Things I, a Solo Female Thru-Hiker, Wish I Had the Courage to Say
I trust trees more than people. I feel safer on a barely trodden trail through the backcountry than on the streets of Manhattan. I understand wildlife better than strangers. I feel confident in my ability to avoid danger in the woods. In the city, my safety is contingent on the whims of the people I pass and, to me, that’s pretty scary. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that not everyone shares these sentiments. Not everyone feels safer in silence and darkness and solitude than in noise. But for me, it’s a simple truth, formed through years of living in and out of cities, years of walking on dirt paths and busy streets.
Simply put, I trust trees more than people.
I am acutely aware that this fact is not uninformed by my identity as a woman. As an independent, fiercely stubborn young woman with an affliction for adventure, I am aware that my movements are watched—most specifically by men. I understand that my existence in the places that I love flags the attention of the others that more frequently fill those spaces—men. When I travel, when I hike, when I adventure, I see men as they watch me. I am hyper-aware that they are hyper-aware of me.
Before setting foot on the Pacific Crest Trail earlier this summer, I hadn’t anticipated how taxing being a solo female thru-hiker would be. I was focused on the reprieve and the escape, the solitude, and isolation, that the small trail would bring me. My preparation for the trail involved gathering my gear, planning food drops, and going on training hikes; I wasn’t preparing exit plans for uncomfortable situations on the trail and strategizing how to evade unwanted sexism.
To be frank, I simply hadn’t expected the trials of sexism to follow me into the woods.
How silly of me. Unfortunately, the toxicity of masculinity has found its way into the most remote reaches of the wilderness. The raised eyebrows and words of caution I receive, both from fellow thru-hikers and from the people I pass in town, are exhausting. It’s an emotional exhaustion that simultaneously pushes me to question my presence on the trail and further cements my desire to keep on trekking.
For the most part, I am able to quietly translate comments of wonder and warnings of caution into statements of respect and admiration. But every so often, someone crosses a line. A word of warning undermines my experience and knowledge of this world. A comment on my “bravery” is laced with sexist undertones and a comment on my “youthful” physique is simply inappropriate.
Women have different responses to these sorts of comments. It seems everyone has developed a different survival strategy for escaping situations of discomfort and fear. On the trail, my response was to hike faster—to leave the offending party and my fear behind, to put as many miles as possible between me and him. But after the fact, I would be frustrated that I allowed him to keep hiking his hike and to change my behavior in response. I would wish I had made him feel ashamed of his comments and his stares. He is wrong in his action, not I.
So here is what I wish I had said:
How dare you belittle me. Speak down to me and ask for my credentials. Push me to list my professional and personal achievements that have prepared me for a life on the trail. How dare you force my hand and pry about my romantic partnership, conversationally corner me so I have no option but to talk about the men “I belong to,” to mention my boyfriend to make you back down. How dare you ask me why he “let me” do such a thing alone, as if the expression of my personal agency is contingent on his permission. How dare you tell me that “I’m different than other women” for thru-hiking, comparing me to my sisters and putting them down in the process. How dare you center our conversations on your amazement of me—are you not hiking alone as well?
Why is what I am doing any different than what you are doing? How dare you call me “brave,” with your eyes wide in warning, insisting that the world is dangerous for women, explaining to me how to effectively navigate the male-perpetuated violence that I encounter daily. How dare you make me a thing of wonder. Am I not as human as you? Do my legs not move with the same mechanics of your own? Are we not built of the same bones and propelled by the same awe of the vast wildness of this world?
Don’t offer to carry my pack for me or set up my tent for me. Don’t ask for my personal safety plan, making me justify my decisions to you. Don’t make comments about my leg hair. You think I carry a razor on a four-month backpacking trip? Do you hear me making comments on your uneven facial hair? Don’t minimize the strength and power of my body by referring to it as “young, tight, hot, and fit.” Don’t reduce my reasons for thru-hiking by insinuating that I am hiking in pursuit of a better body. I feel strong and confident when I am on trial, and I owe you no explanation of my motivation.
I don’t have space in my pack for your misogynistic bullshit.
These days I hike with two other badass young women. We independently set out on this adventure and after hundreds of miles hiking alone, fate aligned our paths. We push and pull and lean on one another. Call me crazy, but I think exploring the outdoors with other women is magical. I’ve found that when I walk with men, they are always surprised by my abilities. They seem to forget that I arrived here just as they did. I was carried by my own two feet and managed to survive long before I received their advice and aid. This isn’t the case with women.
It’s refreshing to be around people who don’t race to your side when you trip over your own two feet or immediately offer assistance when you flounder. There’s a silent respect among us; we know we are all independently competent and capable; we are strong and intelligent. We can tease and laugh at each other. We can complain about the knots in our hair and the fact that we miss wearing dresses. We can catch each other’s eye when another old man tries to explain life on the trail to us. We laugh and we hike and we kick ass. And we don’t question our presence on this little path in the middles of the woods.
We roll our eyes at men who think they know better than us as we crush days of 25+ miles back to back to back. We allow ourselves to break down on the trail, crying and cursing our decision to put our bodies and minds through this tortuous nirvana. And then we pull each other up and keep on keeping on.
We belong in these woods; it is they that don’t.
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