En español | It was not a promising start. Getting ready to head out for the Utah wilderness, Lee Verner had packed her clothes in a black bag, laid it down on a black chair and … promptly forgotten about it. When she realized her mistake, she was too far from home to turn around.
That wasn’t all. An inexperienced camper, she didn’t know that you have to pound tent stakes into the hard earth of canyon country, not just push them in and assume they’ll stay put; her tent blew away, though she was able to haul it back. That night, it turned cold and rainy—and, of course, she had no change of clothes. Exhausted, Verner lay in her sleeping bag on a too-thin mat with one unexpected thought in her mind: “I have never been happier in my life!”
She had just spent the day working with other women, most in their 60s or older, raking out and covering up unauthorized routes carved by off-road vehicles into the wilderness around Cedar Mesa, in southeastern Utah. Verner, a soft-spoken 72-year-old who had recently retired from a career as a marriage and family therapist in Durango, Colo., had joined a work crew to restore damaged backcountry. “I feel so passionate about doing this,” she says, “that whatever I can do with what time I have left, I really want to do.”
Which is why she now finds herself in a nondescript conference room at a slightly down-at-the-heels hotel just off Historic Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., where it sounds as though a dismayingly large share of the national Harley fleet has come to roar up and down the street at all hours.
It is an unlikely spot, because the group that has called this meeting—and that organized the Cedar Mesa work trip—is the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and the Broads do not like sitting indoors in cities with loud traffic. Or, for that matter, sitting indoors anywhere. “Broads like getting out there and getting dirty and crawling on rocks and getting muddy,” says Rose Chilcoat, a former National Park Service ranger who is now the group’s associate director.
Founded in 1989, the Broads—they don’t go by their acronym because, explains Chilcoat, “We’re not gobs, we’re Broads”—work off a deceptively simple premise: Older women who care about the wilderness and have spent a lot of time exploring it can make a tangible difference in protecting it. This has proved to be an attractive message to a lot of people like Verner.
The group began as a handful of women gathering around one another’s kitchen tables—when they weren’t hiking together—and it now has 3,500 members, including some men, and sees no end to its expansion. The Albuquerque meeting is its first effort to train the growing number of women who are interested in opening local chapters, which they call “Broadbands.”
Great Old Broads for Wilderness may be the most colorfully named environmental effort spearheaded by older Americans—and surely it is the only one to hang a large purple bra at its headquarters for collecting donations, so that “our cups will runneth over,” as executive director Ronni Egan puts it—but the Broads are hardly alone.
All over the country, women and men in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond are plunging into environmental activism in ways that are redefining the term. Not content simply to join environmental groups or write letters or lobby or stand around holding placards—though some do that, too—they are taking the lead in getting results they can see: in local carbon footprints, in their communities’ consumption habits, in a restored patch of earth like Cedar Mesa.