Sunday, January 23, 2011


I've spent hundreds of nights in the woods, from the swamps of Florida to the alpine tundra of Alaska. Many of those nights were spent alone. I've also hiked cross country, on trails where I never saw a soul, and on others brimming with hundreds of people. I've never, ever been afraid of any of them.

Animals are another story. Bears haunt my dreams and my nights. I clutch a canister of pepper spray, jolted wide awake by some unseen presence. A mountain lion padded through my camp in Idaho, snarling over and over before it wandered away. A plaintive wolf howl before they were offiicially back in the state sent chills through me. Sometimes, not often, I have not hiked a trail because of those fears.

But never people, not ever. Until today.

In the National Park brochure for Rock Creek Park in DC, the text reads "the park is relatively safe." Relatively? It goes on to suggest strongly that you hike with a buddy. The website reviews of the park agree, especially for women. I don't know of many national parks that state this so calmly except when there is the risk of grizzly encounter.

Since my last venture into the park, I had been scheming ways to get up into the more remote, wilder places of it. After all, it is the largest urban park. Deer roam its heart. Many people visit it--and that is the problem. A woman was attacked running alone a year ago at 7 am, the time you expect most weirdos to be bedded down. And we all remember Chandra Levy. Her name will forever be linked with this park. She decided to go for a run in the middle of the day and never came home.

Today I decided not to go. Fear was only part of it. To get there by public transit is a major chore. But if I had wanted to enough, I would have braved the slow metro and the mile walk on paved sidewalks. I didn't want to enough.

I have mixed feelings about this. Most often if there isn't a buddy to go with me in the woods, I go anyway. I decide that the small risk of mountain lions or bears is a risk I am willing to take. I am not so sure about people. Unlike people, bears are predictable. Surprise them, and they will react. If they think you are threatening their cubs, they will react. People are a much stranger species. All sorts of chemicals swim through their brains. I am okay, mostly, with dodging animals. It is their neighborhood. They can't just pick up and move.

It's not bravery that allows me to hike alone. It's that I feel comfortable and safe in the woods. I can feel the wilderness wrap its arms around me, my breathing slow down, my whole body relax. In contrast, here in the city, I scurry along the streets looking for predators.

To some extent I know that predators of the human kind are not limited in geography. They could easily be lurking in the real wilderness just as easily as in urban Rock Creek Park. But generally killers don't go backpacking. They are opportunists on the outskirts.

So instead of the woods I went to the gym and rode a bike to nowhere. I will be back in the wilderness in a few days, so I settled for the safe anonymity of weight machines. I could not live this way forever. I hate that women know fear in a way men will never know. I hate that this fear holds me back.

I wonder, have you felt fear in the woods? Did it stop you from going?


  1. When you wrote in an earlier blog, that you had been in Rock Creek Park, and wished you could get to the wilder parts, I was afraid. Afraid for you in ways I never have been when you are in the wilderness...though I know some of the dangers there in terms of terain, weather, animals and can guess at others. I cannot apologize for being glad you did not go to the wilder parts of Rock Creek Park today. Keep safe, Marre, and fold yourself back into the real wilderness soon.

  2. I am by far more afraid of people than animals. That said, I am pretty sure the only trail runs I do alone are on busy-ish trails (such as popular ones in Glacier National Park on a nice weekend day) to reduce the liklihood of a grizzly bear encounter. I distrust random people in cities but don't inherently distrust GNP hikers. It is clear that none of this is rational.

  3. I believe very strongly that there are more creeps in the city than on the trails BUT... last summer I had at least part of my trip ruined by seeing posted signs on the trail that there had been a rape in the area. True, the trail led pretty close to a road but for me still this was wilderness. This was a place where things like that were NOT supposed to be happening.

  4. I have rarely been afraid in the woods. Bears are not my favorite, but cougars and wolves don't spook me. Though when I had little kids with me, cougars assumed a different level.
    People on the other hand, have always spooked me. When I lived in Boston I would walk an hour each way to work, because I couldn't handle the subways (I tried - too much humanity and no where to run). I have always found people terrifying, not ALL people obviously, but I would be far more likely to avoid a place due to human animals rather than any other kind.


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