I’m 13 and terrified, running as fast as the fading dusk allows. Fright and exertion trap my breath high in my chest above a tangle of live wires. A girl my age was raped here.
I think I know how to get back to the campground. Three hours ago this trail was lit by late-day sun, and I was following a new friend back to her house.
We’re camping in northern Michigan, having driven from western Minnesota in a 1970 International Travelall towing a pop-up camper, the kind with a handle you crank and crank and crank to raise the top and then pull out and brace the ends to support the beds — age-darkened amber foam pads disintegrating at the edges.
My older brother is almost 16, and super cool. He has a jean jacket, a poofy brown crown above hair closely trimmed up to his ears, and a skateboard he slithers around the campground, daring the steeper hills than we have at home.
My little brother is 4, adorable and spoiled, so he can be a real pain in the butt when he doesn’t get his way. But to us older kids he’s just so precious, almost a pet really, so we can’t help but eventually give him what he wants. Plus, we get to live vicariously through him, showering him with attention that’s hard won as one of three kids born within five years.
My sister is 11, and…fine. In retrospect, I’m sure I’m happy to have her company; meaning, I’d be less comfortable without her there, but she’s also kinda a kid still, so ya know, holding me back in the cool department, especially since — being girls fewer than two years apart — there’s an expectation of similarity and even the comraderie that won’t develop for another six or seven years.
So when this cool girl starts talking to me at the playground (which of course I’m enjoying ironically, being a mature middle-schooler) I feel very validated and cool in return. (Granted, I don’t know whether she’s cool to her peers. In retrospect, she’s probably not; otherwise why did she frequent the nearby campground looking for very temporary friends? But she has the confidence to solicit companionship, and to me any confidence must be a reflection of coolness, of worth.)
She asks if I want to come over and hang out at her house, a scant half mile away. I clear it with Mom, who says yes, an action I find quite surprising now that I’m a mom. She had no idea where this girl lived, no one carried phones then; how would my parents ever have found me? And when would they have started looking?
Because after a couple hours hanging in this “cool” girl’s cool room, her window reflects its interior and the yard has disappeared. I better be heading back, I say. Okay, she says, and I assume we’re walking back together. I’m a stranger in a strange land and she is my guide.
Nope, she says. She’s not allowed out this late. Furthermore, she says, I’d better hurry, ’cause a girl our age had been attacked and assaulted recently on the trail between her house and the campground. My trail. My way back to my family.
Now I’m running, wondering if I’ll ever see them again. Wondering if I’m going the right way. Wondering when anyone would find me. Wondering if I’ll even be there to find.
Every shadow has the potential to grab me, to rape me, to drag me away and drive, drive, drive, away from everything I’ve ever known. I’d never been so rationally terrified.
Finally, my feet leave soil and touch asphalt and I know I’m back in the campground loop. A layer of terror lifts, but I’m not there yet. I skirt the loop till I recognize our pop-up and re-enter the family unit.
I don’t know if anyone questions my whereabouts, my time with the other girl. I don’t volunteer my journey home. This fear is mine to hold, and I don’t know how to let it go. How to share it. If to share it.
Maybe telling my mom would help ease my fear: maybe she’d acknowledge the worry as legitimate and comfort me. But with four of us needing her, attention is scanter than I’d like; interrupting her dinner prep for this would be stretching her thinner, and I don’t feel important enough to do so. My Dad would dismissively brush it off as a tiny achievement toward being “tough.”
Plus, I’m supposed to be growing up, right? Taking care of myself? I got myself into this situation, and maybe I’d be blamed for being immature, careless, naïve to not figure out the details of the arrangement ahead of time. I’d asked to go, and been given the privilege and responsibility. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be afraid, to be so needy as to seek soothing.
I wonder how many other new “friends” that girl solicited from the campground out of summer boredom, and how many of them ran terrified through that forest after learning of the assault. How many others got their first taste on that trail of feeling like prey, feeling weak and insufficiently able to protect themselves if a man sought to harm them?
In the space of leaving her house and reaching our campsite, the black of trees against a charcoal sheet has disappeared, and now campground lights isolate our immediate sphere inside an onyx periphery.
Echoes of what lingers out there course through me as we six eat together, again, as we do most days.
And in varying degrees they still do.
A decade later, I willingly hit the trail alone.
From ages 24 to 29, I hiked a couple thousand miles alone. I worked at Mount Rainier National Park, organizing volunteer work efforts for the Trails Department and inventorying the repair and maintenance needs of Rainier’s 265-mile trail system.
I got paid to hike.
From late April through May, as the snowline inched upward, so too did trails emerge, distinguishing themselves from the moss or duff or stunted alpine huckleberry. Most days a week, I’d pull out my highlighted park map, scanning the non-neoned sections of trail I’d yet to survey, and choose an area that made sense (I’ve done 2.25 miles of this trail, let’s continue there) or was particularly desirable for that moment (cobalt-blue king gentian blooming here this week, or this side of the mountain isn’t rainy today, or need solitude — pick remote trail to avoid pesky tourists).
Until late October or early November, when the snowline’s descent had again erased the trails, the months were filled with glorious vistas, vibrant confetti of wildflowers, weary legs, aching feet, heat and dust and sweat and sun; rushing glacial rivers and flaming-red vine maples against stark gray cliffs and kamikaze mosquitos that could penetrate two layers of canvas-duck fabric.
And lots of animals, predator and prey.
Cougar sightings were very rare, but tracks were fairly common. I thought about these strong, lithe beasts often as I hiked: sound notifies animals you’re approaching, which is helpful so they don’t startle and opt for offense on instinct. Me, alone with my clipboard and pen: quiet if not downright stealthy. I’ve no doubt I was in the line of feline vision more than once.
Hairy scat (poop) was another signal of predators: eating furry things is a definitively carnivorous (or at least omnivorous). Usually the size of the hair-filled scat made it the likely calling card of a skunk, raccoon, or coyote — all highly unlikely to dine on me.
Among the cougar-worthy-sized scats, the gold medal goes to the one containing an entire raccoon paw! All the paw bones, still all in the right place, a little skeletal hand! (Cougars must have awesome digestive enzymes — all the skin and muscle just dissolved away!)
Bear scat was decidedly less creepy, but far messier: usually a big, formless pile filled with berry seeds — a bearpie if you will. But, alas, bears are easier to find: I had at four bear encounters when hiking alone, and all of them really got my attention.
Two were mothers with cubs. And all four required me to walk past the bears rather than turn around and retreat because forward was where I needed to go.
Once I spotted a mama and her retriever-sized cub on the trail ahead: I said Go away, Bear!! In a nice but assertive and commanding way, while waving my arms slowly above my head to look bigger: she complied by lumbering off into the brush, cub trotting behind. Phew.
I took a breather to calm myself and when the coast seemed clear, continued around the bend ahead — which turned out to go back toward the bears’ escape route. Damn. I proceeded cautiously and was reassured to see three middle-age hikers on the switchback above me.
But those jerks got within thirty feet of me and starting waving their arms above their heads, and chuckling Go away, Bear at me! They’d witnessed the whole encounter from upslope. Dammit, don’t they know I’m working here? Come to my office and mimic me like that! The nerve. And on a Tuesday! Get back to work, slackers!
Another time I encountered a large fella on his hind legs, madly groping a mountain ash bush, gorging so intently on its orange-red berries he couldn’t be bothered to move along on my account. After several attempts to urge him on from about 25 yards, I slowly bushwhacked a wide, half-circle berth through meadow scrub to get back to some trail walkin’, feeling lucky that this course-furred, six-foot beast preferred berries to blonds and didn’t consider me competition to his fall buffet.
Some encounters were scarier.
One early summer, I was proceeding into a U-shaped (as seen from above) portion of trail, where the path led into a drainage between descending flanks of a ridge. I was about a third of the way around the U when I spotted the most terrifying and adorable thing I’d ever seen: a mama bear and two cubs whose fluff granted them the girth of obese beagles.
The cubs were playing on a log diagonally angled down into the drainage and up toward the section of trail I needed to traverse, about another third of the way around the U. They climbed over each other, wrestling and falling off the log delightfully. Scrambling back up to do it again, as mama half sat/half lay on the slope, watching distractedly, scratching her back on the ground and nibbling at nearby tidbits.
I hadn’t noticed them right away because of the height-of-summer foliage — tall, huge-leafed cow parsnip and devil’s club, as tall as me and thick enough to block me from mother bear. I fretted and watched, considering how lucky I was to witness this and how unlucky I’d be if she noticed me, especially if I kept walking, bringing me from my roughly 20-yards’ vantage to within 10 yards when I’d be adjacent to them on the trail.
Finally, I slunk on, as quietly as I could, trying not to rustle brush, snap a twig, or emit any additional odors that would alert her (no farting!). With such little ones, and two of them, I surmised she’d likely be more protective and aggressive than the mama with the bigger cub. I finally sneaked past her, feeling rather like Bilbo sneaking around Smaug’s lair, though with better results. When I could breathe again I ran the next quarter mile to get some leverage on the situation.
My fourth bear was enormous, in that he looked really, really big even from 40 yards or so. He was up slope from me in a meadow of super-short huckleberry — the higher you climb the smaller the plants get due to their shorter growing seasons, and are just the cutest little-bitty lupine, hemlocks, and huckleberry you’d ever care to meet.
I was completely exposed, and if bears had good eyesight I probably wouldn’t have continued. Bears are fast, and with the unimpeded downhill run he surely could have been down and mauling me within ten seconds, and there was nowhere safe for me to go. Still, I crept on, taking an I’ll pretend I don’t see you and thus you won’t notice me approach. It worked.
Unfortunately, I was nearing the end of an out-and-back spur trail I was surveying so I was back in about 20 minutes; and I was pretty flipping frustrated with that bear that he hadn’t moved on by the time I got back. I mean, come on. Most of this huge park is very far from a trail…can I get a little space around here?
Any of those bears or phantom cougars could have eviscerated me easily. In addition, I faced other potentially fatal hazards hiking alone. Crossing raging rivers on naked logs (no bark for traction), top heavy from a loaded multi-night pack, a slip would have led to me being pummeled silly against other logs in seconds, and drowned within minutes.
I traversed barren alpine expanses — where the trail was scarcely visible in bright daylight — in freezing fog so thick I struggled to find the occasional cairn indicating I was on the right path, and with no spooning companion to keep hypothermia at bay had I gotten lost or injured.
Once, my headlamp batteries died with a mile and a half of trail left after dark. I crawled and creeped along in the pitch dark, occasionally turning my light on for a few seconds of dim running before it died once again. Crawl, dim run, crawl, dim run, all the while aware of the creatures who could see me and whom I couldn’t see.
And so on. Nature can be intimidating and dangerous. I’ve been outmatched in size and speed and vision and strength and unpredictability and animal instinct. I’ve encountered features and creatures that could have tossed me about like a rag doll or torn out my insides with a few swipes. Maybe even pooped out my bony hand.
But I’ve been most concerned about another threat. Man.
One of our hand-held radios clicked live, leaking a sparse second or two of faint static before the caller released the talk button. This wasn’t unusual: people often hadn’t fully collected their thoughts and balked, trying again a few seconds later once they knew what to say.
But this message a few seconds later was anything but composed. Click live, static…was that a low whimper? a moan? help barely audible. Click off. A two-second shock that went straight to the female fear — that physical vulnerability — I’d carried since at I was 13 on that trail. I knew.
I was working with one of Rainier’s five trail crews that day, in the northeast corner of the park. We’d just finished a project and piled ourselves and our dirty tools back into our navy-blue, crew-cab truck (sometimes called a “six pack” indicating how many people it held).
I looked around alarmed at the other three crew members, who looked like they may not have heard the weak desperation, the faint plea. They’d paused, but appeared ready to head back into conversation.
That sounded like she needs help I said. The crew leader — a small, badass, slopes-in-winter, trails-in-summer woman in her forties — replied via radio, something to the effect of Caller, this is 668 [we were numbers, not names], can you repeat your transmission?
She tried, again whisper-whimpering help, and at this point the Park’s call center took over, eventually — and painfully for the concerned listeners scattered across Rainier’s 250,000 acres — eeking out the woman’s location.
Dread fluttered through my chest all day as bits of information circulated.
She was a back-country ranger, patrolling an area near the Pacific Crest Trail which skirted Rainier’s boundary and near the largest highway bordering the Park.
She had been violently attacked by a man. Beaten repeatedly on the torso and head.
She was married to one of the front-country ranger “cops” — the officers who trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (we called it flet-see), who had sirens and lights on their vehicles, carried guns, wore bullet-proof vests.
The assailant had previously had a run-in with the officer: maybe pulled over for speeding, or caught poaching an elk or cutting wood inside park boundaries.
This was payback. Premeditated payback.
I still feel sick for both of them as I recount this.
When I meditate, still shots of lunch vistas, trail sections, mountain views from my time at Rainier commonly pop into my head: it’s a gorgeous, magical, singular place, especially to those of us lucky enough to spend thousands of hours there.
What is it now for her? Are all those blessings tainted by fear, PTSD? The peace of the wilderness, the dissolution of self in nature, now brutally contaminated.
And for her husband: the guilt and helplessness of knowing that simply doing his job led to this pain and trauma for his wife.
Of course, it shouldn’t have. The evil in some of us can override the good, the irrational the rational.
For both, the added vulnerability of having some of their most painfully fragile moments witnessed audibly by so many.
For a while after that, I wasn’t allowed to hike alone, and women all over the park who’d previously worked unaccompanied in the wilderness were paired up, given a buddy, escorted. A naïve, floppy-haired, acne-speckled 18-year-old Trails intern got to scamper the backcountry with me, which made me feel far more put out (read baby-sitter) than protected.
It fucking sucked.
We were here, doing these jobs, because we were independent women. I loved the freedom of being alone in the woods and was ecstatic when I could leave Young Intern behind about a month later.
And yes, it was uncomfortable at times. At times I wished a coworker was around.
Meeting men on the trail could be eerie, especially on some of the trails near remote back roads and those that led out of the park and into private or Forest Service land. There, chances exponentially increased of meeting hunters, fishermen, joyriders with guns to perforate road signs, or disgruntled neighbors who resented the government’s ownership of National Park land near their homes.
I don’t like heading out on a remote trail by myself when there’s a man at the trailhead who can see me head out alone. I’ve used a half-dozen strategies to avoid being witnessed entering wilderness by myself; there’s just no need to let him know I’m out by myself.
It was especially concerning when I’d get to these boundary areas and find a hunter or two, guns and truck waiting. Or, I’d happen upon a couple men fishing, miles from the trailhead and having seen no one else till them. Miles and miles between me and anyone who could help; like Princess Buttercup, there would be no one to hear me scream.
I’ve had times where I pass a man on the trail, then decide soon after that I’d better be heading back due to time or physical limitations; I hike back and within minutes there he is heading back my way. I make a quick joke, or hi again and as soon as he’s out of view book it for all I’m worth. Perhaps just a coincidence that he’s heading back toward me, but the apprehension still arises.
On the trail, the less men look like hikers the more likely to spark my unease: if they’re serious hikers, they’re interested in miles or setting, not making trouble. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed chronicles an experience that corroborates my prejudice based on attire/equipment when a yokel unprepared for the wilderness watches her change clothes from the bushes and menaces her until his friend pulls him away.
I’m not alone among my friends. One hikes with an outdoorsy-type switchblade, and has driven 45 minutes out to a trailhead, only to turn right back and drive home after passing two men in a truck a quarter mile before the trailhead: if they kept driving and saw the car of the solo woman driver at the trailhead, they’d know she was out there alone.
A friend of hers hikes with an air horn, primarily for bears, but it’d likely deter humans too, and signal her location for potential help.
When I’ve passed a man on the trail who gives off a certain vibe (or rather, any man who doesn’t give off a safe vibe), my mind ricochets with scenarios and plans: how to use my hiking poles for distancing or as a weapon; did I pack my pepper spray?; how far am I from civilization — should I scrap my plans and head there now?; should I bushwhack off trail to avoid him?; who knows where I am and when would they notice me missing?
Unfortunately, much of the time the answer to this last question is that no one knows exactly where I’m hiking and they wouldn’t notice my absence for at least a day.
Men have served up cause for this paranoia.
Walking in my own neighborhood park, I come across a man conspicuously urinating. I cough and slow my pace to announce my presence and give him time to finish. As I approach, I realize he’s not concerned about my presence and intentionally keeps his penis out. He’s not peeing, he’s posturing. I turn and retreat.
At a bar nearby, a man watches porn on his laptop, visible to all other customers. Complaints don’t deter him; part of his pleasure is others’ discomfort. Eventually the owner intervenes in his aggressive exhibitionism.
Same on a plane: man watches porn on his phone, disregarding the comfort of anyone within sight and earshot.
The grabbing of a little bit of boob during an seemingly innocuous arm around the back.
My own pastor groomed me to be his next victim, offering gifts and special attention and opportunities to be alone with him. Within a year, he’s convicted of sexually assaulting at least three of my 12- and 13-year-old peers. His own granddaughter’s classmates.
The pleading requests, the complaints of “blue balls,” the skipping of first and second bases before being shrugged off. The ignoring of the first rebuffs.
The high-school boys who talked about my body and my sexuality together in front of me — trying to take ownership of it, dictating and judging, evaluating my worth and my desirability on their terms. Tossing my innocence and sacredness and pleasure and physicality back and forth as if it was theirs to form, theirs to curb, theirs to exploit, theirs to take.
The doctor who “accidentally” grazes his crotch against my leg during an exam, only for far too long and on a body part that’s far too sensitive to touch for it to be an accident.
“Jokes” about rape and sexual assault and sexual degradation.
Nonstop disregard of what the women might want and not want. Men’s entitlement to their desires above the desires and emotional safety of the women around them.
And I’m not even mentioning friends’ stories (including being stalked, masturbated on in the subway, assault, rape, so much more).
News stories. Depictions in literature, TV, movies.
The tens of thousands of porn videos, photos, cartoons showing women (and children, so help us all) being forced to endure sex acts and sexual violence.
Millions of examples.
There are a handful of backcountry cabins inside Mount Rainier National Park, generally four to six miles in from a trailhead, and they can be reserved by employees doing work in those areas to save the substantial on-the-clock hours of hiking in and out multiple days.
I often employed my now-husband as pack mule on overnights, since a full overnight pack was a pain in the neck (back, hips, knees) at my one-mile-per-hour, note-taking pace.
But sometimes I flew solo, and it was those times that my imagination stoked my fear and my fear steered my actions.
What was that noise? Bear? Rapist? (Both? Hopefully the bear eats the rapist!)
Is this historically reproduced wooden lock enough protection against a determined attacker? What if he has an ax? Breaks the window?
What if there is someone, or a few of them even, in the bushes on the way to the outhouse? What if they’re out there, just biding their time until I need to pee or get water from the creek? The radio doesn’t even get a signal out here, and even if I could call it’d take hours for someone to arrive.
I’d wriggle in my sleeping bag trying to find the cozy-enough position to calm my mind, chest aflutter with nerves, talking myself down: if a rapist was out looking for a target, would he hike six miles into the forest hoping to randomly come across one? Highly unlikely.
Unless he’d already seen me on the trail earlier or leaving the cabin alone this morning, and knew I was there — my mind falls back into the fear rut, and I get up to take the precautions I’m able: I’d slide a chair or two in front of the door, put something rattly on the window sills as an alarm, and climb back into the loft for the night.
After a restless, half-alert sleep, I’d awake unscathed, and head out again. Relieved.
A few years ago, I started renting yurts and cabins around Oregon to find some of the freedom and solitude I’d been missing since having my first baby. Trying to get some of my groove back. It’d been over a decade since my last night alone in Rainier. But the apprehension of wandering out in rural nights so dark a person could be standing three feet away and be invisible…that was fresh enough.
So I brought a pee bucket.
Definitely not an original idea. In fact, it’s very retro: the chamber pot was a commonly used convenience item for centuries. Just another vintage concept that’s making a comeback. At least in my cabins.
Normally used to hold bathtub toys or soak my kid’s undies after a poor wiping job, this little 10-quart dandy helped my feel secure in a frigid mid-February when the only other occupants of the campground — and the only people at all within shouting distance — were a couple of rowdy hunters.
Of course, peeing just outside or behind my cabin should be safe too. Unless I was being actively stalked by someone who’d seen I’d arrived or was residing alone. Maybe they’re trying to peek through a gap in my curtains, and are right outside when I step out into the dark.
This is why single women get dogs.
I’d already had middle-of-the-night bathroom encounters that made me feel vulnerable. Once I coughed and then heard a toilet flush behind the wall separating the men’s and women’s side of the campground bathrooms. Oh shit. There’s someone over there. If he heard me cough, he could come around, block the door, push me back in. The bathroom was 40 feet from the nearest sleeping camper, in the dark. Would I be able to call for help?
During a non-stop, solo, 17-hour drive from Boulder, Colorado to central Minnesota, the quarts of coffee that kept me going kept me needing to go. I pulled desperately into a South Dakota rest area at 2 am, looked around, and pulled back onto the interstate, deflated and with a desperately inflated bladder; there had been a half dozen semi-trucks parked there for the night, and while their drivers were likely asleep, if one wasn’t and watched me enter the bathroom alone, I would be an easy target. I stopped and peed on the side of the freeway.
Even if the risk is small, I’d decided it just wasn’t worth the anxiety to brave the dark alone in the presence of men I didn’t know. And, remember, the anxiety is based in reality, in statistics; one in five women will be raped. We’ll probably all be harassed (with 81% of women reporting being sexually harassed or assaulted in their lifetime).
I’m less skittish when there are a lot of people around. A full campground is a safer campground, where people will see you and hear you and — hopefully, help you, and in which any creeps are more likely to keep their creepiness to themselves. Yet, the recent news story of a man raping a woman on a train (Pennsylvania, October 2021) while passengers sat and did nothing is both disgusting and terrifying. We can’t rely on the kindness or decency of strangers to keep us safe.
This is a dramatic example of being unsafe as a woman in the presence of a man. Yet, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of little incidents occur every day. Experienced or witnessed in isolation the brain can process each and likely heal from them.
But put them together like one of those pictures within a picture collages, and the end result is clear: women have been put in compromising and dangerous situations by men over and over and over again, and though we shouldn’t have to be so cautious as to pee in a bucket, it’s not that crazy either.
In discussing the pain that causes humans to hurt one another, Brene Brown talks about her daughter getting “a book on ‘going to college’ and the first three chapters were essentially lessons in how not to get sexually assaulted.” (Braving the Wilderness).
I’d wager virtually every woman has safeguards in place to help her feel less vulnerable in a myriad of situations. And if she doesn’t yet, she likely will in the future as she unfortunately experiences boundary violations to her physical and emotional safety.
It shouldn’t have to be this way.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As parents and schools teach about consent, young men will be better educated about how their actions affect the women around them. But I fear it will be a long, long time before the perceived and actual threats to our safety diminish dramatically.
Until then, I will continue to hike and yurt alone. I’ll take precautions but I won’t armor up so much that recreating feels like entering a war zone. I’ll listen to my gut when it signals wariness, and at the same time I’ll soak in the therapeutic benefits of solitude in remoter places.
It’s one significant way to heal from the centuries of trauma wrought upon women.
Perhaps even a tiny form of protest. I will live in this world how I choose: You can’t keep me caged.