(pictured above: the view from breakfast)
There is a momentary lingering by the car- my link to civilization and the comforts of the modern world- just a moment…and then I’m off. My hiking shoes take me step after step away from the trailhead and into the wilderness for another solo backpacking trip. I do have some great backpacking buddies, but most summer weekends find me with just my own company. Rather than being lonely, I’ve discovered that this tends to amplify the thing I love most about backpacking: the stillness. And to declare that’s at the top of the list is no small order. I love the sweat that rolls down from my temples on dusty switchbacks, the bruises my pack straps leaves on my hip bones, the bone deep exhaustion that comes from a high mileage day. I love jumping into icy water the color of jewels, the view of a mountain lit up by the sunset, the smell of berries in the sun. But most of all I love the stillness.
I have anxiety, and while it doesn’t often affect my life in any debilitating way, at the very least there is always a whirring in my brain that never quiets. On rough days, it’s more like a drum beat. In my normal city life I very rarely sit still. The whirring indicates to me that there are always things to do on the dreaded “should” list- chores, work for shows, exercise, etc. But in backpacking, life is distilled and simplified. You walk, stop to eat food or filter water, walk, see beautiful things, walk, stop again to set up your home, cook your meal and go to sleep. There is a ritual and a rhythm to setting up a tent or eating a camp breakfast that soothes me down to my bones. In these peaceful camp mornings I nourish my body with food, my mind with a book, and my soul with the smells and sounds of a forest waking up. And I need nothing more. I am whole and present.
Of course, when I tell people that my weekend plans entail walking in the woods by myself, they don’t think of quiet breakfasts by streams. They think of stumbling off of cliffs and rapists and bears (oh my). They ask me if I have protection. They just stare in horror. Maybe it’s because in a time of constant connectivity, going off of the grid even for a weekend seems to spell immediate danger. Maybe they read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and not Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Their perception is that I’m entering into a woodsy labyrinth full of the kinds of dangers that get you on the local news (perceived risk). In reality, there is very little chance that I will encounter any of these situations (actual risk). You’re also putting your life on the line driving your car down the freeway, but this is such a part of our everyday life that no one thinks twice about it.
There are actual risks. It would be foolish to deny that and/or go out unprepared and uninformed (Alexander McCandless, I’m looking at you). But I am prepared. My parents know that every time I go out on a trip, they will get an email with an image of the map with my route highlighted, a link to the trailhead where I will park my car, my hiking itinerary and the number of the nearest ranger station to call if I don’t check in by a certain time. For protection I have my brain, which carries my past experiences and stays mostly calm and thinks quickly if I get into a sticky situation. Was I afraid when I got miles off of the trail on a ridge line last month? Sure, but instead of freaking out and calling in a helicopter, I stopped to eat a snack and carefully evaluate my topo map. Okay, so I let myself curl up in a panic ball and shut my eyes, but only for a few seconds. Then I got back to the business of getting myself on the trail again.
Did you think I was going to write a blog post and neglect to write about feminism? Guys. Now you’re just being silly. Even on the trail, I meet people who are impressed/concerned/incredulous/disapproving that I am hiking all by my lady self. Here are some highlights from things that myself and my lady hiker friends have been told or asked:
“Are you practicing for something?”
::looking at my pack:: “Have you heard of ultralight backpacking?” (Yeah, I think it was the chapter right after mansplaining.)
“If you were my daughters, I wouldn’t let you go out by yourselves.”
I can’t help but think that even the kind, “You are SO brave,” would not be directed at a solo male hiker. A solo male hiker is simply a lone wolf, while a solo female hiker is a crazy Amazon badass (look, if you really want to call me a crazy Amazon badass, I guess that’s okay). Even in the wilderness, women face the same bullshit misogynistic messages. Rape culture is perpetuated by telling women that they need to walk in fear. Or maybe we can’t be expected to learn how to tie a knot and read a topo map. Maybe our hormones will take over and we’ll get all hysterical if a storm rolls in. Maybe we should only go camping with our boyfriends. The truth is, if you want to take your lady parts for a walk in the woods, I promise you won’t be facing anything different than men, with the exception that peeing in the woods is just slightly more complicated.
There are some very frightening risks involved once you’ve fallen in love with walking in the wild. The 100% guaranteed actual risk if I don’t go? An unlived life. A life where I choose to stay home because I am afraid, or because others tell me I should be afraid, instead of doing what I love. And that terrifies me to the depths of my wild heart.
(crazy Amazon badass)