Sunday, January 03, 2010

On being alone and afraid

There are a number of people who admire me for hiking the PCT. When I show up for various local events, they like to introduce me and tell everyone that I hiked the PCT. That invariably leads to several people coming up to me to ask me questions. Two of the questions they ask me really bother me, and they are the questions I'm asked most often. They involve being alone and being afraid.

Being Alone

One of the questions that bothers me is being asked if I hiked alone, and then responding with incredulity when I say yes. They usually ask me if I was lonely next. I tell them that yes, I was lonely, but that was okay because it reminded me that there were people at home that loved me and that I loved, too.

That satisfies some people, but others cannot understand how it could be pleasant to be alone. I found that I saw more, experienced more and remembered more when I was alone. When I was with others, time would pass and I would realize that I hadn't seen where I had been for the past few hours. I felt sad that I had missed out on portions of the trail by engaging in smalltalk. I preferred being alone so that I could experience things 100%.

Sometimes I wasn't alone. I met people almost every day and a few times I hiked with people for a few days. I found that after about 3 or 4 days, I was pretty tired of being with someone and was ready to go back to being alone again. I enjoyed hiking at my own pace, not having to hide in the bushes to pee, not having to wait for others, not having to take breaks when I didn't feel like it or camp earlier or later than I wanted. This was my adventure and I wanted to do it my way. Being alone made that much easier.

When I was in Lake Tahoe, I met a couple who had hiked all the way together from the Mexican border but they were going to split up for a few weeks. They figured that if they hiked separate for a while, it would be like getting two hikes for the price of one. When they saw each other again, they would be able to share their individual experiences with each other. I always wished I could do that with The Man. Maybe someday I will be able to. He can go on his hike and I can live it vicariously through him and he'll finally understand what my experience was like. As someone explained, "I wish you could be alone here to experience this with me."

Sadly, many people cannot understand any of this. Many people think that it is a huge breach of some kind of rule of femininity for a woman to go anywhere alone. They think I have been incredibly irresponsible, reckless with my life and with the lives and feelings of my loved ones. I should have at least had a dog with me. I find this to be very sad. I do not live in Iran. I can go anywhere I please without an escort. Do not try to shame me into following some out-dated ideas of what women can and cannot, should or should not do.

Being Afraid

Of course, since I was alone I must have been scared, so that is usually the next question. When I try to tell them that I was not scared, I get a range of strange responses. Mostly people just cannot understand that I was not scared. They dismiss me saying there's no way they could do what I did because they would be scared. I find this to be very sad. They quit before they ever try. They don't even dare to dream.

Some people actually get mad at me and insist that I was being irresponsible, that wild animals or injuries or bad people could have hurt me. I have a hard time explaining why there is no reason to be afraid.

The reasons not to fear are many. First of all, being afraid is a response to messages people receive in civilization. Media, advertising, messages from public "authorities" all try to make you afraid to go outside. People are much more controllable if they stay indoors at home. If they are always afraid, they can be ordered around. If all they feel safe doing is going to the mall, they'll keep consuming. They'll never know their power. They'll never question the reality they are given. They'll do as they are told. Just keep those messages about the dangers of nature flowing into their home, make it look really complicated and super-human to go out there and soon they never will. Then it's so much easier to cut down the forests and pollute the rivers because nobody will know they even exist.

Only "experts" should be allowed to go out into the wilderness, the messages say, because the wilderness is full of danger. You see shows on TV of people suffering from horrible accidents or animal attacks or getting lost or injured and being rescued. There are wildfires on TV, the weather channel tries to scare you to death about weather, and those survival guy shows make it all look so complicated. It is all exaggeration and hype. The wilderness is the source of our life, it is gentle and kind. It cares absolutely nothing about you, so you do have to have what you need to stay warm, safe and dry, but beyond that, it will be kind to you if you let it. To experience the kindness of nature, you have to go out without guns or an attitude of war. Leave the "bomb-proof" gear at home. Nobody is dropping any bombs on you. You also have to go out with intelligence and respect and not behave like a Darwin award candidate. It really is not that complicated.

Being afraid of the wilderness often involves fear of large animals. Large animals have a lot more to fear from us than we do of them. My experience being outdoors shows that unless they've been tamed by easily-available garbage and food stored in cars or campgrounds, black bears are terrified of humans and run away as soon as they see them. Once you get out into the real wilderness and away from places that tourists visit, animals are not tame. They run away. There is nothing to fear. All you have to do is be smart and not tempt them and you will be fine.

As for Grizzly bears, I know nothing about them. But again, intelligence is your friend. Learn what is needed and behave accordingly. Then go out there and enjoy yourself. Nature is too good to stay home in your cage afraid.

I try to tell people that the worst animals out there are two-legged, but those bad people are very few out in the wilderness. Bad people generally live in civilization. By going out into nature you get away from bad people and you are safer than staying at home. Bad people generally are never far from their cars. Bad people are generally quite terrified of large animals. All you have to do is get far enough from a road and you will not see any bad people. I never saw anyone except for other long distance hikers more than 10 miles from a road. I never saw anyone without a backpack more than a few miles from a road. And I never saw anyone who looked dangerous anywhere on the trails.

The people I met on the trails were some of the most interesting and wonderful people you will ever meet. These are people who will help you, laugh with you, share what they have with you and want to be your friend even without knowing anything about you. Not everyone out in the wilderness is like this, but on a long trail they are mostly like this. On shorter trails, such as in my own backcountry, people are generally friendly or else they are not but they are almost never bad.

Civilization is where you have to be afraid. That is where the bad people live. That's where people on their cellphones will run you over with their cars. That's where corporations will try to kill you with their medication side-effects and pollution. Civilization is where the stress is that leads to real health problems. Go to civilization with a wary attitude but go out into nature without worrying too much. If you have been hiking a lot you are strong and you can probably get away from anyone and anything you don't like.

Being strong is a wonderful feeling. You are meant to be strong and to use your body. When I was first getting into hiking I was amazed at how much I was learning through my body. I learned what it was capable of, what it needed, how much to eat and drink and all manner of little amazing things. These things I learned were not facts and figures from fitness authorities but real knowledge gained from the experience of moving my body through nature, in hot sun and cold wind, in rain, fog and snow, up hill and down. Knowledge is power, as they say, and building up your bodily power is also building up your knowledge. I don't have to fear situations that occur outside as much when I know how to be comfortable and survive through them.

I remember going to visit Death Valley with my mom a few years ago over New Years. We went for a drive in the jeep and had some kind of mechanical failure out in the middle of nowhere. I remember feeling so grateful knowing that if I had to, I could walk out of there to get help. I would not be rendered helpless from a lifetime of not moving my body. I was not dependent upon a machine. Physical strength reduces fear and makes you safer.

I'm sure I haven't changed anyone's minds, especially people who are the most afraid. But there isn't much more I can do other than live my life and hope that by really living it, others might try living, too.

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