A white man in his forties, wearing tearaway olive pants, came to my Brooklyn apartment in August to pick up my boxes and ship them across the country. He made chitchat with me when he was inside my place, taking away a few boxes at a time. He asked me the usual questions, where I was moving to and why. I told him I was moving my stuff to Las Vegas, where it would stay while I took off on a roadtrip around the country.
“Alone?” he asked. Yes. “Oh,” he said. “I’ve always thought that sort of thing would be more fun with someone else.” Upon learning I was a writer, he suggested I should write about my travels. If only I had thought of such a thing.
For days his unsolicited, throwaway opinions on my plans made cuts through my thoughts. His response is expected and predictable, one I’m certain I will hear many times from many people as I travel. People are afraid of being alone. They think a woman over 30 spending time alone is dreadfully sad. That women shouldn’t travel alone because it’s unsafe. Many people will never travel alone, explore their own cities alone, see a movie alone or even dine alone. I’ve done all of those things for most of my adult life. I am not afraid. Nor will I wait for a partner to pursue the things I most want to experience.
I told my friend Sam about what he said, how sick I am of hearing older men’s opinions about my choices, the way they talk at you and never to you.
“Maybe you should be careful about who you share your plans with,” she said. “You need to guard the energy you let into your life carefully.”
The week before I flew on a one-way ticket from New York City to Las Vegas, my mom wrote me an email. She urged me not to travel alone, telling me she had a “bad feeling” about it. I barely skimmed it before I closed it and didn’t open it again.
When my dad picked me up from the Las Vegas airport, he didn’t ask me about the places I planned to visit, or the complicated motivations behind my plans, or my hopes for the near future. He launched into his worries about my safety. He told me he didn’t want me to camp alone.
When I tried to explain why these comments from my loved ones were frustrating to me and rooted in ugly sexism, that I wished he would ask me more about my trip than try to dissuade me from taking it, he said, “Jillian, I’m worried about your safety because women are physically not as strong as men.” I had to laugh. As if I don’t understand the reality of what it means to move through this world as a woman.
In the week I was trapped inside by smoke in Seattle, I spent time preparing for what was to come. I made an expensive trip to REI, buying freeze-dried meals for camping and hiking boots and a solar LED lantern. At home, I researched what I could do to keep myself safe. There were grizzly bears to worry about. Both Glacier National Park and Yellowstone suggest visitors carry bear spray (basically super mace). Bear attacks happen, every year, when visitors accidentally sneak up on a mother bear and her cubs, and she attacks, maiming them and sometimes killing them. You’re told to make noise as you hike, that if you see a bear you should make yourself big, avoid eye contact, and slowly back away, never run. And if a bear does attack, lay down on your stomach with your hands over your neck, play dead, and hope your backpack saves your major organs.
And then there were the people to worry about. The men. I watched self-defense videos. I bought a knife and mace to carry on me. I mentally mapped out a tactical plan to use these items when I needed them—mace buried in the bottom of my purse wouldn’t help me if someone did attack me. I didn’t want to be afraid, but I wanted to be prepared.
That night, after hours of looking at products and watching bear attack survival videos and reading women’s testimonies of using mace, I tried to sleep. A pit of fear lodged itself in my lower stomach. I laid awake for hours. When I did sleep, I dreamt of hiding from a bear. I woke myself up groaning in my sleep.
After I left my friends in Seattle behind, I drove to Montana. I woke at 6:30am to drive to Logan’s Pass in Glacier National Park—an hour drive on the gorgeous and winding Going-to-the-Sun Road—for my first solo hike. The Haystack Butte Trail is about eight miles in and out, almost entirely along a cliff. The path stretches from two to four feet and overlooks the valleys, waterfalls and roads hundreds of feet below.
At first, I was nervous and jittery, worrying about being out there by myself, a small signal in the back of my mind screaming “But bears!” But I soon discovered, as I knew I would, that there was nothing to worry about. National parks are extremely busy, and I was never alone on the trail for long. When I was, I relished in the silence and the sounds and smells, howling wind, swaying pines, chirping chipmunks, screeching eagles. Everyone who passed by said hello—the New Yorker in me was even kind of annoyed by it. When I reached the butte, I stopped to meditate, journal and have lunch for an hour, not a soul in sight. On the way back, I ran into a group of young guys from New York having a beer on the trail. We talked about Bed Stuy and the need to go somewhere far from home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest skyscraper.
After a couple of days in Glacier, I drove to Butte, Montana to spend one night on my way to Boise, relieved my first challenge was under my belt. I felt some growing confidence in myself heading into the next big thing: three nights of camping in Yellowstone alone.
I arrived at my hotel and walked over to the nearby park at dusk—you know if there’s a park around I just can’t stay away. I popped in my headphones, circling the area as I talked to Sam on the phone. I meandered past some kids and over to a baseball field, walking along the road behind it. There was nothing back there but some cut trees; the highway laid behind them. Next to an empty tennis court there was some park exercise equipment; I sat down and did some leg lifts aimlessly before I got up and started to walk back.
Suddenly, I saw a man walking toward me. He was a white man wearing jeans and a T-shirt with buzzed hair who looked to be about 30. There was no one else around, and I was in a bit of a hidden area, the nearest hotel hundreds of yards away. We were in a closed-in aisle, with a line of trees to my left and a fence to my right. There was nothing back there but me, no reason for him to be coming this way, especially at the fast pace he was walking.
I stopped in my tracks and took out my headphones and held them in my left hand; I held a plastic Perrier bottle in the other. “What’s up?” I said to him. “Sup,” he said back. He kept coming toward me, with purpose. I remember his fists being closed; I don’t know whether that’s real or not. “What are you doing?” I asked him. He didn’t respond. But he kept walking. “What are you doing?” I said, louder, fear creeping into my voice. Still nothing.
I took off running. I ran in his direction, toward the hotels and people, but to his right to try to get by him. I fully expected him to lunge at me and try to grab me. But he didn’t. He watched as I ran by, and said nothing. I kept on running, only looking back to make sure he wasn’t following me. I saw him walking deeper into the park, toward nothing, until I couldn’t see him anymore.
When I was far enough away, I put my headphones back in to talk to Sam, who had been on the phone the whole time. I told her what had just happened, my heart racing, trying to comprehend it.
I have never run from a man in my life. I have never had my fight or flight (my body chose flight) senses kick in so sharply. I don’t know what his intentions were, or what might have happened if I had silenced my intuition and tried to quietly walk by him with my eyes downturned, instead of looking directly into his eyes and speaking to him, letting him know I saw him and I was going to remember his face. Years of being a woman alone in New York City taught me these survival skills, to walk tall and meet their pupils with yours. On the subway I learned that nine out of ten times when a man is staring at you, if you stare back, they’ll instantly look away and leave you alone. They want to intimidate you and make you feel small, but when it comes down to it they’re the worst kind of coward.
A very strange part of being a woman is the self-gaslighting. Things happen, over and over, that make our hair stand on end and leave us questioning an interaction for weeks. A man says something off, or touches you in a small but unwelcome way, makes a comment that’s vaguely threatening or misogynistic but then laughs it off. Maybe you smiled and laughed in the moment too. But later, you wonder why you did. You wonder why you didn’t speak up. You try to convince yourself that he didn’t mean it that way, or you read the situation wrong. But you are never wrong. You always know. Women are taught from birth to be nice, to make ourselves small mentally and physically, that men are allowed to act certain ways and it’s our job to learn to navigate and deal with it, that that’s what it takes to make it, at home and at work. Women can ignore the gut feeling telling them to get the fuck out of there and willingly walk right into a dangerous situation, for the sake of being nice. We hold our tongues because we’ve been taught not to make a man angry or feel slighted, because maybe then he’ll kill us.
I briefly wondered if I was being ridiculous when I ran away, if this man was simply going for a walk in the park at dusk, just like me. But no—fuck no. I knew I was in danger. I’ve been working on listening to my intuition for a long time now. This time, my intuition struck like lightning, the small animal inside of me screaming for survival. I listened, hard, and I likely saved myself. From what, I’ll never know.
In Yellowstone, I camped by myself for the first time. I built a tent and cooked on a propane stove and started a fire. I explored hundreds of miles of the park, hiking next to 2,000 pound-bison and eating lunch by a hidden hilltop lake and smelling every fumarole. I slept through a night where the low was 17 and rain poured for hours. I woke to snow blanketing my tent. I did it all alone.
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You are not alone!
Your gut always knows. You should be proud of yourself for listening to YOU and not what society tried to hammer into your head.
Living for your stories. Inspiring me to someday camp alone as well!!