Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Which I Get Scared But Am Not Fearful

Apparently, I am supposed to be scared, unless you ask the women I met on the trail in Oregon.

Thursday, I spent all day driving around to wineries, tasting wine and taking pictures and talking to new people.  Friday, I took off for a couple of local hiking trails and saw some beautiful sights while getting exercise and fresh air.  I spent Friday evening curled up in a fancypance hotel-provided monogrammed fluffy robe in a comfy four-poster bed, listening to the waterfall outside my open window and eating toffee almonds.  Saturday I had room-service breakfast in bed and a massage.  None of this seems particularly perilous to me.

But no small few of the people I know have expressed surprise that I would ever consider doing what I was doing: vacationing alone.

"Aren't you a little worried about being out there by yourself?"
"What will you do if something happens?"

To most of them, I sort of play dumb.  "Worried?  No, I'm pretty self-sufficient.  Why?  Have you heard something about the area?  If something happens, I'll have my cell phone and I can call 911."  But the real kicker, the important question, the question that is the answer explaining why I am asked all these questions:

"Isn't it dangerous for a woman to do that in this day and age?"

I've gotten several variations on it, from friends or co-workers or people I meet.  On this trip, I talked to several of my fellow travelers about how nice it is not to be beholden to someone else's schedule, and a lot of the women said things like, "Oh, I could never do that.  I would be afraid to be on my own."  The men don't even appear to have considered the dangers of solo travel.  No suggestion that they ever consider it dangerous or worrisome to be out 'on their own' without a partner or a buddy.

While hiking Friday, I ran into two lovely women on the trail.  They passed me while I was trying to get a picture lined up properly, and later when I came around a curve, they greeted me with, "Oh, there's the photographer again!  Hello photographer!"  They introduced themselves as Kathy and Sue, we chatted briefly, and they asked if I was hiking by myself.  I explained that I was vacationing, and therefore hiking, solo and loving it.  The two of them smiled and said, "Good for you!"  They walked on a bit, and then I met them on their return.  They advised me to add a half-mile to my hike, to see a really excellent waterfall, and I said, "Hey, I wanted to thank you.  People have told me that it's crazy to travel alone, that I should be scared, and I really appreciate that you were enthusiastic and supportive."  They said they understood, that they hear a lot of "Women can't travel alone!" themselves.  Kathy said that she does almost all her traveling alone, and it's wonderful because you can be completely self-indulgent with scheduling and planning and everything else (like how I could take up the whole hotel bed and all four fluffy pillows).

I saw it as yet another example of how women are trained to be afraid.  How we're told that we should not do things we want to do because of the unspoken threat that we will end up raped and left for dead in the woods.  How often the response to a woman doing something self-sufficient or autonomous is an almost knee-jerk "But aren't you SCARED something might happen to you?"

I was scared on this trip.  Thursday, I couldn't find a winery and realised I'd driven up a posted private drive about 500 feet; my Texas-developed fear of trespassing kicked in and I backed out before anyone could decide to set dogs on me or something.  Friday I was scared on the trail a few times.  In one case I was even afraid specifically because I was alone.  I was looking for a trail split.  The map said that the right-hand path was the easier path, and the left-hand path involved a fair amount of fairly intense rock scrambling.  It was the end of a long day, and I didn't think I could manage advanced rock scrambling, so I tried to find the right-hand path.

I ended up following a switchback trail up the side of a sharp hill, and found myself about five steps into a rockfall across the trail before the curve opened up and I realised that this wasn't just a matter of a few tumbled rocks in my path.  I was standing on loose and shifting scree above a forty-foot drop, completely alone, on a little-used trail at the end of the day.  The sheer folly of my position struck me hard.  If I lost my decidedly unsure footing, I would be definitely in for a fall, and perhaps for a night in the elements with no shelter, a hooded sweatshirt for warmth, and only three quarters of a liter of water (I had already finished my trail snacks for the day).  I began to cautiously backtrack, feeling every shift and twitch of the rocks beneath me.  When I got my feet back on solid (slick and slanted, but solid) ground, I sat on a nearby rock and took a few deep breaths and said, "OK, that was less than brilliant, but it turned out OK."  I went back and found the left-hand path, which turned out to be the easier way.  The rock scrambling was less intense than advertised, and the Forestry Service had put down some sort of material over the slickest parts, for traction.  It was steep, but not harrowing, and I never faced a drop of more than a few feet.

If I'd had a hiking partner, one with a rope or even just a hand to anchor me to a steadier spot, I'd not have thought twice about finishing that section of trail, right-hand or left-hand path.  If I'd had more experience in rock work, or a line to anchor me while I crossed it, I'd have done it without question.  But a solo hiker at my level of experience simply could not pass -- and it had nothing to do with my possession of ovaries.

There are things in this life that are dangerous no matter who you are.  An unsteady trail in an empty forest, eating mushrooms of uncertain provenance, swimming in unknown waters.  But they're not more safe for one gender or another.  They become more safe with experience, with companionship, with guidance, regardless of your sex.  And those are situations where it's wise to be cautious, only sensible to approach with a little apprehension.

But there are many other situations that I've been told I should be afraid of because 'the world is just dangerous for women'.  Walking alone at night, sleeping with a (third-story) window open, staying in a hotel in a strange city alone -- all things most of the men I know would take for granted.  There's an unspoken context there, that if something happens I will have 'gotten myself' raped/mugged/murdered by not exercising the gender-appropriate level of caution.

It gets very hard to resist the voices of fear sometimes, to refuse to buy into those cautions, those suggestions that self-awareness and the paralysis of societally-imposed fear should be indistinguishable from one another.  It can be hard to find the line between the overt defiance of taking unnecessary chances, and the clear refusal to be governed by what other people think should limit your movements. And for some of us, that clear refusal becomes enmeshed with our politics and our identities.

I want to grow up to be Kathy and Sue, women clearly hiking together for companionship as opposed to 'safety in numbers', women who travel alone and don't agree with the rest of the world that they should let themselves be limited by that fear.  If I have a traveling companion, I want a traveling companion -- not a de facto bodyguard.

Hell, I want to grow up to be my grandmother, who at eighty-plus years of age joined a tour by herself and went to Spain and Morocco.  I said, "Grandma, wait, you were in Africa?"  And she said, "Yes.  I saw that Casablanca.  It's noisy there."  She wasn't completely alone; she booked a tour with a bus and a guide, but she pretty much just picked up, got on a plane, and saw Africa in her eighth decade on the planet.  She and my grandfather used to travel fairly often, and when he died I guess she just felt she should keep right on going, to Spain or Australia or Morocco.

I think my odds are good.  This month my mom, less than six months after a hip replacement, is spending a couple of weeks wandering around Nova Scotia with a friend.  It's entirely possible this runs in my family.


  1. I had a thought while I was traveling to SoonerCon last week that I was really lucky to live now when a women can travel alone. I realized how lucky I am to be able to get in my car and drive to where ever I want to go. I can check into a hotel and no one questions my right to do so. I found myself thinking about women in the past who needed a man for protection in their travels. Who would not be asked if they were afraid of traveling alone, but would be looked at askance if they did--like doing so pretty much confirms that one is a "loose woman."

    I may have moments in my travels when I am worried or fearful for some of the same reasons that you were, but I am not afraid of traveling alone or staying in a hotel by myself. I am also relearning that I do like traveling alone and not having to deal with anyone else's schedule. It is a nice taste of freedom.


  2. I spent a month in Louisiana, and Connecticut, and traveling across the country on a Greyhound bus, all by myself. Terrified my mother, but I'm glad I did it back when I could. (Yes, I was a woman then too, but not on insulin. Hypoglycemia is terrifying and I want someone who knows what to do handy in case I pass out.)