"You are Here"

A conversation with the creator and founder of Usal Projects, Michael Washington.

At the end of January, Usal and Stance teamed up for a collaborative outdoor event series titled “You Are Here.” This was a weekend and a collaboration that Stance had been looking forward to for a long time. Wherever you go and whatever you do, Stance and Usal both connect you to the ground beneath your feet. We both believe in the power of play, the power of expression through movement and the power of community. It was an incredible experience getting to see a group of people, some friends, some strangers, some dogs, come together to take in nature in whatever way and at whatever pace, felt right to them. After 8 miles of trails and a burger or two for recovery, we sat down with Michael Washington, creator of Usal, to hear the motivation behind building this community of people and why he wanted to find new ways to provide access to the outdoors.

Today's event was titled “You Are Here.” Could you speak to that concept a bit?

“You Are Here.” It’s three words that make you feel so small, but also so big at the same time. It's a zoom out kind of feeling where you're like, oh, wait, all the problems, all the things I worry about on this microscopic level, thinking about where you are, where your feet are. You are here, instantly zooms your brain out to understand, wow, I really have so many amazing things going on in my life. You are existing and you are here now.

How long have you been in LA? And where were you before that?

I've been in LA for about 12 years now. I was born and raised in Texas. And then moved to Colorado for school and then moved here right after college.

When did Usal get started?

Usal started about 2 years ago. Earth Day, 2022.

What inspired Usal?

I was inspired to start Usal because it was something that I was really looking for myself. I was looking for community centered around more active, outdoor, movement-driven hobbies rather than just kind of going out to bars. It was hard to find people that were doing this type of thing. I knew there were people out there that were interested in this type of stuff and I just didn't see a place that existed that brought those people together.

That's kind of how it started.

I get the most joy out of sharing things with other people. So it's not enough for me to do it. I want to help someone else do it. That's just always been the case. I want to bring people together. I want them to have that feeling that I had. It’s as simple as that. That's why I started Usal…It’s all of those moments where people come to me after a hike saying, "Oh my God, thank you. That was so awesome. I had the best day of my life.”

I was in the music world a while back and it was cool, but I thought when someone would tell me, oh, thank you for introducing me to this camping site…why does this feel 10 times better? So I was like, “oh, that'd be really cool if I could get paid to help people feel this way.”

Blurry image of person running
Person standing in front of a waterfall
Man in a green t-shirt running
Woman smiling with a small dog

How do you define Usal?

I define Usal as an experiential community that uses nature and the outdoors and outdoor hobbies as its backdrop. It's all about meeting new people and making new friends and using the backdrop, the canvas of outdoor activity as the setting. Usal is really about helping people connect deeper to themselves and friends, and also their home. It’s about community. 

Do you think growing up and living in Texas and Colorado influenced this part of you?

Yeah, coming out of Texas, I was growing up outside and riding bikes and climbing trees. I wanted to go to Boulder because of its access to nature and the outdoors. When I moved to LA, I felt like it was hard to find nature driven hobbyists and hobbies here, and I didn't really understand why. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of it. Definitely five plus years before I felt comfortable on my own knowing what was around me. 

Yeah California has so many different environments: you have the desert, the forest, the beach, the mountains, etc. You mentioned access. How do you feel about access to outdoors and what does access to outdoors mean?

I think you just need someone to extend the hand to help you understand what's right in front of you, and it's going to be daunting doing it on your own. So if you don't have friends that have done it or that are getting you into it or your family or where you grew up or something like that, I think it's really hard to define access because yeah sure, you have access to the outdoors because you live right by it. But I think access is a bigger thing. You need a push. And that to me is almost like access in a way. You could be blind to it and feel like, oh, I can never do this. Not because you're far away from it, or because it's expensive, or the gear, but you just don't have a community to help you get into it. That is an access point that people, even if they have all the other things, still need. 

How was it planting those first roots and finding these like-minded people? What was the thing that connected you to them?

The way that we started was just simply by word of mouth. I came into 2022 wanting to start this, and so I started talking to people about it. And the first people that I went to were just my friends or friends of friends who did certain hobbies: I had a friend who got me into backpacking, a friend who got me into spearfishing, a friend who does ceramics. As soon as I started voicing, "Hey, I'm interested in starting this thing. I'm looking to build a network of guides.”, the puzzle pieces were really just placing themselves in front of me. 

What's your favorite part about the events?

Meeting people and just seeing people break out of their shells. As humans it's hard to be around a bunch of new people you’ve never met. It's awkward but I think it's good to provide these people with scenarios. I think our generation is one of the last that has real life as the only thing, like the internet wasn't always a constant. So it's important to me that people connect.

What's behind the name?

Usal is a place up in Northern California that I visited once and then went back a couple of times. It was just a special place for me and a place I definitely was thinking about while doing this project and just figured I'd name it after something that I had a connection to.

Where do you see Usal going?

I think we want Usal to exist in places that people are having trouble finding a connection to nature. So that is densely populated cities like the New York's I think are interesting because they're not known as outdoor driven places or that people don't think that they can have a connection to the outdoors while living in a place like that. They have to sacrifice one or the other. So I think that's going to be the fun of it, is really challenging ourselves to find ways to connect people to nature in places like London, New York, Berlin.

It seems like collaboration is like a key pillar of the business model, but what makes for good collaboration to you?

Good collaboration just starts with an open dialogue and an even playing field where there's not really something to get out of it that's monetary or about a financial gain. Starting in a place where it's just about how can we make the best experience and then building from there.

Why is that connection with nature important?

It's inherent to just being a human. It's like you get these real ancestral driven feelings and energy when you are somewhere in those places that you can't really explain. We exist in the concrete jungle and any access point to nature, even if it's catching a fish and cooking it, there's something there that you feel that you're like, "Whoa, why does this feel different?". We've been doing this for millions of years. And we have that connection to the past. And I think it comes out in those moments and we really feel like, oh, a breath of fresh air or like, oh, I can really think again.

I think it all just relates to a return to form, a return to how we once lived. Those subtle injections of moments in nature, lead to a more fulfilling full life because it's just science.

Have you always had that draw for movement and physical exertion?

Yeah, definitely. 

Was there ever a point where you crossed a threshold to start to do more extreme stuff?

Well, usually how it goes for me is first I would think, “Oh, I could never do that, that's impossible.” Then it’s like, “oh, wait, now I'm going to have to go do this. When I met Rio he was saying he runs ultras. At that point, I had never run a marathon. So even a marathon was still like, oh, I would never be able to run that much. And then I did. It was crazy and painful and religious in all the ways. And then I was still like, oh, I'll never be able to do an ultra distance. And then you use those moments of saying you could never do something and challenge yourself to do that. I think those are really nice ways to impress yourself and be like, wow, I'm proud of myself that I was able to do this thing that at one point I thought was impossible.

Thank you to both of the event guides @rio_lakeshore and @dyl.mccoy for leading the way. Thank you to @phamuel for the photography. And big thank you to @michaelwashh for sharing your love of nature, connecting and growing an inspired community of outdoor enthusiasts, and being a great overall collaborator. We look forward to more opportunities to get outside with you all again.