The MCV Q&A
Through Huellas Latinas Hiking Club, Luisana Mendez Escalante shares the healing power of outdoor activity.
During the depths of the COVID pandemic, Luisana Mendez Escalante calmed her anxiety with a regular outdoor regimen, walking around her West St. Paul neighborhood in the early morning and again at night. The walks were a continuation of a ritual she’d begun at her former home, in south Minneapolis, where they had led her to discover Lake Harriet and local parks. Over time she became not just a walker but also a hiker, venturing further afield to trails in state and regional parks. Moved to share her passion for roving with others, Mendez, who had fled her native Venezuela in 2018 for political asylum in the United States, formed Huellas Latinas Hiking Club, where members gain a sense of belonging and build friendships through outdoor activities. Mendez leads the group, whose name means “Latina Footprints,” as they hike in new places and learn outdoor skills such as canoeing, camping, and paddleboarding.
Q | Why did you create Huellas Latinas?
I was walking for myself and with my friends in 2020, and in 2021 I started my first 52 Hike Challenge [a commitment to hike once a week throughout the year]. When I was posting my experience on social media, people reached out to ask, “Can I go with you? Can we do this together? How can I start?” So I started a hiking program for Latino families with St. Paul Parks and Recreation. At the end of the program, we all wondered what the next step would be to continue walking together, so I decided to start Huellas Latinas Hiking Club to continue building a strong community with common interests in outdoor activities. We are immigrants, and when you are immigrants everything is new. When you find a community, you find support, help, friendships, and enjoy more your new life here. We develop a sense of belonging. Making friends in the United States and especially in Minnesota is hard. Huellas Latinas is a very safe space where people can find something in common and build very good relationships.
Q | How does Huellas Latinas help people?
When I meet people, I listen to them. How they feel lonely and how hard it is for them to make friends. So I say, come walk with me and meet new people. They feel amazing. I meet people who have lived in Minnesota for 5 or 6 years and have never gone in one park. Minnehaha Falls, maybe. They don’t know if the park is free, or if they need to pay for it. They don’t know how to navigate the trails or if the park is safe or not safe. Always my advice is, come join us. Together we are learning while we enjoy.
Q | Is there a lot of interest in the group? Can anyone join?
Huellas Latinas Hiking Club has registered more than 90 members plus their family members, all with different nationalities and backgrounds. People who are learning the language come to practice and learn about the culture. Anyone, Latino or not, who speaks Spanish or not, but who likes and enjoys our culture and nature can join us.
Q | How often do you hike together, and where do you go?
We have a schedule that varies according to the seasons of the year, programs, and events. We usually meet once a week. huellaslatinas.com is the website. There are many beautiful places in the Twin Cities that I want to explore. However, on weekends or holidays, I like to plan visits to the state parks that are a little farther from the Cities. We recently went on a guided forest bathing walk at Whitewater State Park in southeastern Minnesota.
Q | In 2021, you personally visited 77 parks and walked more than 285 miles as part of the 52 Hike Challenge. You’re doing the challenge for a second time. How many miles have you hiked this year?
So far, I have hiked 47 times and covered 179.2 miles. I am also doing the Hiking and the Passport clubs challenges with Minnesota State Parks and Trails. I have visited 25 of 75 state parks and have walked 64.9 of 175 miles. Compared to the year 2021, I would like to reach 365 miles in 2022. I am far away, but I will keep trying.
Q | What are some of your favorite natural settings in the state?
Minnesota is surrounded by nature; it is a great strength of the state and a great resource for us. I love having the opportunity to escape from the routine and in less than 20 minutes find a natural space. One park I visit regularly is Crosby Farm Regional Park. However, the state parks offer the best natural settings. Among them: Interstate, Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and Itasca, to mention some examples.
Q | What do you get from hiking and recreating outdoors?
I have improved my physical condition and endurance. Every time I feel more comfortable walking for longer, taking longer distances or traveling through more difficult terrain. Every time I am in nature, I find calm and peace; I can connect with myself and with my surroundings. My sense of curiosity is heightened by discovering new things. I learn from everyone and find inspiration. Outdoor activities are something I can share with family, friends, and members of my community. When we share these experiences, we strengthen our relationships.
Q | On your Huellas Latinas blog you advise people to try something new. What new activities have you tried?
My blog is the first bilingual outdoor blog in Minnesota, and one of the ideas of the blog is to share information from our own experiences. I have done many things in a short time, and I recommend all of them. You must try [each of them] at least once: rope climbing, bouldering, canoeing, kayaking, camping, winter hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing.