By Joy Hampton

Senior Staff Writer

Moore resident, Curtis Cagle loves the outdoors and activities like camping, hiking, kayaking, snow skiing and fishing. He joined several groups on Meetup.com and found others with similar interests. In his most recent Meetup adventure, Cagle combined kayaking with camping.

“I’ve been doing it for three or three and a half years,” Cagle said. “I was interested in going backpacking, and it was an opportunity to meet like-minded people and go do it.”

Cagle also likes the safe environment of the groups.

“It’s another way to connect with people,” Cagle said. “It’s an excellent way to swap information, that’s another thing I like about. You can share information about gear and trips.”

Meetups exist for moms, coders, meditation, Toastmasters, sports photographers, knitting and fiber arts, book clubs, country dancing, hypnosis, nudists, entrepreneurs, vegans and speaking Italian.

Want to dance salsa? Learn to sew? Parachute?

There’s a Meetup for that. All you have to do is register, tell a bit about yourself and, in some cases, pay a minor annual fee (usually $5 or $10 but it varies with the group). Many Meetups are completely free with a request for donations, and most of the pay groups offer a free trial period.

Norman resident David Wheelock founded the Norman Naturalism group in 2006 to fill the gap some folks fill with church. The group now has over 900 members who vary in their attendance of the multiple events the group hosts, but that growth spurt happened with help from Meetup.

Wheelock has become a very busy man.

“I was never in student council, I’m not the sort that joins committees,” Wheelock said. “I don’t have the greatest social skills sometimes.”

Before the group went online, members met once or twice a month (sometimes). Wheelock took the Naturalism group online through Meetup.com in 2008. The number of members and activities exploded as a result.

“A lot of people come through the group,” Wheelock said. “Some people stay, some move on.”

One element of Meetup groups is that people find friends and sometimes fall away from the group. But the online connection allows for everything from very small group meetings to very large activities.

“It’s a group for people who have moved beyond their old beliefs,” he said. “They can’t believe in their old religion anymore.”

When people fall out with their religious community, they can feel adrift.

“We want to be their new best friend,” Wheelock said. “We have six to eight events a month now.”

Even though he founded the naturalism group, other people can organize events and often do. Wheelock tries to go to as many as he can, but he’s content to let others be in charge.

Founding the group has made Wheelock a lot more social and more understanding of others.

“I get out a lot and I meet a lot of people,” he said. “When you have a group that’s all volunteer and you’re only there to have fun, you always have to see the other person’s view and you always have to try to have a good time.”

Norman resident Virginia Lindhurst is a social worker who loves nature and being active. She likes hiking and meeting new people, so finding Meetup groups that focus on hiking, camping and backpacking has been a way for her to explore nature while making new friends.

“It’s been about two years, I started out with Norman/OKC hiking group and then I started camping,” she said.

Lindhurst finds something to do with a different group nearly every weekend.

“I showed my boss a picture of my last backpacking trip and she said, ‘why would you want to do that,’” said Lindhurst, laughing. For her, it was a natural transition from hiking to backpacking.

“When I started camping, I met people that were more into backpacking,” she said. “When you start doing these day hikes you want to go further and explore more.”

Through various Meetup groups, Lindhurst has made friends in Moore, Oklahoma, Tulsa, Bartlesville and beyond. A recent trip took her to Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle and all of the way to New Mexico.

Lindhurst said camping and hiking keeps her mentally healthy despite the demands of her job. The down side? She wishes she had more vacation time.

“Two weeks is not enough,” she said.

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