“OH SHIT,” I wrote in my journal. “All the light was just sucked out of the sky. The woods are VERY DARK.”
It was my first solo backcountry trip, and I was crouched beneath a hastily erected tarp on a tiny island in a big lake in northwestern Maine. I was terrified. From 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m., the most intense storm I’d seen in my life swirled around the lake. Lightning pulsed through the clouds searching for a place to land, and the only spot it found was the small island I’d reached by kayak.
My legs shook. My heart pounded. I hugged my knees in a fetal position as lightning struck the island again and again.
When I’d embarked on this journey 14 miles earlier, the woman who issued my permit looked at me like I was crazy. It’s a look women who venture into the wilderness alone often get. We get it from our parents, from society, from the well-meaning people who issue backcountry permits. They say it without saying it: It’s not safe out there. Not for you.
Mostly, they’re wrong. Women are very capable of taking care of ourselves in the wilderness. The wild animals and crazy weather and existential doubts we experience in the backcountry are nothing compared to the dangers of the frontcountry. There, even in a friendly setting like a campground, there are people. And there’s nothing scarier for a woman who likes to do stuff alone than other people.
A few years after my solo trip in Maine, I drove across the country and spent a night in Iowa at a well-lit campground not far from the highway. I didn’t sleep at all. The people behind the glowing windows of their RVs could see I was alone, and I hid in my sleeping bag clutching a knife in one hand and my cell phone in the other. Same with a night spent camping by the side of a Forest Service road in Colorado. Up and down the road, pickup trucks and SUVs were parked next to fire circles, and people sat around them drinking beer. I was convinced some drunk guy was going to pay me a visit in the middle of the night. Every crackle of branches made me jump.
For years, I didn’t consider this fear out of the ordinary. Every independent woman I know feels it; it’s the same edginess we feel traveling alone in any city in the world. It’s part of being a woman, I thought. You have to be extra diligent. A friend who thinks nothing of hurtling down mountainsides on a bike or skis doesn’t even bother setting up a tent when she’s alone at a campground anymore; after too many sleepless nights, she sleeps in her car with the doors locked instead.
Neither she nor I nor most of my friends, fortunately, have been sexually assaulted. But we’ve all had close calls. Once, in college, someone slipped a roofie in my beer and my boyfriend carried me home, memory-less and incoherent. In a foreign country one time I woke up topless to a man shining a Maglite over my body from an open window six inches away. And like all women, I’ve been followed down streets, catcalled, hit on and made uncomfortable more times than I can count. That alone is enough to make me vigilant. I can’t imagine what the one in six American women who have been sexually assaulted feel like when they’re alone in a nylon tent.
Lately, I’ve realized these fears aren’t normal. They’re not “part of being a woman.” They’re BULLSHIT. People admonish me not to go into the wilderness alone because I might get eaten by a bear or lost in a tangle of trees. But I know how to use bear spray. I can read a map. I can hike or paddle as far and as fast as any guy, and I can wait out a lightning storm in the safest possible place. These are things I can control. The fear I feel in the frontcountry is the fear of losing that control.
On that island in Maine, I knew that whatever happened to me would be the result of my own choices, and I made good ones. At 3:00 in the morning the storm finally subsided, and incredibly, I was still alive. I danced across the wet sand barefoot, spinning under the stars while lightning flickered in the distance. The fear I experienced that night is the kind of fear anyone who spends time in the wilderness should confront. It’s the good kind of fear, the kind that makes you feel stronger afterward.
So don’t call us crazy for going into the wilderness alone. Don’t try to stop us doing something that empowers us. Help us create a world that gives more women the confidence to be alone. And unless we’re bleeding or mangled at the bottom of a cliff, if you’re a guy and you see us out there, please-just let us be. Even if you’re just trying to be nice. We don’t need your extra Clif bar. We don’t need to be asked if we’re ok. Just give us a friendly wave and keep walking, preferably in the other direction.