

Willow Belden (03:24):

At the time there was no cell phone service there. There was no internet there. I was just totally cut off from the rest of the world. But, I would occasionally go into town to check my email. And, so one day, I went into town, check my email, and I had gotten emails from several different grad school professors. And they all had said, "Look, there's this job opening at Wyoming Public Radio. And it's a really good station. And they are often willing to take people who don't already have 20 years of broadcast experience. And you should apply." And I didn't know anything about Wyoming, at that point. I mean I was the stereotypical east coaster who thought the world revolved around New York. But, I started looking into it and I started listening to some of the stories that Wyoming Public Radio was doing.

Willow Belden (04:11):

And it also turned out that several of my friends had spent time in Wyoming and they all said, "Oh, you would love it. It's just so wonderful out there." And I said, "All right, well, I guess I'll give it a try." And I applied. And I like to say that when I came out from my interview, the thing that actually brought me to Wyoming, I think, was the fact that I had a little bit of extra time just because of how the flights worked out. And so I had an afternoon free and I had a rental car and I drove out to the Snowys and I just said, "Oh yeah, I want this to be my playground." So I said, "Yeah, okay, I'll come out." And I thought I would stay for a year or two and then move on, maybe go back to the east coast. But, I really fell in love with the place. So here I am a decade later.

Emy DiGrappa (04:58):

And now Wyoming's your home. And so when you left Wyoming Public Radio, why did you want to start your very own podcast? And, had you been thinking about it, the time you were working there, and just searching for that thing that you had a lot of passion for?

Willow Belden (05:14):

Yes and no. I had had an idea for an outdoor related podcast for a while. But, I hadn't really entertained the thought of starting my own podcast. First of all, podcasts weren't really that big of a thing at that point. And secondly, I don't know, it just didn't seem like a thing that a person would do. And, so I had had this idea kicking around the back of my mind, but I hadn't done anything about it. And I have to say, I did not leave Wyoming Public Radio to start a podcast. That was not part of the equation. I left the radio station because I just didn't quite love it enough to make it worth the amount of stress it was. It was a great job. And I loved my colleagues and I felt like I was doing meaningful work.

Willow Belden (06:06):

All these things that you're supposed to have in a good job. But, I just didn't quite love it enough. And, I kept thinking, there are people who get up in the morning and jump out of bed and just are excited to go and do whatever it is they do. And I just didn't quite have that. And, I said, "Well, there's got to be something more out there." And, people always would use to say, they would say, "Well, what would you rather be doing?" And I said, "Well, if I knew that I would already be doing it." And, so I left not to start a podcast, but just to take some time and space and figure out what was next. My way of doing that was to go hiking for a month and a half.

Willow Belden (06:49):

I decided I was going to quit my job and hike the Colorado Trail, which goes from Denver down to Durango. And my hope was that doing that would help me figure out what was going to come next, which it did in a roundabout way. It was not a me standing on a mountaintop and the clouds parted, and I figured it out. That didn't happen. But, it did give me the space to think about what I actually enjoyed about storytelling and what was me meaningful to me and what I wanted to maybe do next. And, so then I came back and I said, "All right. Well, now I have the time to pursue doing this, this podcast idea. Let's figure out what we want that to look like and give it a try."

Emy DiGrappa (07:34):

Well, I think that's really interesting. I graduated with my degree in journalism, as well. And I started out in news reporting. And I realized, I didn't like that kind of timeline pressure, because you just felt like you couldn't even go to sleep at night until you met your deadlines. And so I that just would drive me crazy. And so then I switched over to public relations as my emphasis. But, I can see why journalism can be very hard and tiring.

Willow Belden (08:04):

Yeah. And it also can be profoundly fulfilling. But I think you have to really want it in order to make it worth it because it is just, and especially radio journalism or broadcast journalism, I guess in general, if your deadline is 4:30, it can't be 4:31. You're on the air.

Emy DiGrappa (08:31):

So in your Out There podcast, because it is an award winning podcast and I just loved reading about it. And, one of the things I was thinking about a lot was your tagline that says, "The podcast that explores big questions through intimate stories outdoors." And I started thinking about how do you discover an intimate story outdoors? What does that mean to you?

Willow Belden (08:59):

Well, I guess those are two different questions. What does it mean to me? I'm interested in stories that feel like a memoir, where it feels almost like you're listening to fiction because there's such a strong character and plot and action. It's not like us telling a story about something, we're telling you a story as if I was having coffee with my best friend and I was like, "Oh my gosh. I got to tell you about this thing that happened." So that's what I'm looking for in terms of personal stories. And how do I find them? I mean, at this point they come to me. Most of our stories are done by freelancers, around the country and around the world. And so I will put out a call for pitches and say, "Hey, we're looking for story ideas. Here's what the show's about. Here's what we're looking for."

Willow Belden (09:53):

And then people will email me and say, "This is the story I want to tell." And we take the ones we like. It wasn't always that. Obviously, when you first start out, you don't get stories coming to you. There's a little bit more digging that one has to do. Again, what I'm always looking for is stories that are really stories where there's just strong narrative. I want things that are going to keep you on the edge of your seat rather than it feeling like let's talk about climate change or whatever. And it doesn't mean the story can't be about climate change, but I want it to be really personal.

Emy DiGrappa (10:29):

Well, the other thing I noticed is that you talk about being outdoors no matter where you live, no matter where you are. And I think that would be a challenge when you live in a cement city. And what kind of stories do you tell about living in the middle of New York and finding the outdoors?

Willow Belden (10:48):

Yeah, I think, that's one of the things that I really try to do with the show is I don't want it to be limited just to wilderness expeditions and climbing mountains and things like that. Obviously, we have stories about that as well. But, so many people live in more urban areas. And part of my goal is to make it feel like, okay, the outdoors can be accessible to you, too, even if you don't have mountains or the ocean or whatever in your backyard. I like to define the outdoors as anything that's outside your door. And so in terms of what kinds of stories have we had about cities? We actually have one that, just a brand new one, that just came out, which is about going for walks in Boston. And it's a story about this woman who, for her, church had always been her happy place.

Willow Belden (11:46):

It was where she felt at peace. It was where she had a sense of community. Where she felt like, okay, I've got like-minded people. This is my place to ground myself. And so then when the pandemic hit and early on and she couldn't go to church in person, there was this big hole in her life. And it was like, "Okay, how do I meet my emotional needs if I can't go to church in person, if I can't go to my happy place?" And then a friend of hers suggests that they just go for a walk on a Sunday morning, just around Boston. And at first she's really hesitant because she doesn't consider herself outdoorsy. In fact, she's scared about being outdoors because she's Black and she's just like, "Yeah, I could get stopped by the police at any moment."

Willow Belden (12:36):

It had never felt like a sanctuary to her. But, this friend had invited and she was like, "Okay, well, we'll give it a try." And so they start going for these Sunday morning walks and they do this every week. And over the course of, they do this for a long time, and eventually, she gets to the point where she's like, "Okay, it's not that the fear of the outdoors is gone. That's probably never going to go away." But, she's also found that this is a place where she can find joy. And this is a place where she can find... She may not have a community of a whole bunch of other churchgoers, but she has a community of one friend who really sees her and hears her and understands her. And so, I don't know. I think that's an example of just saying, "Okay, well, this is the outdoors that is here. This is the outdoors we're using. And not, it's not the wilderness and that doesn't make it any less valid."

Emy DiGrappa (13:39):

I think about that. And I think about out there. And so the whole idea of the podcast is being out, being outside no matter where you are. And, one of the things that I think that I've experienced, living in Wyoming, is when people come here, they've just never seen wide open spaces like this. Or they've never even seen a night sky. Like you said, just being out and just laying down and looking at the stars at night is a really amazing experience.

Willow Belden (14:10):

In fact, we have an upcoming story about, about that. Oh, do you? Yes. It's coming out in March.

Emy DiGrappa (14:17):

What is it about?

Willow Belden (14:18):

It's about this young woman who, she's an art student, she's from China. She is going to school in New York City. And like so many of us these days, she, basically, gets addicted to her phone. She's just on it all the time. And it's not always stupid stuff. She's consuming news. She's consuming information. She's learning about things and whatnot, but she's still on her phone all the time. And eventually it gets to the point where it's really interfering with her focus and interfering with her ability to make her art and write a film script. She's a film student. And then she ends up going... And so it becomes this treadmill that she's on, that she can't get off. I think we all understand this these days.

Willow Belden (15:02):

And she takes a trip then to Texas and just hangs out on this ranch in Texas. And one day she goes up to an observatory to go star gazing. She's never gone star gazing before. She's never thought about this. But she's like, "Okay, why not?" And so she goes. And this is the first time in as long as she can remember where she's just not even had the urge to reach for her phone for hours on end.

Willow Belden (15:38):

And so then the story looks at how do we then take that? How do we take that sense of peace and harness it and work it into our every day lives so that we can find a sense of balance, because obviously you're not going to give up your phone altogether. You still have to be a person in the world and you're still going to have to use technology. But, how do we do things that give us the kind of balance that we need in order to really let our creativity flow and do what it is that we actually want to do.

Emy DiGrappa (16:16):

So you said you get ideas from people to do stories, and then you go through and pick out your favorites or a new idea or a new story that you haven't heard that is unique. But I'm also thinking, do you go out and think about, do you search for stories that you think should be told, but they haven't been told,

Willow Belden (16:38):

Yes, it's not so much that I search for them. But when I sense that there is one that's being pitched to me, that's going to do that, I get really excited about it. And so I think one of the things that tends to be the case, in a lot of outdoor journalism, is it tends to be very focused on... And this is changing, but traditionally it tends to focus on white men and the things that they enjoy doing. Extreme adventures and feats of strength and I was the fastest to do this. Or I did the longest whatever. Blah, blah, blah. And, that's fine. But that excludes a whole lot of people. Again, I think this is changing. We see a lot more women, stories about women these days. But one of the areas that is still really under represented is stories about people of color and indigenous people and their connections to the outdoors and how they engage with the outdoors.

Willow Belden (17:46):

And so that's certainly something that I've been focusing a lot on, especially recently. Something I wish I had been doing all along, but you learn and grow. But certainly the last few years is I've really been seeking out these stories that are about things that are, again, not white men and that focus on voices and perspectives that are a little bit different than what you tend to see in mainstream outdoor media. I find those very interesting. And I think a lot more interesting and a lot more... I feel like I can learn a lot more from them than a story about another professional adventurer who gets paid to go on expeditions.

Emy DiGrappa (18:32):

Yeah. That has been the case. And I do agree with you with all the outdoor media. And then you do see the unusual person of color that makes a huge hit. Or does something very intriguing and they become part of the mainstream media. But they're the exception, not the rule. And I think it would be amazing for you to have some of those conversations with Native Americans and Latinos. There's so many people of color, even people who migrate here probably have wonderful outdoor stories because most people don't live like this. So it'd be wonderful to hear their perspective on their outdoor experience.

Willow Belden (19:17):

We had a story, I think it was last year, where we looked at Harriet Tubman as the ultimate outdoors woman, because when you think about it, she had to be really skillful in navigating nature. She's hiking through the woods for forever with people. And it's not like she's going to go to REI and buy a tent. This is not easy. And so she had all these really amazing outdoor skills. And yet we still have this sort of stereotype in America today that Black people don't go outdoors. Black people don't like being outdoors. And so it's this weird disconnect of on the one hand, we have a history of really amazing, phenomenal outdoor skills on the part of Black people. And then we have this idea today that this isn't something that Black people do.

Willow Belden (20:13):

And so this story looked at, it was told from the point of view of an African American woman who enjoys hiking, but she's always had a complicated relationship with the outdoors. And so she goes back and looks into Harriet Tubman's history and interweaves it with her own story and looking at where do these perspectives come from? Can we change this narrative to make it one where African Americans can feel not only welcome, but can feel ownership over their place in the outdoors?

Emy DiGrappa (20:50):

Yeah. I think that's a wonderful perspective. Every story is one place to start. Right?

Willow Belden (20:56):

Absolutely.

Emy DiGrappa (20:57):

Well, it's been great talking to you. I appreciate your time so much Willow. And I love your name by the way.

Willow Belden (21:04):

Oh, thank you.

Emy DiGrappa (21:06):

Your parents, were they hippies?

Willow Belden (21:09):

Yes.

Emy DiGrappa (21:11):

Explains it. Tell us where we can find you and Out There.

Willow Belden (21:16):

Yeah. So Out There's website is outtherepodcast.com. And the podcast is available everywhere you get podcasts. So Apple podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you listen. And we are also on social media. We're on Instagram and Facebook, both at Out There podcast.

Emy DiGrappa (21:35):

All right. Well, thank you so much. Have a great day.

Willow Belden (21:37):

Thank you. This was great. You as well.

Emy DiGrappa (21:39):

Bye.

Willow Belden (21:40):

Bye.

Emy DiGrappa (21:55):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.