When I first re-read this article 3 years after writing it, I questioned whether publishing was a mistake. I wrote the original version in 2016, shortly after I finished the Appalachian Trail. I was in such a vulnerable place in my life that emotional bias drove my will to write.
Now that I am four years removed from my AT experience, I have stepped back and hope to offer writing with more clarity.
So, I’d like to present you with a revision of my most read hiking article on The Trek: “Reacting with Fear: A Woman’s Perspective on Solo Travel”
I offer one example of one experience.
My intention is to encourage dialogue – to help people consider how their actions/choices/words can affect others.
Take this article with a grain of salt.
Negative reactions get old quickly. And they make an impression.
I was utterly exhausted. Some friends and I had woken up at 4AM to catch the sunrise from Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It was noon now. I was almost to Newfound Gap where I would hopefully hitch a ride into Gatlinburg for some real food and a shower.
I saw a parking lot in the distance. As I made my way to a large sitting rock by the lot, three people came into view. I caught the tail end of their conversation as I put my pack down some distance away.
“What a great adventure,” an older man said to a young backpacker in a raspy, excited tone. “Those scout skills are coming in handy, huh?” the older man laughed with joy as if he had hiked the trail himself.
After a few moments of back-and-forth, the man and his female counterpart wished the hiker luck and told him to ‘“have fun!”
Minutes later, the backpacker vanished into the woods (as is the way with those traveling the trail).
The couple looked at me.
Now it was my turn.
Although I normally don’t enjoy being overly social with strangers, I was looking forward to this conversation. The couple seemed nice, and I was still on my new thru-hiker “high” from starting the trail. Surprisingly, I hoped to talk with them – to rejoice in this journey with the trails’ community.
I was about to – so I thought.
Just as I expected, the couple approached me only a few minutes after the other hiker had left. The conversation started out lovely. They seemed excited for my journey and supportive of the adventures that lay before me.
Until they asked where my hiking partners were.
This question was unfortunately not new to me. Disappointed in the fact that I was being faced with this inquiry yet again (why did people always assume I had a partner?), I proudly announced that I was hiking alone.
The woman looked shocked with wide eyes and her mouth slightly parted. The man appeared stern, with a distant look in his eyes. Needless to say, the tone of our conversation took a turn.
“All by yourself?” The woman asked. “You must be brave!” She said, seeming somewhat disingenuous.
Annoyed with how the two reacted, I chose my words carefully in an attempt to explain my perspective on how I have always had a hard time understanding this concept.
Hiking alone hadn’t ever seemed intimidating to me in the slightest.
Yes, there are risks involved in wandering off by yourself and yes, I understand that women are ‘targeted’ more often then men.
But I refuse to let the fears of “what could” and “what if” stop me from doing something I love, facing a challenge I know I can accomplish.
Whats more, spending quality time in nature was something I had always enjoyed; it had always been a positive experience for me. And this conversation I couldn’t escape and couldn’t combat that was so draped in negativity that it made me question that part of myself. And that didn’t feel fair.
As the conversation moved forward, the couple seemed weary of my responses and, without knowing anything about me, repeatedly critiqued my decision to hike alone.
When the lecture subsided, I stood in silence overwhelmingly disappointed I did not have the opportunity to share my exciting experience with them… especially since they had just celebrated with another hiker.
Awkwardly, I excused myself, picked up my pack, and kept walking North.
The couple didn’t tell me to have fun as I walked away.
They told me to be safe.
The male backpacker’s conversation with the couple had been filled with such excitement; he seemed to inspire and awe the older pair. I wanted to inspire people too. The other hiker and I were of similar ages; we were hiking the exact same trail in the exact same way.
Why were our two interactions so different?
My inner feminist roars every time I revisit this memory. Our interactions were so different because of traditional gender roles. One society-bred male stereotype, generally speaking, demands that men are or should be independent, tough, and adventurous, while women (again, society-bred stereotypes) are or should be delicate, pretty, and cautious.
I could go on about this for hours, and provide more examples of similar conversations I had on trail and have had since, but I would much rather take these last few moments of your attention to elaborate on what I believe to be the intention of reactions such as this.
Placing aside, just for a brief moment, societal gender bias, let’s take a look at the individuals behind these words.
Was this older couple speaking to me out of hatred? No. They were judging me (as is human nature) and disapproving of my decision, which didn’t feel good… but were they intentionally trying to hurt me? I don’t believe so. Confounded reactions like this may just be driven by skewed emotions of love (concern for my well-being) mixed with a sense of fear, and all veiled by ignorance.
Does that make this reaction okay? No, absolutely not!
But when thinking about a person’s intention and why they respond the way they do, it helps us understand the person’s point of view. We don’t live in a perfect world. We are all still learning. And conversation – dialogue – needs happen.
But talking needs to happen when both people can push aside their pride and listen openly. That’s not an easy thing to do.
Now, while I know better these days to let these comments affect my day, it would be a gross fabrication to say that negative tones from these conversations did not affect my hike.
People of all types should be met with encouragement when they’re up against a challenge. Not judgement and criticism.
We need to be more mindful of how our words and body language are perceived. We are each different in culture, how we were raised, and the privileges we have received.
So open your mind, and silence your fear. Start talking! You may be surprised at what a little perspective can do.