The Million Dollar Question
As in, if I had a dollar for every person who asked me this question, I would have a million dollars.
Disclaimer: This post might only apply if you are a woman. 😉 But please, by all means, keep reading! This is what women have to deal with when we say the words “solo” and “hike” in the same sentence. Let’s change the trend!
As I shared my plans to thru-hike with people in my life—friends, family, acquaintances—there was only one question that I was asked more than, “Are you going to carry a gun?” And I can guarantee that every woman who has ever had the desire to hike solo has been asked this question as many times as I have.
“Are you going by yourself?”
When I responded with a “yes,” I usually got nervous looks or nervous advice. “You shouldn’t do that” or “Yikes” or similar sentiments were written all over their faces.
Now, to be fair, I was kind of thinking the same thing at this point: Is it safe for me to go by myself? I fantasized about finding someone to hike with, but I did not put a lot of effort (okay, no effort) into finding such a person. To be honest, there was always this inhibition in my mind. I just really felt like I was supposed to do this alone. It seemed like God was trying to get me out there by myself.
So I started the trail solo. Sure, I was nervous. My first few days on the trail, hiking through rainy Maryland where the woods were shrouded in haunting mist, I glanced over my shoulder all the time. I think I was most concerned about cougars, or bears, but the odd human being with bad intentions visited my imagination, too. There were times when I was alone in the silence of the woods, I could only see so far in front of me because of the fog, and it scared me. Something had to be out there, just waiting to pounce.
Even on the trail, most of the people I ran into would leave me with “Be safe.” Like I was being unsafe by being out there alone. Again, at this point, I could have easily agreed with them, although I wouldn’t have said it out loud. Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it.
My third night on the Trail, I planned to stay at Pogo Campsite in MD. I would have to pitch my tent, but that was okay; there was a privy and a water source, so I had everything I needed. My tramily consisted of several retired men at this point, men who hiked at a slower pace than I did. We all planned to stay at Pogo that evening, but since I hiked faster than the others, I arrived at the campsite first. I took off my backpack and set it on a stump, then proceeded to hang a line to try to dry my ground cloth and tent before the next wave of rain set in that night. Meanwhile, I wander up towards the privy in search of a decent spot for my tent. The solitude is testing my nerve, as is the “roughing-it” nature of this campsite. Although it is only 4-5 miles to a road in either direction, it might as well be 50. I feel like I am in the middle of nowhere. What if the other guys don’t make it here? What if I really do have to spend the night by myself? As the minutes tick by, panic begins to set in. I pitch my tent and haphazardly unpack my gear for the night. I pray for company.
Finally, I see bright colors among the drab brown of the woods and Cujoe and his nephew come hiking into the campsite. I could’ve hugged them. Relief sweeps over me. Even though it is supposed to rain tonight, I feel like I can handle it as long as I am not alone. I cook dinner early to try to beat the rain and then hang my bear bag. God knew I needed a win tonight, and I get it as I successfully hang my bear bag without any help.
These are the little things that begin to build my confidence.
Eventually, I learn that rain will not melt me and God will not abandon me and the Trail community will not fail me. I enjoy the bubble that I started the Trail with, but eventually I outpace them and learn to be alone again, not dependent on a tramily. While there are definitely things about this that I regret, it builds my independence and confidence and dependence on God. Hiking by myself becomes routine. It will never be easy, though. I get bored. I have bad days. People say that a bad day on the Trail still beats a good day at work, but I am not so sure. I do love my job and my office is a little atypical. Sometimes all I wanted to do was get to a shelter and curl up in my sleeping bag with a Harry Potter book I could read on my phone. Being stuck with yourself in the woods on a rotten day isn’t fun.
On the flip side, I could stop when I wanted. I could hike as many miles or as few as I wanted without worrying about someone else. I wasn’t changing my hike because of someone else. I was hiking my own hike.
When my thru-hike attempt ended prematurely due to back problems, I came home to heal and rest. After solo hiking over 1,200 miles through some of the toughest terrain on the AT, guess. What. Question. I. Still. Got. Asked.
“Did you go by yourself?”
YES. FREAKING YES.
In case you couldn’t tell, it bothered me. I bristled with indignation. Why do people think it is unsafe for women to go into the woods by themselves? Can we focus instead on how hundreds of strong, confident, beautiful women are taking to the woods? We are daring to be independent. We are daring to do what we love, to seek what makes us better, and to grow. We are daring to be vulnerable and real.
The bottom line is, if you want to solo hike the Trail and you are a woman, do it. Yes, bad things have happened on the Trail, but bad things happen everywhere. In over 1200 miles of trail, I did not meet anyone who made me feel nervous or unsafe. Sure, I met people I was glad were hiking in the opposite direction or faster/slower than me, but I also met many more amazing people. I’m convinced the Trail community is one of the wonders of the world. Get out there and experience it, even if it means going by yourself!
So let’s be clear. If you are a woman:
It’s okay to go on a hike alone.
It’s okay to go on a thru-hike alone.
It’s okay to fudge your way through an answer to the “Are you going by yourself?” question, because eventually you will figure it out. When that happens, you’ll be able to say confidently, while feeling more annoyed than you thought possible, “YES. FREAKIN’ YES.”
“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness—an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” ~Brene Brown
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