Get out into nature, they said. Los Angeles is a two hour drive from snow, beach, mountains and desert (traffic congestion). It’s free, they said. To Michael Washington – founder of USAL Project, a company that offers guided nature tours in Los Angeles – this all sounds great in theory. But for the inexperienced it is not so easy or welcoming. He hopes he can bridge that gap.
Washington first tried to tap into existing wildlife programs in the LA area. When he attended a foraging convention last year, he felt left out. “I walked in and it was all white people over 50. When I tried to ask questions I got such a cold shoulder. It was so uninviting. I was like, ‘Here’s the problem,’ he says.
So he started toying with the idea of creating a diverse place for curious outdoor people. Not an expert himself, he worried about being judged. After months of deliberation, he decided that this made him the perfect candidate. As a beginner, he was the target customer and he knew he could call on experts to help. He could create the group he had not found.
He was also ready for a big change in his life, one that embraced nature and fueled his creativity. At one point, his job as a talent manager in the music industry meant helping artists tell their stories. Then it became a viral race that required shark-like instincts that he couldn’t fake. But that was not the dream. He wanted to find his way back as a storyteller. The outdoors led him there.
“People always say, ‘Wow, what you’re doing now is so different,’ but for me it really isn’t. It’s a lot of the same skills. It’s event production, it’s marketing, it’s storytelling. “connects the dots to a wider community, to a landscape, to a location through activity and a shared interest. The ship was music then, the ship is the outdoors now,” says Washington.
Washington worked as a talent manager and was pulled away from his love of the outdoors. Raised in San Antonio, Texas, his interest in nature developed while attending the University of Colorado Boulder. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, where on the rare weekend he had time off from working with his clients—internationally touring DJs and aspiring indie rock musicians—he packed his gear into an RV and found a new part of the state to unplug. from the power outlet. in.
These adventures took Washington to Usal Beach in Humboldt County, where he could surf, camp, and hike. He would later follow in Patagonia’s footsteps and name his organization USAL Project after the area that inspired it. But at that point, his interest in the great outdoors was just beginning to eclipse the love he once had for the music industry and with it his Instagram feed morphed from photos of nights out into shots of idyllic coastlines and smiling selfies on craggy mountains. Friends and strangers noticed the shift. In a few years he would find a way to make the outdoors his full-time job, but in the meantime he enjoyed every moment with Usal.
“Strangers contacted me online with lengthy messages telling me how sharing my wildlife photos and walks has helped them. It surprised me, but it made me feel really good and I started thinking about how I could do this in a targeted way. way,” says Washington.
Clearly, Washington wasn’t the only Los Angeles resident yearning for more time away from home. Lockdown in the early days of the pandemic forced people out of their comfort zones and explored nearby trails for socially distanced walks. Outdoor performance gear has even influenced fashion trends and led to Gucci’s partnership with North Face. Through USAL, Washington hopes to change the look of the average outdoorsman by acknowledging that the rich, white, male archetype is a result of systemic racism and classism that has led people of color like him into neighborhoods and socioeconomic situations that make the outdoors less accessible. to make. .
“The outdoors is different from other activities because of its level of safety. You can’t get started alone. Learning how to do something the right way isn’t just good, it can make all the difference between saving your life. It helps to be around teachers who come from the same city as you, the same generation as you, maybe have the same skin color as you,” he says.
On Earth Day 2022, USAL Project launched its first event, a foraging workshop. The following month, Washington took up his job in music.
Under the curation of Washington and his newly appointed business partner, DJ and chef Zoe Gitter, USAL Project hosts 20 to 25 events per month in the Los Angeles area. A gardening class is $20, while a guided herb walk or foraging walk is $30. For the thrill seeker, there’s falconry ($100) and oceanic species diving ($120). Less physical activities include breathwork workshops ($35), ceramics ($85), beadwork ($100), and making compost bins ($55). Weekend trips focused on camping, backpacking and spearfishing are organized in Joshua Tree, Morro Bay and Big Sur ($80-$200). All events include materials and equipment and are supervised by field experts.
USAL isn’t the only brand offering guided nature tours in Los Angeles. “You can get a guided fishing trip anywhere,” says Washington. In many cases, USAL’s pricing is competitive, but the brand hopes to differentiate itself with a clear mission.
“Nature activities are often combined with wellness on the one hand and fitness on the other. Where we are is somewhere in between. Our guides are different because they teach the human connection to the activity and how it has helped their lives. The goal is to help people understand why these activities are extremely important and not only fun, but also important to your life routine,” says Washington.
On a brisk Saturday morning, a group of 30-somethings in their 20s and 30s gather at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena. Washington stands quietly in the back and lets Andrea Jimenez of Herb Walk LA guide the group in identifying more than 10 plants, from stinging nettle to California sagebrush. Participants ask dozens of questions, some sketching each herb and others looking for a bouquet for medicinal use. The event is one of the mainstays of USAL and sells out every time.
Mario Apuzzo, a business administrator at USC, invited two classmates to join him on the spice walk. “I discovered USAL through Instagram,” he says. “I was very attracted to the images of it. Last week I tried the Forest Therapy class, and it was completely transformative.
That night, USAL hosted its first round table dinner in their new first physical space in Silver Lake. Like neighborhood boutiques, they sell locally made goods such as candles and ceramics alongside USAL’s merchandise – hoodies and sweatpants with trippy, fashion-forward graphics. Washington hopes the store can uplift the local community by selling their goods and that the brand expansion will allow proceeds from USAL merchandise to keep event ticket prices as low as possible.
Olivia Matthews, a growth manager at a startup, was one of 40 attendees at the dinner. She grabbed a glass of natural wine before striking up a conversation with three other women. All four attended the dinner alone, hoping to meet new like-minded people. Despite being new to LA, Matthews is already a USAL veteran. Since July, she has taken a woodworking course, done the herbal walk, experienced forest therapy, and participated in the monthly outdoor gear exchange.
“These events have allowed me to meet people, learn more about things to do in the area, connect with nature, and pursue new hobbies. They were such a great introduction to LA for me and were so accessible and approachable. As I continued to go to USAL events, I started seeing the same people and it was a lot of fun building that community over time,” she says.
USAL was built to introduce curious LA residents to the wonders of the outdoors, but despite the diversity of attendees, there is a clear common thread. “The flag we hang in terms of what our Instagram looks like, our images and videos attracts a certain type of creative person. We go to the great outdoors with a fresh outlook unlike any other outdoor brand. It naturally brings together people who identify with certain tastes and not the kind of people who are arrogant,” says Washington. It’s no coincidence that the group looks like a cool kid’s club, but regardless of the stylish sneakers or hats worn during the spice walk or the roundtable dinner, the community stays true to its all-for-everyone roots. Anything less would result in the same barriers Washington faced a year earlier.
“Did you notice that none of us have asked what the others do for a living?” Olivia Matthews asked her new friends at the fire pit outside USAL headquarters. “That’s how you know this is different.”