In the Woods, I Know that I Am Safe
Sarah Grothjan recently wrote an article for Outside detailing some of her experience with sexual harassment and solo adventuring. Not for the experience she described with a man she called Josh, but for the parade of harassment she described that women deal with regularly, I resonated with her. After reading the article, I wrote a Facebook post sharing some of my own experience with sexual harassment. Then I deleted it.
I deleted the post more out of a desire to keep some of my life private than anything else. Part of me thinks I don’t often share experiences with sexual harassment, assault or otherwise, because I don’t want to seem weak. I can fend for myself, and that’s the vibe I want to put off.
But the issue with that image is it also gives the appearance that these things don’t happen to me, or other women like me.
Attempting my thru-hike as a solo woman is never something I questioned. I consciously acknowledged the risk of the situation—that I could be followed, harassed, attacked or otherwise—and planned my walk anyway.
Realistically, I do this every time I do something simple, like go visit my sister in New York City. I walk out of Grand Central, sometimes very late, and acknowledge the risk of the situation—that I could be followed, harassed, attacked or otherwise. I walk the blocks to her place anyway.
Still, I get the question all the time: Aren’t you afraid to be alone in the woods by yourself?
The truth is, I have been afraid a few times. Sometimes squirrels outside my tent sound like bears; and sometimes night hikers walk up right to where I’m camping. Sometimes I’m just alone and create situations in my head. It’s never what I’ve built it up to be and I always think of what my Grandma Maxine said before I started walking, that in all her years of backpacking, no one has ever entered her tent that was not invited. To this day, that’s true for me as well.
Right now on the Appalachian Trail, the biggest thing to be afraid of is hypothermia (it’s been raining a lot).
I feel as safe as I’ll ever be backpacking. I love the solitude and time for reflection. I love that I can do, realistically, whatever I want. It’s really unremarkable that where I feel most unsafe is the cities I’ve hopped off trail to visit.
When I hit 400 or so miles, I got off trail in Pawling, NY, to visit with my sister in the city. I smelled bad. Like, really bad. My friend Kylo and I moved three parties of people from the seats across from us to different train cars because of the smell. Still, when I walked out of Grand Central and stood at the spot I always stand to get my bearings, a man without a shirt came up to me and stared. He leered for a while—me ignoring—before he put his hand down his pants and stepped closer. I told him, aggressively, to go away before walking away myself.
At around 800 miles, I was dropped off in Boston by good friends from the trail and spent a few days visiting with a friend, Sawyer. There, we were cat-called from the street (“You look good. Really sexy. Both of you do. Both of you.”), yelled at from cars that sped by way too close, and generally harassed walking from one side of the city to the other.
At 1,600 miles in Marion, VA, I exited the local library and was approached by an older man who shadowed me closely and talked at me while I reorganized my pack. A woman from the library interrupted, then he walked away.
“Sorry, he is a creep,” she said. “I didn’t want you talking with him. He has been caught in the library looking at porn and masturbating.”
She said it matter-of-fact. It seemed like that was just something to deal with or tolerate.
These are just small examples from the past four months of my life. There are more, but I shouldn’t have to list them all. Many women have dealt with much worse, much more frequently. And that’s a problem too.
In dealing with all of these events, I have felt most comfortable after being deposited back on trail. I set up my tent, make dinner, and watch an episode of something downloaded on my phone. In the woods, I am not bothered.
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