My Thru-Hiking Vows
Why am I going on this hike? Why aren’t others?
When Abby told me she was thinking about hiking the PCT last summer, my first reaction was that I wanted to do it, too, but there was no way that I could swing it. I was in the first few years of a promising career in coastal engineering, modeling the flood impacts of storm surges and sea level rise; I was developing a strong network of friends and activities; and I was perfectly settled into my life. I was well on my way of checking off items on the list of Responsible Life Steps. Breaking that career and leaving my perfectly-located-and-
One day, several months later, I decided that I could just do it. It wouldn’t actually be that hard to temporarily leave my life in Maine. I don’t own a home, I don’t have kids, and I am lucky enough to have saved enough money to stop working for 6 months. Lucky and privileged.
Lurking in the back of my mind, behind excitement, anticipation, and general worry, is guilt. What an exceptionally amazing experience I get to have this spring, summer, and fall! I am going to spend every day in nature while loved ones at home support me and cheer me on. I get to blissfully walk from Mexico to Canada without the worry of kids to take care of and without multiple jobs to juggle.
Okay. I know it won’t be blissful. I will experience sadness, pain, and harsh weather. I will be frustrated and cry and wonder why on earth I decided to hike the PCT. But isn’t that a privilege in itself? That my worries in life are so small that I have the luxury of willingly putting myself in hard situations? That I’m not one of 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world, making a different long and hard trek to relocate their families while coming up against barricade after barricade after barricade?
Here are some themes that I’ve been thinking about and reflecting on as my start date approaches.
I can’t find exact numbers or statistics anywhere, but it’s pretty well understood that thru-hiking is a predominantly white activity. Rahawa Haile, a black female, hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016. She found one other black female thru-hiking the AT that year of the approximately 3,000 hikers that year.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Finney traces the various ways that designated wilderness areas, trails, and parks have systematically prioritized white people as the “general public” that deserves access to and enjoyment of these spaces. For example, she notes that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act both passed in 1964, and writes that the former legislation assumes “a universality of ideals” about the wilderness “without considering the underlying structural and systemic inequalities that prohibited ‘all men’ from participating in and actively enjoying the American wilderness.” She reminds us that race continues to shape the construction of parks (“Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., the largest urban park in the National Park system, separates Chevy Chase, a wealthy white enclave ‘from the increasingly black neighborhoods’ proliferating on the nearby landscape of Maryland,” she writes as one example).
There are a million reasons why my whiteness has made nature and this hike more accessible to me and I want to maintain my awareness of that. I know that “guilt” is not a productive feeling, but awareness can be the first step to action. By doing this hike, I hope to find ways to make access to nature more accessible for people of color, and I will try my hardest to not participate in the oppression of minorities.
There are twice as many male hikers on the trail than female hikers. Why is this? There aren’t twice as many men in the world. You might jump to the conclusion that men are biologically stronger, and thus, more capable at completing a thru-hike, but in fact, women are on equal footing with men when it comes to extremely long distance events. Check out this article by Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set the record in 2011 for Fastest Known Time (FTK) of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 (this was surpassed by 3 hours in 2015 by Scott Jurek). Here’s my favorite section that she wrote:
In the wake of my record, I received numerous questions and even more comments. Some of the feedback suggested I must be either an exceptional woman — or an androgynous one — to be able to hike the trail so quickly. In my own mind I started to doubt my ability and my accomplishment. I wondered: What was different — or wrong — with me?
In 2012, the process of conceiving, birthing and nursing my daughter served as an abrupt reminder that I was fully female, genetically and hormonally. As a result, I recognized not only that I was all right, but also that I was specifically and spectacularly engineered to carry the approximate weight of a backpack for several months and endure excruciating pain.
So if physical ability is not what’s holding women back, there must be some other factors. My guess is that there are a combination of social and economic factors that prevent women from deciding to embark on a thru-hike.
Safety is a major concern that others have brought up to me while I discuss my upcoming thru-hike. I’m going to bet that the constant reminder that the world is dangerous, particularly for females, is one inhibiting factor in women deciding to embark on their own solo adventures. Yes, people are concerned about my safety from the elements and wildlife, but they are also concerned about my safety from other hikers, specifically male hikers. In terms of the dangers of elements and wildlife, men are just as exposed as women. I would hope that they receive as many voiced concerns about these dangers as women do, but my gut tells me that they probably do not.
When it comes to the dangers of other humans on the trail, I use the same mentality that I do in every other part of my life. I try my hardest not to allow the fear of harm from a man dictate how I live my life. I simply cannot not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, something I’ve thought about for years, because of what a man could potentially do to harm me. This does not mean that I actively put myself in harm’s way, but I choose not to live a life that follows the victim-blaming framework. If a man were to attack me on the Pacific Crest Trail, it would not be my fault for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it would be the man’s fault for attacking me. If women stopped doing awesome things entirely because of the chance of being attacked or raped, then the attackers and rapists in the world have won! If society is causing women to fear going on solo adventures by constantly reminding us that we need to be safe if we’re alone, that we should carry pepper spray, or by questioning our decision to embark on such an adventure entirely, but not telling men that they should just stop being attackers and rapists, then society is failing us!
#notallmen but #yesallwomen
I think this is also an appropriate time to bring up #notallmen but #yesallwomen. Obviously, only a small percentage of men are attackers or rapists, hence #notallmen. But, all women have at some point felt the fear of walking alone at night, questioned the single man a block ahead of them on the sidewalk walking towards them, or changed their running route to avoid dark corners of the city. #yesallwomen have been affected by the thought of being attacked by a man. This is something both men and women need to be reminded of. Empowering women, making them feel safe, both by not questioning their decisions, and by educating men on how to treat women, is everybody’s responsibility. I will make an effort during this hike to empower my fellow female hikers, to educate others on potentially discriminating or demeaning comments, and to call out times when I see people speaking in the victim-blaming framework.
I am a woman. I am an engineer. And I am about to walk from Mexico to Canada. If those with a Y chromosome can do it, I can do it.
To tie together the above two, we cannot always peel apart gender from race, sexual orientation, and religion. Sometimes women are African-American and homosexual. Sometimes women are transgender and white. Sometimes women are Muslim. I am white and female. I am considerably less oppressed than females of color or transgender females. While I still feel the effects of sexism, I do not feel them as much as women of color. Check out this article on intersectional feminism. I’ve included a preview below:
But feminism isn’t here to make anyone comfortable.
Quite to the contrary, intersectional feminism should be making everyone uncomfortable because we never grow or progress when we are comfortable. We grow when we are hurting or struggling or stretching ourselves to understand something new.
The difficulty of intersectional feminism is a difficulty and discomfort that is meant to inspire change.
Thus, we have to be willing to take up the critical thinking and self-work necessary to push back against our privileges and to create an intersectional ethic and lens through which our feminism is crafted.
Women of color have always been at the front lines of issues and movements. Americans have been out in droves over the past few months protesting various appointments or actions of our new administration. We need to remember that women of color have been doing this for not just the past few months, but hundreds of years. More than anything, we need to listen to them. Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington and the executive director of the Arab American Association in New York said:
If you’re in a movement and you’re not following a woman of color, you’re in the wrong movement. – Linda Sarsour
So as I think about feminism and white guilt, I will remember intersectional feminism. I will not push only my agenda on others or use my white privilege to speak over more oppressed women. I will listen to them, try to empower them, and follow in their footsteps. Hopefully, quite literally, follow in their footsteps along the PCT.
One of the main reasons that I’m going on this hike is to connect and reconnect with nature. I am so incredibly moved by the power and beauty of nature. In my daydream PCT fantasies, I envision day-after-day of walking in nature with an intense spiritual connection to my natural surroundings. I imagine being in tune with the weather, flora, and fauna surrounding me. I imagine breaking my addiction to my smartphone and remembering the important things in life.
The Earth is all we have. It provides for us day after day after day. We are so incredibly lucky to be able to experience the ocean, the mountains, and the stars. To raise animals and farm the soils and experience the exhilaration of jumping into the ocean or reaching a peak of a mountain.
The Pacific Crest Trail passes through 5 national monuments, 5 state park units, 6 national parks, 7 Bureau of Land Management field offices, 25 national forest units, and 48 federal wilderness areas. I will be able to enjoy this trail because an incredible amount of work has gone into environmental protection and conservation of these areas.
If more people were to be able to go on a thru-hike, there would be a greater appreciation of nature in our world. But I know that thru-hiking is not accessible to many people. I know that nature is not even accessible to many people. Which makes it all the more important that we do not continue limiting access to nature. Our current government administration is taking measures to actively stop protecting nature. It is all of our responsibilities to resist this. Throughout my hike and my life, I will strive to protect our environment and honor our planet. I hope to influence others to appreciate nature and make similar protective efforts.
Leave No Trace
I cannot talk about protecting our environment and thru-hiking without talking about Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. These are important practices for all hikers to follow. I will make every effort to leave as little impact on the trail as possible. I will update you as I go on how I will incorporate these measures into my daily practices. Please check out the link above and practice incorporating LNT principles whenever you are in nature.
My Hiking Vows
With all of these themes, I’ve been thinking about my intentions and for this upcoming hike. I’ve developed a a set of vows that I will memorize and remind myself of everyday over five month trek on the trail. I will live by these before my hike, while hiking, and after I complete my hike.
I vow to walk everyday with awareness of my social and environmental impact, social and economic privilege, and my power to influence change. I vow to respect and withhold judgement from fellow hikers. I vow to respect and honor the earth. I vow to respect and honor my body, both its capabilities and its limits.
Why am I going on this hike? Why aren’t others?
So, I have a pretty good idea of why I am going on this adventure, but I’m going to continue contemplating the barriers that so many others face when it comes to accessing nature, be it their race, gender, or social or economic status. If you have suggestions, or have already made efforts to make nature more accessible to a move diverse group of people, please share!
From my device to yours,
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You go Leila this is the perfect time in your life to do this . Like Rodney once told me If you want to do things in life do it now while you feel like you can, don’t wait till you are too old and can’t. I am sure your family is so proud of you as well as my self . So have a great time and be safe !
Thank you so much for writing this–these ideas are so important and often missing from thru-hiker and outdoors groups of people. I have been struggling with how to approach the trail in a way that doesn’t ignore the privilege I have that enables me to do this trip so thank you again for helping me think about these issues in this context. Also I am very excited to try keep this vow in my mind as I hike SOBO this year.