Friday, August 29, 2014

If I had a dollar for every time...musings on women solo in wilderness

The women, I kind of get. As I hoisted my pack for a hike to Frances Lake, I thought about it. As women we are inadvertently taught that danger stalks us. Never mind that weirdos very rarely have the inclination to backpack, the images of missing girls haunt us. When a woman tells me, like she did a couple of weekends ago at the trailhead, that she could never backpack alone, it makes me feel sad. I feel like she is missing out. It's challenging, rewarding and empowering, and even if you try it once and just don't like being alone with your thoughts--which I actually think all people need to do instead of surrounding yourself with chatter all the time--at least you have tried it. In all of my decades of outdoor adventures, things have not come a very long way. I got these same comments in the late 1980s, descending into New Mexican canyons, climbing alpine ridges in the Olympics.

Sometimes I want to live without compromise. Hiking alone, running alone, kayaking alone, I can ease into the flow of my own pace. I don't have to wait for people or run to catch up or debate the merits of stopping early or turning around due to weather. "I can't believe you went out last week," a friend says, referring to the torrential rain that dumped a fire-season-ending event on the mountains, and I was out, hiking in it. If someone had been with me, there would have been either grim determination on the part of the one who wanted to go home, or reluctance to leave on someone else's. Let's stick it out! versus hell with this! and the constant tiptoe dance of are you okay with this? that women just aren't that great at, but guys have no problem with. Look, this pace isn't working for me, I'm going to go ahead. This isn't fun, I'm bailing. Not my style, buddy, see you next time. Women have a hard time with this. The feelings thing. Not wanting to offend, while guys just say it. I wish I had more guy companions, but once I got married they vanished. I don't want to think too much about this.

On my way back down from Frances Lake, after a beautiful solitary trip, I came upon four men gamely hiking upward. About fifteen years older than me, they said they couldn't carry the weight anymore (cringe. Another thing I kind of hate) and so were being packed in by mules. (Four of them. One mule load per guy. Really? "We can eat really good out here now." Can't you eat freeze dried for a couple of days? But I digress). One of them said, "You are by YOURSELF? I could NEVER DO THAT."

I always feel compelled to say something in this situation. Apologize? Say, "I really DO have friends"? "I'm packing pepper spray"? Does this sentiment really come from a place of caring, as one woman said on my private outdoors Facebook group, or is it, like another one posted, a belief that women are fragile creatures that need protecting? Instead I resorted to the old, "Well, I used to be a wilderness ranger, so I'm really comfortable in the woods."

You could see the change in expression. Relief and understanding. "Oh, okay," the man said before rushing to catch up with his friends. I continued on to the "safety" of the real world. I still don't understand it.

Looking down into Frances Lake, GASP! ALONE!

11 comments:

  1. When I'm solo, I've noticed that the comments from men are largely positive (either "that's so cool, I love going solo" or "that's so cool, I could never do that"), while comments from women are VERY concerned with an underlying tone that says I'm being reckless - lots of grilling about my gear and safety, how long I'm going to be out, etc. They would never ask a solo man those same questions.

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  2. That's kind of great women react that way to you. I think it also reflects where you live. I'm in a small rural community and reactions are very different. The men, though, same thing. I ran into a woman hiking alone in the Grand Canyon and she reacted like you said. It was very refreshing.

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  3. This is an interesting post -- generally when I see a woman backpacking solo, I look at her with admiration and view her as a bit of a badass (I mean this in a good way -- I ended up marrying one of these girls!). You're right though, it really shouldn't be a big deal and I probably shouldn't react any differently than I would a solo guy backpacker. It does seem like I see more and more women out solo hiking and backpacking, so perhaps things are beginning to change.

    Even as a guy, this post was kind of a relevant post to me -- I actually just experienced my first solo backpacking trip after many, many miles of backpacking with others (mainly my wife, who has accompanied me on the PCT, CT, and numerous smaller trips). I wasn't totally sure if I would like it or not going in, but I think it was pretty rewarding and I did enjoy myself. It offered a slightly different view of the wilderness, and I think being alone led to quite a different experience overall.

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    1. It is really different. I enjoy both, and if I had more compatible partners I might lean more towards company. Hard to say.

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  4. Interesting post. I have done many many things alone including backpacking and travel to foreign countries.I do though prefer either my husbands's or close friend's company. I enjoy sharing the experience with someone. I don't know how old you are but I have noticed since turning 50 I do feel a bit more vulnerable for some reason. I still hike, run, drive cross country alone.I have talked to a lot of women who wouldn't even drive across their state alone. I totally get the living your life without compromise bit. My husband works away from home so we both have plenty of time to be independent.

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    1. Funny, I feel less vulnerable now although I guess I am quicker to turn around when faced with a dicey situation like a big river crossing.

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  5. Although I totally understand the irritation of getting comments, here's a perspective from the flip side. I have done a bit of backpacking alone (short 1-2 night trips), and I decided it wasn't my thing. I find it to be a little bit too much alone time. I like to do dayhikes, runs, etc alone for all the reasons you mentioned, but I decided I don't like longer trips than that.

    One thing about going solo is that you are entirely dependent on digging yourself out of any holes (physical or mental) that might find yourself in, and it takes confidence and resourcefulness to do this. So if I ever say to someone, "You're by yourself?", it is because it's something I actually do find difficult, and I admire you for being able to do that.

    So take it as a complement! But I do thinks it's important to have tried something before saying "I'll never do that!". Except maybe getting a tattoo.

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    1. Thanks for the perspective. I admire people who try things and then make their choice rather than just judging from the sidelines. I love my alone time but some people just don't. I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt as to if they are admiring or just think I'm weird, it kind of all falls apart when they get to the next question, "aren't you afraid? You have a gun, don't you?"

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  6. I finally got out (solo of course) into the Strawberry wilderness this past weekend. I think only 1 person asked if I was alone, and actually I don't even recall that clearly for sure. I do know that I did not see another solo hiker and I saw LOTS of people on the trails (WAY too busy a wilderness for me!). I did find a nice secluded campsite, and on Friday I didn't see a single person (wonderful) partly because it was Friday and partly because I came in a less popular route. After that I couldn't venture anywhere without encountering people. I ended up only staying out 2 nights (the rain the second evening didn't help - no I do Not like hiking/camping in the rain), mostly because I wanted to move lower (out of the fog bank) and there were just too many people for me. A friend asked me when I got back if I'd gotten enough alone time and my immediate reply was "no". I wrote in my journal that I need to make my trips to the backcountry a priority and not let so much 'responsibility' keep me from being responsible to myself. You are really good at that Mary and I need to learn to be more like that. Looks like I will need to travel to do it though, I was disappointed with what I found close by (I am terribly spoiled coming from the Wallowas).

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    1. Oh that's too bad. The one time I went to the Straw I hardly saw anyone. What about the Black Canyon..? Isn't that nearby, or North Fork JD? I bet hardly anyone goes there. There's a fine line of people for me. I went to Jewett Lake last weekend, and felt a tiny bit lonely. Then one nice solo man came by and chatted a bit before camping out of sight. That was fine. Then two more people showed up! Too much for such a small lake.You should have seen all the cars at the Wallowa Lake trailhead. There must have been 75.

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  7. I agree with Molly. I think that most of the comments people make are more about their own insecurities than their judgments/thoughts about you.

    I keep meaning to take a solo overnight trip myself, but I'm kind of afraid I will totally hate it. I like running solo sometimes (and have done wilderness day trips), but I truly enjoy sharing longer trips with my husband. Never say never, I suppose :)

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