By guest blogger, Alex “Flowers” Poli

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The desert does not care who you are. Under the hot sun, no one is exempt from dehydration, nor rattlesnakes, nor the distinct feeling of being a worm in a frying pan. Funny enough, this is what I tried to explain to my mother when she begged me to reconsider my plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was afraid of the physical risks I would face on trail, but even more of the sort of people I might meet. She was afraid of her 23-year-old daughter walking across the country alone.

“Won’t you bring your father, just for a little while?” “You’re just a little girl, you’re an easy target” “What would you do if some creep comes out of the middle of nowhere? Where would you go? How would you call for help?”

She wasn’t the only one who worried about my safety as a single woman in the wilderness. While hitchhiking and making resupply stops in towns along the trail, I was often bombarded with questions and comments like, “Your parents really LET you do this?” “Do you have a gun?” “Do you have a boyfriend? What does he think?” “Does your hiking partner carry your food for you?” Or, even more disheartening, “You’re a brave lady. I don’t think I could do what you’re doing. I’d be too scared.”

These comments stood in sharp contrast with my self-perceived safety and strength on trail. I hiked 28 miles on my first day on the PCT, and kept up a 25 mi/day average after that. I hiked through injury, danced around rattlesnakes, saw my body change, and tapped into reserves of energy, focus, and resilience that I didn’t know I possessed. I came to the conclusion that my age, size, and gender made me no more or less safe than anyone else on the trail.

About 450 miles in, though, my hike took a sobering detour. Fire obliterated a section of trail in Southern California, so we took alternate route that brought us through a town. There, I stopped for a beer with my two male hiking companions, Windy and Baloo. I approached the bar to buy a round, but was forced to take the single remaining stool next to a 60-something man with shoulder-length white hair and a potbelly. He immediately recognized me as a PCT hiker with my dirty skin and sunburnt forehead, so he began to ask questions. They began harmlessly enough, “Where are you from?”, and, “Why are you hiking?”, but began to delve into more personal matters. When I told him that I was hiking simply because it made me happy, he demanded another response, saying “that’s not good enough.” When I told him that thru-hiking forced me to be more flexible and deal with anxiety more constructively, he began to attempt to diagnose me with mental illnesses, “you know that’s what we call OCD, right?” When I told him that I was happy to be taking a break from working, he insisted that I was lazy and spoiled, “I bet your entire life has been fucking easy. I bet your parents gave you every goddamn thing.” Finally, he asked if I was hiking alone, if I had a boyfriend, and where I would be camping that night. I was relieved when the beers were poured and I was able to leave.

That would not be the end of our interaction. Windy, Baloo, and I left the bar as the sun was setting and began the road walk back to the trail. Considering the lack of traffic on the road and the smoothness of the pavement, we decided to turn off our headlamps and walk in darkness. A few miles down the road, we heard jingling and Windy turned on his headlamp. There, in front of us, was the man from the bar accompanied by five dogs. “Whoa, guys,” he said,”you’re walking at quite a clip.” We briskly replied that we had miles to walk yet that night and continued on, sure that he couldn’t keep up with our 3.5mi/hr pace. About two miles later, we paused to check our map, but heard jingling again. We knew he had followed us. In the dark. With no light. With five dogs. We immediately turned our headlamps off again and whispered, “that’s so fucked up. Let’s book it.” We half-ran-half-walked the remaining two miles to camp, stopping in silence periodically to listen for the jingling. Finally, we wandered off trail behind a hill and into a grove of trees, and silently set up camp in the dark.

Huddled in my sleeping bag, too wired to sleep, I echoed the concerns my mother had expressed before my hike: “but you’re just a little girl”, “what if some creep comes out of nowhere…”, “how will I know you’re okay?”. What if I really wasn’t as safe as I’d thought? I recognized that there are inherent risks involved in walking through wilderness, but risks like dehydration, sun exposure, getting lost, and injury could be mitigated with proper planning. Risks posed by other humans can not. I knew there were grains of truth in my mother’s worries. She’d seen the stories of murdered women on the Appalachian Trail, read Cheryl Strayed’s account of creepy bow hunters on the PCT, and had surely spent hours researching hitchhiking horror stories. What if my feeling of security on trail was just a blanket of stubborn ignorance and childish naïveté? Should I have carried pepper spray? Would this have happened if I were a man? What would have happened if I were not hiking with two men? Is the risk still worth it?

I considered this man’s criticisms. Were my reasons for hiking the PCT good enough? Did they need to be good at all? I hiked because it made me happy, and because it put me in touch with the parts of myself that I liked best–the parts that were goal oriented, that suffered gracefully, that stopped to enjoy the things in front of me. Was I mentally ill? Probably not. Regardless, there is nothing dishonorable about trying to better understand the anxious parts of myself that I need to work on. Was my life easy? Was I spoiled? Perhaps. I’ve been very lucky to grow up in the suburbs and attend a private college. I was lucky to have the mobility and money to take five months off of my “real life” to hike. I recognize these immense privileges, but can’t imagine how doing a grueling four month hike could be evidence of my laziness. Did he have the right to make any of these accusations? Absolutely not. Still, his words packed a punch because they cut right to my deepest insecurities. In the city, I wondered constantly, “am I good enough? Am I prepared enough? Am I worthy enough?”, but these worries largely faded once I stepped onto the trail. To have these same insecurities agitated by another person in a space where I’d felt so certain was like having the wind knocked out of me.

I was livid. How dare this man, through patronizing and following me, rob me of my feeling of security. On trail, I did not feel like I needed to look or act a certain way to please other people or to make myself more safe. Weeks without showering was the norm, a razor was out of the question, I cried more freely and frequently, and forgot how to hold in my farts. I did not forget that I was a woman, but I did occasionally forget that I could possibly be expected to behave in a certain way, or to be viewed as more vulnerable or weak because of my gender.

The following days, my load seemed a little heavier. I couldn’t  help but feel a little less invincible, a little less wild, and a little more wary. Though, I never again questioned whether hiking is worth the risk. A month before beginning the trail I’d vented onto a sticky note on my computer, “I’m so fucking terrified but I want to do this anyways. I guess that’s how I know it’s important.” To me, the danger of being governed by my fear far outweighed the danger of being a woman in the wild. What happened was not my fault for taking a walk in the woods, but misogyny leaking into the wilderness. The danger I faced was not that of being a woman in the wild, but rather of being a woman in a world where we are told “don’t go into the woods” more often than men are told “don’t follow that woman into the woods.” This incident fractured my sense of security, but it could not rob me of the wildflowers,

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mountain passes,

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ridge walks,

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alpine lakes,

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snow fields,

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sunrises,

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sunsets,

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nor the trust I acquired for my body.

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Those things were mine.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,660 mile long foot and equestrian trail that follows the spine of the Pacific Crest from Mexico to Canada. The trail winds through the desert of Southern California, the Sierras, Oregon, and the Northern Cascades of Washington. Thru-hikers generally spend four to six months walking the entirety of the trail. http://www.pcta.org/

Many thanks to Perrin and Bliss for their insight and encouragement.

Alex would like to re-iterate that this is her own experience, and it is not meant to draw general conclusions about the safety of female hikers. She encourages other hikers, especially women, gender non-conforming people, people of color, international hikers, people with mental illnesses, and those with disabilities to share the experiences that shaped their feeling of safety on trail.

11 thoughts on ““Don’t Go Into the Wilderness”: Grappling with Risk, Reality, and Resilience

  1. Ayyyo Flowers!

    Thanks for sharing this well written account of your creepy encounter.

    On a similar note…
    Throughout my time on the trail, I developed a lot of confidence in myself. Enough that I felt ok wearing leggings with trippy cosmic designs and rainbow lisa frank dolphins on them. Cuse why not? They look pretty cool, and leggings are great for hiking. When I put them on I was never really thinking that what I wore would make me a target because I was not wearing something typical for a male in this society. Throughout the rest of the trail I received many offhand remarks and subtle pokes about my sexuality, but none of this really bothered me because I was confident in myself and doing what I wanted to do. However somewhere in Washington I was warned by a local that people in the area don’t take kindly to ‘people like me’ (heterosexual males that wear bright clothing?). Nothing malicious ever happened, although this comment made me feel a bit uneasy, and question my relationship with society at large, and whether I should continue to express myself in the way I was. That unease passed, and I continued wearing the leggings all the way to Canada. Ultimately we need to ‘swim upstream’ to change current cultural attitudes so that no one should be in fear of doing what makes them happy.

    – sleepy andy

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  2. Sleepy Andy! It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad that you felt comfortable enough to continue wearing those goofy leggings despite sexual remarks and warnings from locals, especially in light of that conversation we had in the Mojave about sometimes feeling like the cowardly lion. I agree that the best way to change attitudes about seeing “people like you” on trail is to continue to be yourself, unapologetically. I’m glad you shared, since it’s an important reminder that not just women are made to feel unsafe on trail, but really anyone who does not fit a particular “socially acceptable” mold. It seems ironic that on a trek that spends so many months away from society, we become so acutely aware of how society views us. Perhaps it is because, at least in part, on trail we don’t have to practice wearing thick skin or looking or acting in a way that is pleasing to the rest of the world. Happy trails, friend! -Flowers

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  3. Thanks for writing the article. I hope you also had many more pleasant encounters with random acts of kindness and trail magic along the PCT that colored your trip for the better.

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    • Thanks for reading, Hammer! I had a similar comment on Facebook when I shared this article, so I’ll re-iterate it here: Of course I had FAR more pleasant encounters along the PCT than negative. I usually refer to my hike as the “net best time ever” and I really don’t intend to be melodramatic by sharing this story.
      However, it seems to me that most articles that address the safety of women on thru hikes occupy one of two camps: 1) women are just as safe as men and have nothing to worry about or 2) holy shit never hike because people DIE out there. I wanted to provide a perspective that lies somewhere in-between–that acknowledges the real risks that women face on trail but also uses that as fuel to hike and nevertheless

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    • Actually, yes! My friend showed it to me after I sent her a draft of this piece. I realized at that point that parts of my story unconsciously referenced specific lines of that poem, which was pretty crazy. I’ll admit that my closing sentence was inspired by her closing line, as well.

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  4. Thank you for this. I am a 24 year old woman about to embark on a 500 mile section hike on the AT and a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. I’ve been reading a lot of materials trying to soothe my fears (and my mother’s) about being a solo female hiker. So far, I feel as though I’ve been searching for some ultimate guarantee that nothing will go wrong, nothing scary will happen. I want to be told that crimes against women on the trail are exaggerated, overhyped, extremely uncommon. I’ve been trying to convince myself that because I am smart and strong, I cannot be intimidated or scared.

    But I know deep down these are not true- I have felt threatened and scared before, and I’m not invincible to our systems of misogyny and violence against women. Bad things can happen. What I love about your essay is that you accept this, but not as the summation of your experience. You illustrate that the awe & freedom & strength acquired on a solo thru-hike amounts to so much more than the cat-calling and sexism women endure on and off the trail. And furthermore, that sometimes we can only realize this strength when we face our fears, persevere through danger, and walk in the woods alone.

    Thanks again for this. I feel ready to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rebecca! Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your insightful thoughts on Alex’s piece. You are correct, there is no guarantee that bad things won’t happen in the backcountry, but we do have faith in the strength, bravery, problem-solving capabilities, playfulness, and resilience of women – qualities all of which aid in dealing with any problems that may arise on trail. We are so excited for you and your upcoming through-hike on the AT. Have an amazing time out on the trail, and please let us know how your trip goes when you finish!

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  5. You did all the right things. You noticed a problem, trusted your gut, and avoided the problem questions. Dogs are kind of a worst case scenario anyway.

    Just a word about pepper spray, it’s not terribly effective. If you’re escalating to using it, it’s to break contact and make space, but different people have different tolerances, and when you use it, you’ll get hit by some, too. If that’s all you had, it’s all you have, but looking ahead means considering other options.

    I don’t actually have other options, I don’t know enough about long-distance hiking, but emergency beacons and getting away sounds like a plan. Otherwise just sharing this experience helps others plan. Just being aware and keeping alert often helps deter others.

    Maybe start a photo log of everyone you talk to on the trail as a scrapbook. Nothing like someone’s face in your photo roll to give the police a lead and the criminal pause.

    Glad everything turned out, be safe and keep on doing what you love (parents worry about everything, don’t dismiss them, but it’s just advice these days).

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    • Hi Micheal! Thank you for your thoughtful response.
      I would have to disagree with you point about the effectiveness of pepper spray, however. From working in the Glacier National Park backcountry last summer (home of many grizzly bears) we were required to carry pepper spay on hikes and instructed on how to use it. All users of pepper spray know/should know that upon ‘detonation’ there will be some spray back on the ‘detonator’, but the introduction of pepper spray to one’s eyes is much less of a problem than getting mauled by a bear or assaulted by another human. A study done by by the U.S. Dept. of Justice found that the use of pepper spray was effective in decreasing police officer injuries as well as cases of excessive force in North Carolina (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/195739.pdf), and National Park rangers in Glacier have noted that pepper spray is far more effective than using a gun as a defense mechanism against bear attacks (https://www.outsideonline.com/1899301/shoot-or-spray-best-way-stop-charging-bear).
      Thank you for reading Alex’s piece and for your comment!

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