Friday, April 18, 2014

Solo Trekking Sisters: Women Who Walk Alone

Coast to Crest Trail, west of the Pacific Crest Trail
The man sitting across from me looked at his wife then turned abruptly back towards me asking, “Why are you alone?”

Stunned, I sat silently, trying to better understand the question by studying his mannerisms. I had just emerged from a week solo hiking in Death Valley and was re-hydrating in Shoshone, a small town that serves as the “Eastern Gateway” into the Valley.

“I mean,” the man continued, glancing at his wife. ”I don’t understand why a woman like you…” She kicked him under the table.

OH. That’s where he was going with this line of inquiry. Women who travel solo hear it often. I hear it in almost every destination where I stop to mingle with other travelers. From men and from women, but, mostly from the guys. Understandably, because though women travel and always have, those who do it solo, especially those who do it primarily on foot solo, are a rare breed far and few between. And, also because solo adventuring historically has been viewed a man’s thing. You know, when his cave just isn’t big enough, or when it’s just too darn close to civilization.

My answer usually goes something like this: “Well, it’s not necessarily my preference to trek solo. I didn’t plan to be a single woman most of my life. Things just worked out that way. And, if given the choice of not going where my heart leads me just because I’m single or to go alone and suffer the moments of loneliness, I’d take the latter. Obviously.”

I say all this smiling, to ease their discomfort, when sometimes I’m railing inside. Because, truthfully, if I had been born male, no one would be asking me such questions. If I had been born male, people wouldn’t feel worry or pity for me. They’d be slapping me on the back, envious, thinking me some sort of awe inspiring wild man they wished they had the balls to be. I’d be a hero even though I’d be breaking the Boy Scout Rule—don’t hike alone; practice the buddy system.

Yet, that’s the key. Not many people, male or female, would choose to travel alone. Even less would consciously choose to embark with a trim pack into the wilderness for months at a time. Yet, there are those of us who do make that choice. Over and over again. Willingly. Gladly. And it’s the rare incident that leaves one of us stranded in the wilds, dangling in a deep ravine by a wrist caught beneath a wedged bolder.

Some solo female trekkers have authored books, encouraging other women to see something of the world on foot—with or without a partner.  Others fade back into their private lives having received little to no public recognition for their accomplishments, pleased to have fulfilled a dream, to have done something worthwhile in their otherwise uneventful lives.

We all know that historical personages such as Sacajawea and Harriett Tubman logged thousands of solo miles during their lifetimes.  Yet, there are modern women of all ages who have done the same whose names are not as commonly recognized. 

Numerous women have made a coast-to-coast run for a host of reasons. Fewer have walked the distance for any reason. In fact, only a few dozen women have completed the Triple Crown, hiking America’s three major vertical trail systems in their entirety: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the first to tackle any of them was Mildred Norman Ryder who died while making her seventh cross country trek for peace at the age of 73. 

Ryder, a former flapper from New Jersey, had a vision. She wanted to give her life to something beyond herself. Having forfeited her husband due to her deeply rooted pacifism and his diverging convictions, she would spend the last 28 years of her life walking from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. From the Korean War through the Vietnam War. Always walking. Always for peace.

In preparation for her first cross country trip, Ryder thru-hiked the Appalachian at a time when it was virtually unheard of for a woman to spend months alone in the woods walking--just for the sake of walking. She diverged off trail and hiked a good part of the long trail while she was at it. Considered the first female AT thru-hiker, Ryder was a woman on a spiritual quest, not out to realize a dream or break records.

On the AT she learned to live simply, in harmony with nature, regardless of conditions. She learned to apply that same simplicity when back home in order to retain the state of grace on a daily basis as she had achieved while out on the trail.

When she embarked on her first trip across America at age 44, she wore a t-shirt with “Peace Pilgrim” printed on the front, and “Walking Coast to Coast for Peace” on the back. She carried nothing but what she could fit in her pockets--no additional clothes, no water, not even money. Although after 25,000 she stopped counting the miles, it’s been estimated that by the time of her death, the Pilgrim had actually walked 43,500 miles.

Ryder lived by a motto to” remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.” A gal after my own heart, Ryder aimed to give more than she got, dedicating her life to selfless service. She, literally, walked her talk and, in so doing, attained a following of fellow pacifists. World peace, Ryder discovered, begins with self peace and her Steps Toward Inner Peace is now considered a spiritualists classic. Many of her quotes circulate the web today, thirty years after her death.  

Though not all pilgrims, there are other female long distance walkers worthy of mention. Helen Thayer goes down in history as having solo trekked Death Valley, the Sahara and the Gobi deserts. If those extreme places weren’t enough, she also tackled the arctic. Alone.

Named one of the world’s Great Explorers of the Twentieth Century by the National Geographic Society, Thayer, walked alone to the North Pole when she was 50 years old, and at 63, she ambled the Gobi. Originally from New Zealand, all her treks have been accomplished without guides or support teams, let alone camera crews. As you can imagine she would, this 5’3” woman packs some heat on her wilderness adventures. Magnum Winchester rifles to be precise, which certainly helped when faced with a hungry maternal polar bear with two cubs while in the arctic.

A national luge champion for the U.S., Thayer has climbed some of the world’s highest mountains and paddled solo down the Amazon. She is the author of three books: Walking the Gobi: A 1600-Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair; 3 Among the Wolves: A year of Friendship with Wolves in the Wild; Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole.

For others, their treks saw no boundaries. For those women, it would be the world they’d traverse--foot by foot, mile by mile, country by country.

Blonde hair British beauty Ffyona Campbell started walking around the world at sixteen. Eleven years later, at age 27, she became one of only four people to have circumvented the globe on foot, and the only recorded woman to ever have done so. American Polly Letofsky took to her heels a few years later, cutting Campbell’s time in half.

Covering 19,586 miles on four continents in 11 years, Campbell crossed through war zones, past land minds, survived a village stoning and an attempted rape to return home and eventually write three books about her global circumnavigation:  The Whole Story; On Foot through Africa; and Feet of Clay: On Foot through Australia. Campbell’s grueling promotional schedule established by her sponsors succeeded in her breaking many time records established by her male predecessors. It also succeeded in her fudging about 1,100 miles that she claimed to have walked in America, but didn’t. After her public confession, the earth-trekker returned to the States to redo on foot the miles she had previously traversed from the comfort of her sponsor’s van.

Granted, she hadn’t contended with unfortunate delays such as being mugged and shot by Afghani bandits as her American predecessor David Kunst had been, or murdered as his brother and hiking partner, John, unfortunately was.  She had simply been a young woman a long way from home fearful of losing the financial backers that were making her childhood dream a reality. In the last book of her world voyage trilogy, The Whole Story, she tells, well, the whole story.

Five years after barefoot Campbell reunited with her parents in northern Scotland, Letofsky left Colorado to schlepped 14,124 mile through 22 countries over the course of five years. Walking for breast cancer awareness, she was greeted everywhere she went by survivors and supporters who hiked miles with her, sheltered her, and fed her. She managed to raise more than $250,000 towards breast cancer research, and half the proceeds from the sale of her documentary GlobalWalk continues to fund breast cancer awareness. Her moving memoir, 3MPH: The Adventure of One Woman’s Walk Around the World, won Best Memoir at the Writer’s Digest 2011 Book Awards, among others.

Women like these should be added to the history books, as should the women who came before them. Because truth be told, back in 1876 when the Appalachian Mountain Club was first created 10 percent of the membership was female. Back in the girdled nineteenth century, major publications followed the careers of unbridled professional female pedestriennes, as they did male athletes, supporting them when more conservative rags accused the women of being brazen violators of the socially entrenched Victorian morals. Always the proverbial Eve and given the times back then, governments began preventing public displays of female professional sportsmanship. The age old myth of feminine frailty persisted.  

Persist today, in fact, when women mile pushers constitute only 6.5 percent of Triple Crowners. Although only 20 percent of thru-hikers today are female, and long distance hiking and endurance adventuring is still a male dominated field, more and more women are hitting the trails. Some have attempted and completed the Triple Crown having walked 2,100 miles on the AT, 3,100 miles on the CDT, and another 2,600 miles along the PCT. Though not all who complete the three trails apply for recognition, a total of 196 hikers have received the Triple Crown Award. Thirty of those have been women.  And until a few years ago, only a few men had completed all three within a single year. With that benchmark now met by a woman, women—young and old—are earning the Triple Crown in tighter and tighter timeframes. 

Not that we’re in a race. Women have always understood clearly where they stand, despite the history books and social restrictions. Men and society will someday catch up. In the meantime, we continue to be inspired by those branching out, blazing their own trail. And, inspirational figures are pivotal to those wanting more from their lives because when all is said and done, we are tribal beings, always needing permission, if not also approval, to be the people we were born to be, to bound beyond barriers.

 All it takes is one to spark change; one woman, one foot step. Others, inevitably, will follow. 

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