The desire to walk alone

Over the last couple of days my husband and I have hiked two short sections of the Pacific Coast Trail, which stretches from the desert of Southern California to the northern edge of Washington State. It’s a spectacular trail, traversing forests, meadows, lakes and streams, granite outcroppings, and breathtaking ridge walks with vistas that challenge the mind and eye, and make the heart soar. You find other day hikers on this trail, but many who you pass are through-hikers, on the trail for days, weeks, or months. On such a trail, there’s always conversation, even briefly, as hikers check in with each other about destinations, supplies, weather up ahead.

When we passed the second solo female hiker of the day, I started keeping track. My backpacking days are far behind me – I’m a car camper now, preferring daily electricity and a big inflatable mattress – but when we were backcountry campers, solo female travelers were rare. Not unheard of by any means, but definitely rare. The dangers of any woman traveling alone were obvious. So, even today, I was amazed to count two solo females on the trail by 8 am. So I kept a tab of the solo hikers we saw (I didn’t count any pairs, no matter the gender).

There were exactly as many solo females as solo males. I can’t tell you how happy this made me! It was something I never would have seen on the trail when I was in my twenties, first taking to the mountains with my MtMn. I don’t know if the women in question are braver, better armed, or reasonably expecting safety and respect along the way. Maybe some combination of these? Whatever the reason, it moved me to see them.

My husband has gone on many solo trips in the wilderness. I’ve enjoyed many trips with him. But I always let my fear rule out when it came to going alone. I know what his solo trips have meant to him. I always thought about trying it, but always accepted that my situation was different than his. I’m female. Discretion is the better part of valor. Be smart. So I didn’t get to be in the wilderness exactly like he did, but I’ve enjoyed it plenty. Nothing to complain about, right?


Why am I telling you this?

The Washington Post’s long-awaited article about sexual harassment in the classical music industry came out a few days ago. (I was one of the many people interviewed for that article whose stories were not included in the final draft, due to a number of editorial choices). The article is fabulous, the journalism impeccable. It is a fantastic, clear-eyed start to a conversation my industry desperately needs.

I have been so happy to see the strong positive response throughout my colleague group – but I’ve also been disheartened to read commentary from many of my generation, especially from women (we women are amazing at policing each other, aren’t we?). It’s the same stuff you hear every time someone tells one of these stories. Why did you go to dinner with him? Why were you alone with him?

Discretion is the better part of valor.

Be smart.

Right now, while walking this beautiful part of our country, I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, “Wanderlust.” Here’s a quote, from the part of the book where she recalls moving to San Francisco as a young woman and being accosted on the street:

“It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out-of-doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wish to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem. I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move to someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom. I realized that many women had been so successfully socialized to know their place that they had chosen more conservative lives without realizing why. The very desire to walk alone had been extinguished in them—but it had not in me.”

“My responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom” – isn’t it that right there? It’s the power dynamic at play here, the use of sex as domination, violence, and humiliation, that society must choose to take on. Men are victims in this game too, and women perpetrators, but women disproportionally bear and have borne this burden, of having their behavior scrutinized and their movements curtailed in the name of safety, discretion, morality. Being smart.

I’m not knocking being smart. I don’t eat near my tent, and don’t do anything on this camping trip to invite a predator into my campsite. But the predator I mean is a black bear, not a fellow human.

I want to protect myself. But every time I agree that it’s safer for me to accept curtailed liberty so that someone bigger, or richer, or meaner than me will like me, or not hurt me, or at least stay out of my campsite? I’m helping to cement a way of being human that is inherently unfair, and inherently damaging to all humans of all genders.

There may be more women walking solo on the Pacific Coast Trail in confidence and with an expectation of safety than there are walking through my profession right now. And that is wrong, and has been wrong for a long time.

We’ll read a lot of evidence in the next while of how many of us have been successfully socialized to believe that partial freedom on the path is enough. And you know, partial freedom’s not bad. You still get to see a lot of beautiful things.

But in me, the desire to walk alone is not extinguished. I hope it is not extinguished in you.

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