Jessica Bowser, host of the Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, began Virginia State Parks Trail Quest in 2015, visiting every state park over the course of five years. In 2019, when then-state parks director Craig Seaver gifted her with a state parks journal while she was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park, she began journaling about the experience. In the interview below, Bowser talks about the great outdoors, writing, and mental health.
INSPIRED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES
Mind the Dog Writing Blog: You don’t normally journal in your everyday life. What made you decide to journal about your state park visits?
Jessica Bowser: The inspiration came from the journals in each of the cabins. When you leaf through those journals, you find people have had very different experiences, even though they are all staying in the same place and the same activities are available to everyone; everyone makes it uniquely their own. You read about something funny that happened with a pet they brought with them, or some people are newlyweds on their honeymoon. Other people are locals who have family traditions of returning to the same park every year. You read their personal stories. For example, when I was at Hungry Mother State Park, I was reading an entry from a family that comes every year, and the husband/father is a coal miner–so they had to come during a time that worked out for the coal mining schedule. It was the only vacation that they got every year and that was what they did: They went to Hungry Mother. They stayed in the cabin. They went paddling and swimming in the lake and hiking, and then a few days later, they would have to get back so that he could go back to coal mining. I thought that was so unique. I live up in Northern Virginia. There’s no coal mining up here, and it really is representative of part of the state that unfortunately, a lot of people are unfamiliar with. I love to read these stories and hear about other people’s lives and learn about other people. That is what made me think I should also be keeping a record of my own journey, because I do get around so often that there’s a lot to write about and a lot of things I want to remember and be able to look back on. Those journals prompt you to enter a lot of different information, and so when I do go back and read it, I can think about things that were very specific to that trip that I probably would have otherwise forgotten.
THE VALUE OF RE-READING PAST ENTRIES: REMEMBERING THE PAST, PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
MTDWB: How often do you go back and read your journal entries? What effect does doing so have on you?
JB: I don’t read them terribly often, but when I am actually at a cabin and I finish an entry, I sometimes flip back and see what else I had written months or even a year or more before. The whole purpose of the journal is to keep a record of what I’ve done so that I can remember my experience. If I don’t go back and read it, then I’m not fulfilling that goal. The benefit that it has, is it brings up a lot of fond memories, but then it also makes me think, ‘Oh, I really want to get back here and do this other thing’ or ‘There’s another park I want to visit that I haven’t been to in a while where I can also have this same experience.’ For example, if I really enjoyed kayaking at Belle Isle, it makes me think, ‘What parks have I not kayaked at?’– because I didn’t have my kayak until last year, so where else do I want to get back to? Well, Smith Mountain Lake is one place that I would love to kayak. I’ll be there this June and I’ll get to have that experience. When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.
When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.
ON ADAPTING THE JOURNALS TO A PUBLISHED PIECE
MTDWB: Would you ever consider publishing your journal(s) in some form? Why or why not?
JB: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you say it out loud, it sounds like a future book! It’s interesting you say that, because part of the reason I started the podcast is because there’s a real lack of diversity and also a lack of representation of pretty much all groups except white men, but women specifically. It’s lacking in the outdoor industry and it’s lacking in podcasting, so a podcast by a woman about the outdoors is sort of filling the gap in two different spaces. The larger group that is interested in the podcast are women my age, which isn’t surprising. I think it really appeals to them because they don’t usually hear about somebody like themselves doing this.
REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCES
MTDWB: How did you feel about journaling during your visits?
JB: Even on the nights when I was really exhausted and I’d think, ‘Oh, gosh. I haven’t done this yet and I really need to,’ I never dreaded it. If it was a chore, I probably wouldn’t do it–I do enjoy doing it. I do like thinking about all the things I might have otherwise missed. I’d really think about what I did on Day One, what I did on Day Two. I’d ask myself how did that make me feel, what did I enjoy about it, what would I like to do differently, what would I like to do when I come back. It was reflective. You do have to really think about everything you did and why you did it and could it be different and was it worth it and all of the things. As an educator, I come at it from having that practice of being reflective and journaling. I appreciate being able to think about what the purpose and the meaning is while I’m writing.
ON JOURNALING AND MINDFULNESS
MTDWB: How did you feel after each entry?
JB: Tired! I only say that because I always journal at night and after a long day, I just want to crawl into bed. I felt fulfilled because I took the time to think about my experience. Oftentimes, we go through the motions and while we might be enjoying it in the moment, once it’s over, sometime we don’t think about it anymore because we’re on to the next thing. Even sometimes while were doing something, we’re not always present. I think that is something people are starting to become more aware of, and they are trying to be more in the moment. That’s something that I personally am working on and I think that journaling is helping me do that more because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing and not let my brain wander. Especially now, as a podcast host, that has crept into my personal life. I have to figure out where the boundaries are for that, because I can no longer just go out for a hike and enjoy the hike. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking, ‘what content am I going to come back with and what kind of photos and what kind of video and how do I present this to people?’ As a former educator, I’m also thinking, ‘What questions would people have about this?’ It really takes away from a lot of my experience, so the journaling helps me to be more present in the moment and to enjoy it more because I know I am going to be reflecting on it later.
Journaling helps me to be more present.
JOURNALING: GROWTH THROUGH REMEMBERING
MTDWB: Did anything surprise you about your journaling experience?
JB: I think the thing that surprised me was how quickly I forgot about past experiences. You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember this,’ and then you don’t. I appreciated, especially as time went on and the entries started to build, that I put those things in writing so that I could remember them—because I really was surprised at how much I forgot. It was a nice reminder of going back to being present in the moment so that I do remember more of the experience. I also like remembering my feelings at the time, especially with new experiences–if I am doing something for the first time or doing something that I am nervous about or that pushes my boundaries. People often say to me, ‘You’re so fearless; you’re always out there doing these crazy things and you just have no fear,’ and that is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. I want to do this thing and I’m scared out of my mind and I am going to push myself because I know I shouldn’t be afraid or I’m never going to reach that goal if I don’t step outside of my comfort zone. I see it as a growing or learning opportunity. Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and remembering what that was like. It makes me ask myself why I was so afraid of that and what I could have done differently so I wouldn’t have been so nervous–or I realize I can’t believe that scared me because after I did it, it was like, ‘Oh, I could totally do this again,’ and now maybe I have done it three more times and it’s no big deal anymore, but in that initial, first time, it was something really scary. I like to look back, especially on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me and I can see the change and the value in it and it encourages me to continue doing those things.
Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself. I like to look back on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me. It encourages me to continue doing those things.
WEAPON OF CHOICE: PEN OR PENCIL?
MTDWB: Did you use pen or pencil when you journaled?
JB: I have a gel pen, and I keep it tucked in the spirals of the journal. I have so many gel pens, it’s ridiculous.
STORYTELLING: WRITING TO CONNECT
MTDWB: Did journaling carry over into any other aspects of your life?
JB: I think when you’re a content creator like I am, you have to find ways to connect with your audience. I look for ways to connect with people. It’s all relational. The best way to connect with people is to tell your story, and to tell it in a way that people can envision themselves in your place. In my case, I want people to be encouraged to do those things, whether it’s an outdoor activity or visiting a place or trying something new. For me, journaling is just another form of storytelling, and also at the same time encouraging people to get out and create their own adventure.
The best way to connect with people is to tell your story. Journaling is just another form of storytelling.
ON HER JOURNAL
MTDWB: Was there a specific brand or type of journal you used or preferred? Why?
JB: I use the same journal that you find in all the state park cabins. It’s the same standard journal in all the cabins. I was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park in October 2019, and it was my first time at that park. I picked up the cabin journal that particular day and I realized that there was an introductory welcome message from Craig Seaver, who was the director of Virginia State Parks when the journal was published. I had met Craig recently and I really connected with his message in the journal because I had just met him at the Virginia Association for Parks conference and really liked him. I wanted to let him know that I had read his message, so I reached out to him on social media, and it turns out that Natural Tunnel was the park where Craig was the park manager before he became director of the whole system, so he had a personal connection with Natural Tunnel. I told him I would really like to have one of these journals, and asked where I could get one. He had a ranger show up at my cabin and deliver me my own journal. I was delighted. I was so excited to start using it. It made me feel so special. The journal itself has meaning to me, because the person who gave it to me is someone I admire. Every time I pull it out, it’s a reminder of Craig. It’s also a reminder of my advocacy with VAFP. It’s also a reminder to take a few minutes out of my experience and document what my experience has been like.
MTDWB: Was there a particular way you formatted your entries?
JB: The journal asks what dates you were there, what the weather was like, what activities you did, what wildlife you sighted, who you met, who was with you. That’s the front page, and then the back page is blank lined paper for notes
MTDWB: How often and when did you journal?
JB: I always do it at the end of my visit, because I want to make sure that the entry captures my whole visit. Sometimes I will start it during the visit, especially for wildlife sightings, so I don’t forget anything. I will start to fill it out, but I don’t usually do the blank back page until the last night.
JOURNALING, NATURE, AND MENTAL HEALTH
MTDWB: May is Mental Health Month. Can you speak a little bit to the role the outdoors has on mental health? Can you speak a little bit about the role journaling has on mental health?
JB: There has been research out on the benefit of the outdoors on mental health for a long, long time, but I don’t think it has gotten as much attention as it has gotten within the last year. Given the circumstances with the pandemic, you hear over and over that people are getting outside in ways that they never have before. All of a sudden, you couldn’t buy a fire pit or a kayak or a bike. Still, every supply chain is dried up. That is all evidence of the fact that people are now realizing the value of the outdoors. I hope that this isn’t short-term, a time people got outside because they had nothing else to do or they didn’t have other places to go where they could be safe. I hope that this experience will lead to people connecting to the outdoors long-term. Especially from a conservation standpoint, we want people connecting to the outdoors in a meaningful way so they will appreciate it and want to conserve it. Certainly being outdoors has a huge impact on our mental health and it’s something I have done for years and years. I am really excited other people are coming around to have that experience as well.
In terms of journaling and mental health, it has been helpful for me to be more present in the moment. I have also talked to other people who have been journaling about the outdoors. A potential future guest on the podcast is writing a memoir about losing her brother, and she says the reason she started journaling was because when her brother passed away, someone bought her a journal and encouraged her to write letters to her brother. She started doing that, and it became the basis for her memoir. I can see where journaling would have an impact.
When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have both of those elements working for you at same time. You have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it, and be more present. It is a double whammy. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness. It is two sides of the same coin.
When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness.
Jessica Bowser is the creator and host of Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, which showcases the diversity and beauty of our state by Virginians who have a strong connection with the outdoors. Through conversations with guests, Jessica has created a guide to outdoor recreation and provides recommendations to assist listeners with planning their own adventures close to home. Jessica enjoys capturing her adventures in photographs while she is hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, birding, and camping throughout Virginia. Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to podcasts. For outdoor travel ideas and recommendations, or to follow Jessica’s adventures, visit www.VirginiaOutdoorAdventures.com, or follow the show on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
© Amanda Sue Creasey