Wilderness, Walking, and Womanhood: Solitary Women in America’s Wild Spaces

by Katie Poore

The Sierra Pelona Mountains of southern California, taken from the Pacific Crest Trail.

“How will you defend yourself?”

It was one of the first questions my oldest brother asked me on the phone several months ago, along with: “Do you have a knife? Do you know how to use it? Maybe you should just buy a machete, if they sell those at REI. Do you know where you’re getting water? Is this really safe?” Another older brother said, “Are you bringing pepper spray?” A few weeks prior, my mom had asked, seemingly out of the blue: “Should you bring a gun?”

“No, absolutely not,” I told her. “And also, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”

When it trickled down the family grapevine that I would be backpacking alone in southern California for a few days, reactions were mostly alarmed. It didn’t matter that I’d been backpacking plenty of times before, nor that I had been teaching children outdoor survival skills for two summers, nor that backpacking was a mostly safe exercise, if one only took the necessary precautions. It didn’t matter that the risk of being attacked by an axe-wielding murderer—on whom I would, presumably, use the pepper spray, or maybe even the knife, or, as the oldest brother later suggested, a flare gun—were slim-to-none.

What mattered was that I would be alone, and that I was a woman, and that I was going into a so-called wilderness without a companion. My mother couldn’t even feign excitement, electing only to grunt begrudgingly as I told her my route and gave her my flight information. Before I left, my younger brother cautioned me: “You better call Mom every night.” The oldest only said: “You know it’s going to be cold, right?”

Soon enough, though, I’d caught my flight, picked up my rental car, and driven to a nondescript trailhead in Angeles National Forest, an hour outside of Los Angeles. I sat in my car for a few minutes, parked at an old fire station, before stepping into the dry air.

It felt strange this time, hoisting my pack up and fastening it tightly over my hips. There was no line of kids behind me, complaining of too-heavy packs or trying unsuccessfully to bend down and tie errant shoelaces. I didn’t file in behind a friend, babbling incessantly. Everything I was carrying was mine—no communal gear, no shared food.

I was alone, and walking felt somehow new. Solitude felt like a spotlight, the way it occasionally does when one walks down a dark street or sits alone in a restaurant, as if the mere fact of aloneness is reason enough to be noticed. I walked down the road for a few yards, adjusting to the weight of my pack, feeling all-too-visible to the passing cars.

And then I was on the Pacific Crest Trail, mile marker 478, hiking tentatively into chaparral scrub, grass, and scraggly oaks until the trail cleared and the footpath became an undulating strip of sand winding its way up the soft-edged Sierra Pelona mountains.

From there, I walked further still, the quiet unnervingly complete. I had anticipated this moment for months—this absolute stillness, these hours of physical labor and mental freedom—but my mind remained curiously blank, save the errant and ridiculous paranoia of mountain lions. I had read that one is three times more likely to be attacked by a mountain lion when they are hiking alone, and I clutched bear spray in my hand, thumb poised on the release trigger (I’d also read that bear spray worked on mountain lions).

It had been easier, in the incessant noisiness of everyday life, with those immortalized promises of John Muir, of Mary Oliver, of Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard ringing always in my ears and lingering always close at hand on my bookshelf, to laugh off the ridiculous concept of a gun on the trail, or the scant possibility of coming across any sort of veritable human threat. But it became remarkably easy to internalize those same fears without those rapturous voices always available. It became easier to recall my mother’s voice, shaking, nervous, asking me over and over again: “Do you know if you’ll have service while you’re out?”

I became aware of my own womanhood in a way I never had outside. It had always been a space of empowerment and leadership for me, where I felt a certain level of capability that I never felt pressured, for the sake of politeness, to hide. Picking routes, managing kids, and expressing opinions had felt natural in the woods. This shouldn’t have been different, but it was, perhaps because of the myriad horrified reactions—the “What-Are-You-Going-to-Do-If” scenarios whose basic presupposition was that women were not supposed to be alone, much less alone outside, without cell phone service. Relative risk was of no import.

Women—especially college-aged women, bathed in the hyper-social pressures of university life—are notorious for a certain collectively oriented mentality: we travel to bathrooms in needless droves, we host “Galentine’s Day” celebrations, we share closets and clothes. There’s safety in numbers and comfort in community, and we are made, it seems, for presence with others and to occupy spaces that bring us outside of ourselves. We aren’t supposed to walk alone, and we aren’t supposed to walk without tangible purpose. My only purpose was to walk several miles in the hopes of finding a flat enough clearing to pitch a tent so I could sleep there. But my aimlessness felt alarming, and I started, in the alien silence of a Wednesday morning hike 2600 miles from home, to question its safety and practicality. What was I hoping to gain here? And should I have bought a flare gun?

Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “Women have been enthusiastic participants in pilgrimages, walking clubs, parades, processions, and revolutions, in part because in an already defined activity their presence is less likely to be read as sexual invitation, in part because companions have been women’s best guarantee of public safety.” To do otherwise, she suggests, was and is a decision of risk. Women’s bodies, when solitary, become targets, exuding by their very presence a culturally-imposed aura of vulnerable temptation. This is why I needed pepper spray, a gun, even a machete. It is why so many of the men in my life reacted with such protective vitriol. In their eyes, I was inviting disaster, and my decision was incomprehensible, foolish, risky, and unnecessary. It was a flippant way of treating my own life. No one could understand why I might possibly feel an impulse to set off into the wilderness alone.

I didn’t have much by way of explanation that might sound reasonable to those so concerned with the possibility of my getting murdered. My reasons weren’t utilitarian. I was, ostensibly, going on my trip as a means of conducting experiential research on a thesis I was writing, but what really drove me there was a desire to enter into the deeply spiritual, creative, and generative space of my own mind and body by way of immersing myself in nature. Thoreau had done it. Emerson had done it. Muir had done it. Mary Oliver did it, too, and produced in the process art that made my heart clench with its disarmingly simple, bare-faced truths.

Thoreau proclaimed in his 1862 essay “Walking:” “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” While such a claim is made within Thoreau’s larger exploration of American identity—the wild, he claims is west, and to move west is to turn away from European influence and into the untapped richness of the new American mind—his proclamation of the aliveness to be found in wilderness is one that has carried forward into the modern-day. His promise of the perpetual newness and infinite inspiration one finds in solitary contemplation in forested, undeveloped spaces remains iconic and compelling. It is why Christopher McCandless, the tragic subject of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 investigative novel Into the Wild whose unprepared forays into the Alaska wilderness lead ultimately to his death, carried into this wilderness with him a copy of Walden. It is why he highlighted Thoreau’s claim: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.” Truth lies, somehow, outside of this realm of the social and communal in which women so often find themselves. The dinner table is full of speech but devoid of significance. Muir writes in My First Summer in the Sierra that this wilderness constitutes a “newness of life.” He implores us: “Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”

I believe in the truth of these words and in the paradoxical quality of an inhospitable but perplexingly nurturing wilderness. I believe in nature’s spiritual properties and have myself experienced a certain sense of spiritual zeal in moments of silent contemplation spent gazing at an endless expanse of hazy mountain silhouettes.

But this southern California walk, during that first afternoon, harbored little peace and clear-mindedness. Instead, I worried about mountain lions, and, later, about other, mostly male, hikers. I didn’t sign my name in the trail register at the trailhead because I didn’t want to expose myself as a solitary female staying in the national forest overnight. I made sure to clip my knife to the chest strap of my pack so that it was visible should I come across any strangers. And, for those first few hours, I felt remarkably out of place, harboring a sense of un-belonging I had never felt outside. It was a sense rooted in cultural expectations of my social proclivities; in tendencies toward self-preservation that most frequently manifested themselves in group-travel; and, further still, in the unusual opportunity, as a woman, to fully inhabit my own body. Adjusting to a state of being in which I could occupy only myself—a privilege typically not afforded to women—felt surprisingly difficult. I wasn’t sure what to think, and how to contemplate, without an ear trained for the children whom I was leading down the trail or the friend whose voice kept me company and chased away isolation.

But Solnit goes on to suggest this in her novel:

…walking alone also has enormous spiritual, cultural, and political resonance. It has been a major part of meditation, prayer, and religious exploration. It has been a mode of contemplation, from Aristotle’s peripatetics to the roaming poets of New York and Paris. It has supplied writers, artists, political theorists, and others with the encounters and experiences that inspired their work, as well as the space in which to imagine it, and it is impossible to know what would have become of the great male minds had they been unable to move at will through the world. Picture Aristotle confined to the house, Muir in full skirts…If walking is a primary cultural act and a crucial way of being in the world, those who have been unable to walk out as far as their feet would take them have been denied not merely exercise or recreation but a vast portion of their humanity.

I wasn’t in the habit of walking freely and alone, as far as my feet would take me. I tried to understand how other women—those who spent their lives meandering, or spent six months hiking the very trail I was now treading—had done so, had found themselves enough at home in the wilderness to be comfortable with merely existing there, with moving through space without needing to end up in a classroom, or at a grocery store, or at a coffee date with a friend. How did one move through space alone without searching for something tangible? How did one walk only with the intention of covering miles, of finding a flat patch of dirt on which to lie down at night? How could I feel at home out here?

It wasn’t until the next morning that I got somewhere with this question, waking up slowly with the sunrise and lying, sleeping bag cinched tightly over my head, in the stillness of a new morning. It wasn’t until I sat silently, bear spray rolled onto its side and momentarily forgotten, eating a bagel still cold from the frigid desert night, that it occurred to me that my walk in nature—and the walks of women before me—had rarely been much about finding a home in a geographical wilderness. These walks were about locating a home in the wilderness of my own mind and being, of trusting myself and my capabilities, of following my own thoughts and desires. Women, preoccupied as we are with moving safely through the world, rarely get to move freely through ourselves. It was why contemplating the vast indifference of the landscape before me, which cared not for my wellbeing and concerned itself not with my safety, felt revelatory. No one else cared here. No one else’s thoughts or needs could take precedence over my own. I didn’t have cell phone service, I was miles from my car, and I was, quite literally, the most alone I had ever been in my entire life.

Finally, it felt freeing.