Unknown Parts: Examining Gender and the Fear of Solitude
It was happening again. I spent 45 minutes driving to a popular trailhead in Western North Carolina, counted three cars in the parking lot and drove away. I hadn’t even placed one foot on the pavement. Driving down the mountain with a feeling of immense defeat, the cycle of questions and arguments began in my mind. How was I able last year to rationalize it was okay to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, with hardly any backpacking experience, yet it’s not safe for me to hike a local trail alone for an hour?
I think the easiest, most obvious, and automatic answer I give myself to the question, “why am I afraid to be in the woods alone?” is that I’m afraid of being attacked by an animal or person.
The more I adjusted my hiking schedule to correspond with days of higher foot traffic on a trail or cancelled a day hike because there weren’t enough cars at the trailhead, I realized this response of why I was fearful was not completely accurate. It more so seemed to be ingrained in me, only touching on the surface of my angst, an angst that I found is deeply rooted. I initially wanted to write this article to answer the question of “Why?” Why is it because I’m a woman, I feel like I need to look over my shoulder when I’m on trails? Why do some people seem to not share in this fear of being targeted by wildlife and society?
As time passed, I was plagued with the thought that it could actually be something else I was fearful of. Was fear even the common denominator? Could all of this somehow tie back to society as a whole intentionally, yet unconsciously avoiding solitude, affecting both men and women?
I had so many questions. And so I set out to get my save-all answers.
“People are the great unknown,” said Liz Thomas when we discussed a recent urban thru-hike she completed in L.A., the Inman 300, walking 175 miles and climbing 300 stairways. Thomas has hiked approximately 13,000 miles on long-distance trails, with about half of those miles being solo. In 2011 she set the women’s unassisted endurance record on the A.T. by hiking 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine in 80 days, carrying her own gear and food. Aside from the A.T., Thomas has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, giving her the “Triple Crown” title, an award only 196 people have received. 1
Although Thomas has had plenty of experience hiking alone, the only time she felt concerned was not in the woods, but on that L.A. urban hike due to the fact that some of the neighborhoods she went through were during the night.
But even before endurance hiking days, Thomas is no stranger to solitude. She once spent a season in a remote cabin by herself conducting research in the Sierra Nevada mountains. While there, a bear broke into her car and then her cabin. It was an experience like this which contributed to her confidence in being alone with nature and relying on herself.
In the world of long-distance hiking, it’s common to hear how we instinctively pack what we fear. Some people pack way too many warm clothes (fear of cold) or too much food (fear of being hungry). When I hiked the A.T., one thing I stuffed into my 65L bag was a massive ball of thread, for fear of getting holes in my shorts. As if I was going to thread myself new ones. Surprise – I never needed it (and certainly not the entire clump).
When Thomas hiked the Continental Divide Trail (approximately 3,000 miles, spanning from Mexico to Canada) she was no exception. “I packed my fear of being alone,” said Thomas.
The 170 pound packed-item was a hiking partner. Thomas now plans on not only hiking the CDT a second time, but doing it alone. When asked what she thinks the benefits are of experiencing solitude, her answer was simple: “It provides me with total freedom,” said Thomas.
Not everyone has experienced a time when they felt uneasy or concerned when being alone in nature.
Enter Anton Krupicka.
He runs far. Like 100-miles-of-mountainous-terrain far. And he’s swift. Krupicka is an ultrarunner and has been running for the last 19 years, winning the Leadville 100 twice among countless other races and racked up some serious mileage – Approximately 70,000 miles. With the exception of his college years, he’s spent about 95-99% of those runs alone, something he prefers. All this solo time in secluded places, he says he has never been fearful.
“I think the reason is probably because I grew up outdoors (on a farm in Nebraska) with values of independence and self-reliance and uncomfortable circumstances were just part of being a kid on a farm (outdoor chores and tasks in all kinds of weather, doing all of my running alone as a 12 and 13 year old often in—looking back—shockingly bad weather conditions in the winter, etc.),” said Krupicka.
I have not hiked or run anywhere close to as many miles as these two, but I love moving through the woods. It is my outlet, my sanity, my refuge, my need. So it troubles me when I feel like I cannot do something by myself out of a fear I do not understand; to experience the depths of nature with just myself. Many of my friends share this emotion of being concerned about running or hiking or walking solo on trails, between the silent trees and still air, with no one but themselves in sight.
A few weeks ago I (somewhat) confidently headed out to trail run near my home and stopped along the way to pick up snacks. Noticing my attire, the cashier asked if I had gone running – I told her not yet and shared the details of my route. “Be careful,” she said, as she made sure to hold my gaze.
This is the cycle. If I were a man, maybe she still would have shown concern, maybe not. Her words came from a good place. Yet, it’s an example of how growing up as a woman, I feel we’re reminded troublesome things could happen to us if we’re alone, almost as if it’s not a question of if, but when.
I feel like sometimes as a woman in 2014, I live a throwback life to the 1950’s – as if media is telling me that while it’s okay to have a sampling of a solo-adventure, I shouldn’t have too much because I’m a woman and it’s not safe, and my goals of walking across countries and continents and whatever else they might be need to be scaled back, in order to ensure safety. Or rather, to convince the world I am safe.
Thomas mentioned how with long-distance hikes, she would like to say it will be the same experience for men and women, but in some cases it just is not true. “I try not to hitchhike, which is one limitation,” said Thomas.
For me, being a woman and the messages from media or others of this isn’t safe for you to do alone, in combination with relying on technology to run away from solitude, only magnify my discomfort.
The Avoidance of Solitude (And Gravity of Technology)
While grocery shopping the other day, I automatically reached for my Blackberry as I stepped into the store. Wait. I know my phone shares the same name as a fruit, but why do I need it to buy coffee and produce?
These days, we tend to avoid solitude. We see movies with others, go out to eat with friends, and if we happen to be alone having coffee, we’re often checking email on our iPads or “liking” photos on Facebook with our iPhones. Everyone seems to have a cell phone in their hand all the time, either texting or talking as they walk from point A to point B. Or calling numerous people until one person answers, in order have a two minute conversation, so we don’t have to walk in silence for the seven minutes it takes us to get from the train to our apartment. We rely on TV for comfort and noise, so as not to be left alone with our thoughts.
When setting off for an outdoor activity, we now have the option of bringing people with us via social devices. Thomas noticed a drastic change with cell phone usage between her two A.T. thru-hikes in 2008 and 2011. In just three years, it seemed to go from a few hikers having a cell phone to everyone. “To get solitude, it needs to be an active focus on nature,” said Thomas.
I think this avoidance of solitude transfers over to us not wanting to embark on independent adventures in nature. This avoidance creates a deep-seeded level of discomfort with being by ourselves, and pairing that with nature makes for a very raw experience, adding to the discomfort. In a way we’ve become strangers to ourselves, allowing social media to validate our self-worth, stunting our understanding of our true-selves.
But it’s this same discomfort I crave and need. Because I know myself best when I’m alone and the music is stripped away. Because otherwise, there isn’t much I’m wholeheartedly allowing myself to feel.
“That is probably why I run. To feel with the fullest attention,” said Krupicka. “This necessarily only happens while alone. I would agree that then adding the even less-mediated context of natural/wild surroundings probably makes some people even more anxious. For me, it positively enhances the experience, because the type of self-knowledge that comes from putting myself in those situations—maybe the type of self-knowledge that many people are actually willfully avoiding—is, for me, one of the very objectives of the activity in the first place.”
Running up and down mountains day after day, with only the isolation of one’s body and mind certainly would have challenges, but the reward might be immeasurable. “I would like to think that it’s helped me work towards being a more centered, fully integrated human. Whatever that means. I guess I mean that to mean someone who is actively working at developing a core value structure and hopefully diligently trying to live up to those values while recognizing that it’s an ongoing process where you’re never going to arrive at the capital-T Truth,” said Krupicka.
As David Foster Wallace said, “The only thing that’s Capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”2 For Jennifer Pharr Davis, it was a false sense of security. Pharr Davis set the overall supported endurance record on the A.T. in 2011, averaging 47 miles per day, for 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. Like Thomas and Krupicka, she’s spent plenty of time alone with nature, hiking approximately two-thirds of her total 12,000 miles on long-distance trails by herself. Her first thru-hike was on the A.T. in 2005, where fear did not seem to be present.
“I don’t think it was a true deep-rooted fear, I think I was just worried about feeling lonely, more for entertainment than anything else, because we live in a society with constant stimulation, so I worried ‘would I be bored if I was alone?’ I didn’t start the Trail seeing people as a threat or the Trail as a threat,” said Pharr Davis.
But once she was out there, she realized fear was a factor, maybe more importantly though, she learned where those fears were coming from. “Most of my fears were rooted in inexperience,” said Pharr Davis. “I didn’t know how to act in certain situations, I didn’t know how to camp out in bad weather, I didn’t know how to respond to people who made me feel uneasy. With time and experience I came to a place where I had a true sense of, not security, but risk-management. I felt like I understood what I was doing and what the risks were and I always felt like the benefits far outweighed any risk that I encountered on the Trail.”
She experienced parts of her body and soul that she didn’t know existed. “I felt like my reality was heightened, like my senses were heightened,” said Pharr Davis.
“I realized that society tries really hard to in a lot of ways flat-line our experience as individuals with our emotions and our temperatures and our daily activity. The wilderness is still a place of extremes, and I think those extremes can make you feel alive and give you a kind of depth of experience that can’t be realized in civilization.”
What I thought would be an “aha!” moment of my expected save-all answers from Liz Thomas, Anton Krupicka and Jennifer Pharr Davis, turned out more so to provide me with clarity into my falsity.
I’ve come to understand what causes me to act out of fear, to hesitantly start a trail physically and mentally alone, is something I mislabeled as fear. Rather, it’s the avoidance of emotions that come with an unpleasant situation – Whether it’s rain or cold weather, seeing evidence of a black bear or the possibility (and often times, inevitability) of encountering strangers – It stems from a lack of confidence in my capabilities and myself. Deeper than lacking physical strength, it’s not knowing if I have mental strength, not knowing if my intuition will kick in. Lack of experience is the foundation. Self- doubt associated with unknown parts is the culprit.
My sister wrote me a letter before I left for my A.T. adventure. One line she wrote stuck with me and is the backbone of why I force myself to experience the rollercoaster of emotions I have when being with just myself in nature; it’s a truth I cannot hide from behind a cell phone, computer or TV, forcing me to look at myself openly and honestly: “Indeed, we come the closest to ourselves when we’re farthest from our familiarities.”
It’s the unknown about myself which undoubtedly will trickle out in solitude.
Feature Photo by Macon York, Macon York Letterpress & Design: maconyork.com
1 = Jackie McDonnell and Matt Signore, “Triple Crown,” https://aldhawest.org/triple-crown/, (2013)
2= David Foster Wallace, “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work,” https://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122178211966454607, (September 2008)
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Mistake #1 ” [I} shared the details of my route” Never ladies never do this. I think it’s great women hike, backpack, trail run etc solo because I am one of those people but for my safety you don’t tell strangers, even what looks like a friendly female cash register employee your route. Use common sense because unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world but go out there and live your dreams!
Yes!!! Thank you for writing this. The part about our insecurities and unpreparedness being the source of the fear resonates deeply for me too.
As for all the advice and caution other people put on us? That’s their fear speaking, their unpreparedness, their insecurity. We don’t have to own it.
Thank you so much for the lift!
I recently moved to Arizona and am surprised to find myself afraid to hike alone. This initially was very confusing to me, because I hiked alone for the previous 20 years in the Midwest.
But everybody and their brother openly carries guns out here; very strange to see in places like Walmart and grocery stores. And the rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and black bears are all things that I have no experience with.
Sometimes our fears are justified. Trust your gut and do what feels right.
Unfortunately guns are the equalizer against predators, mostly of the human variety.
Hey great post – I really appreciate the time and research and interviewing that went into it! Fear is a very funny thing I think for many of us and for me sometimes feels as though it has no rhyme or reason. I can become fearful in a heartbeat at something that wouldn’t have phased me in the past or there are times my fear is lacking in a situation where I feel it would normally be present. Its a great thing to talk about, especially as single young women out here. I also run trails around Asheville and attempted an FKT last year of the Mountains to Sea Trail (which I did not end up finishing for several reasons). We should connect! Loved following you on your recent PCT journey.