Dear Natalie You’re in Danger

Ask Natalie Banner

By Natalie McCarthy

Dear Natalie,

Don’t you know it’s risky out there?

Signed,

Yourself, and society

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Dear everyone,

At first, I would have answered this question in one, easy, short, simple word: No.

Dear Natalie You're in Danger

I started hiking in Ohio. For my friends from outside the U.S., or those geographically challenged Americans, Ohio is flat and fairly developed. There are virtually no bears in Ohio, and any other large predator animals have been well hedged into forestlands by development and roadways.  Ohio has more than its fair share of wide open farmland, and quaint, eye-blink sized towns populated by old folks and Amish families, but I can’t say I ever lost mobile phone signal anywhere in the state. In fact, I can sheepishly admit now, I was nearly 30 years old before I realized it was even possible to travel by land to a place that didn’t have phone service.

Dear Natalie You're in Danger
Dangerous, aggressive animal from the wilds of Ohio

So, then, when I decided to start exploring, it never occurred to me that it could be any riskier than a walk through my neighborhood.

It wasn’t until my impending move, for work-related reasons, to Oregon, that I began to fully understand that exploring the outdoors could have some element of danger. Oregon is a state where over half of the land is owned by the government; that’s an American way of saying it is undeveloped and wild. If we could straighten out the state’s undeveloped forest roads and fashion them into one long ribbon, it would wrap around Earth’s circumference with plenty of roadway to spare. I was moving into a place where it wasn’t just possible, but probable, that I would find myself somewhere far removed from foot-traffic, passers-by, and easily navigated, paved routes to civilization. It was prudent, then, to start studying the 10 Essentials, back country safety, and planning for emergencies.  I learned that it could be risky to venture out without a water purifier, emergency shelter, and a box of waterproof matches. I learned it could be dangerous to find myself confronted by a startled black bear if I were not armed with bear spray.

I also learned it was hazardous to hike alone while female.

This immediately did not sit well with me. I started debates about it with – well, with pretty much anyone who would humor me without filing a police report for verbal assault. “What makes me, a woman, more at risk than a man, especially if I’m better prepared?” I asked, and repeatedly, I heard the following responses:

  • “No one sexually assaults men!” (This is a blatant falsehood.)
  • “There are a lot of creepy people in the world.”  (Well, sure, but why are they hiking fifteen miles into the national forest to creep out women?)
  • “I’m just saying, I’d prefer to be out there with someone who’s carrying a gun.” (Okay, that’s your preference, but does that gun-toting someone have to be a man?)
  • “What happens if you get hurt and you’re alone?” (What would happen if a man got hurt when he was alone? Popular movies inform me that I should be prepared to amputate one of my own appendages – not an appetizing thought but hell, I’d do it if it was required for survival.)  

Many people would groan and say, “Ugh, this isn’t some woman thing – no one, NO ONE, should hike alone.” This always puzzled me. I figured, sure, it is always safer to travel in groups, regardless of your gender. Isn’t that how human society started in the first place? The collective is stronger than the individual? That said, certainly people do adventure alone, and not just for a few dozen miles of walking on dirt. Some people climb mountains alone, or row their boat across big bodies of water alone. Some people traipse across continents with only themselves and a backpack. These people survive. The distinct message I was getting was that survival was less likely if these people were women.

Dear Natalie You're in Danger
Photographic proof of how stoked I was to be solo day hiking a section of the PCT

I found myself feeling defensive after a while. By this time, I was well-versed on basic safety, and while I was not wilderness medicine certified, nor an outdoors expert by any means, I definitely was no longer green when it came to hiking the Oregon wilderness. Why did my sheer femaleness make me more vulnerable than someone else of equivalent experience? Finally, when a man repeatedly voiced his (admittedly mild) protests about my solo adventures, I pressed the issue: “Why does this bother you so much?” I asked. “Do you think I can’t handle it?”

“You can handle it,” he said. “I just don’t like the thought of you alone out there.”

That’s when I realized: It’s about love. We women are loved, and the world has sent a very clear message: When you love a woman, you protect her from threats real or perceived. The outdoors and all that we are still exploring is full of The Unknown, and The Unknown offers up boundless potential for threat. Thing is, it also offers up boundless potential for love – love of self, love of the world, love of experience, love of life.

I’ve set out to minimize risk through experience and knowledge. I believe we can never be too wise or prepared, particularly when we are exploring the world. But I’ve also committed myself to conveying – through my own activities – that outdoor exploration is an act of love. I do not get outside to feel like I am starring in my own version of a “woman versus the wild” program. I get outside to fill my heart, to be connected, and to refill my inner emotional wells.

Being alone in the forest is not how I put myself at risk. It is how I offer myself protection. And I want to paint that picture for the people in my life, and for you, the friends who feel this, too.

Dear Natalie You're in Danger

 

With Love,  

Natalie

P.S. – What legitimate, or not so legitimate, safety warnings have you heard? How are the people in your life responding to your quests for adventure? What fears do you feel as an exploring woman? Let us know via message, video, or audio recording (you can use the voice recorder on your phone!), and feel free to share pictures as well! We’d like to include your contributions in future posts. Share via email at AskNatalieColumn @ gmail.com   

Contributors are identified by their first name, but you can request anonymity if you’d prefer.  

 

Man, Woman, Mountain.

Man Woman Mountain 1

By Emily Pennington

“The surest way to mend a broken heart is through a forest wilderness.”
-John Muir

 

On really confusing evenings of self, I like to drink beer and make up quotations that John Muir definitely did not write. I summon him like my own, personal break-up Yoda the moment a man threatens to rip the sticky, sensitive tissue of my heart to shreds. I need this. A stubborn, fantasy-ridden reminder that things can still be beautiful, even when they do not turn out as I’d hoped. Though very much dead, Muir offers surprisingly warm company, a wild-eyed mountain guru who will hold my hand through the thick fog of being a suddenly single outdoorswoman.

 

On a chilly Friday in November, following a particularly gut-shattering break-up, I got my dates screwed up and realized that my friends were climbing Mount Baldy the following week. I thought it was tomorrow. I stared at the vacuous, blue light emanating from my iPhone as I wondered whether or not I should still set my alarm and attempt the 11-mile summit. On one hand, I had nothing else to do with my Saturday now that my partner was gone. On the other, my heavy heart had plummeted into the very pit of my stomach where anxiety gestates, and the thought of hiking to 10,000 feet alone and in high winds made me shiver. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” whispered my ghostly sidekick. I fist-bumped the air above my bed, set my alarm, and rolled over to get some rest.

 

Man Woman Mountain 2

 

The following morning on the trail, I found my mind sluggish and distracted, wind kissing my cheeks with sharp sprays of cold air that turned my face a bright pink. My thoughts wandered. I didn’t often hike at high altitude alone. I set one foot in front of the other, just like I had done a thousand times before, and put my head down. It became a moving meditation as my brain began to massage the precise details of the breakup into something resembling a lesson.

 

“Had I asked for too much?” “Was my sensitivity too erratic?” “Could I have better shape-shifted into a form that fit the relationship?” I traversed the alpine landscape as my mind roamed through the rocky debris of my heartache. The sound of gravel beneath my rubber soles bit into the air with a familiar crunch. My lungs burned, and the tips of my fingers went numb from the cold. As the massive hump of Mt. Baldy’s east face came into view, I began to feel solid. Alone, but strong.

 

Man Woman Mountain 3

 

This was the moment my mind snapped fully into philosophical reverie. I wondered why I fancied malleability such a desirable trait in myself. It left me exhausted and resentful when partners could not follow suit. After all, what was there to change into anyways? I was already a dancer, a yogi, a mountain climber, a college graduate, a political activist, and a road trip sing along master. I read the news as well as the entire Game of Thrones series. I was everything I strived to be. Why was I depleting myself in frantic attempts to keep partners who failed to proffer the same effort?

 

Man Woman Mountain 4

 

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I thought of John Muir’s apparition high fiving me as I rounded the top of the summit mound. It felt blissful to have soloed the massive peak alone and at my own pace. There was no one to impress but myself. I let out a deep sigh as the wind painted my arms with goose bumps. I was tugging at the thread of this break-up and finding it hitched to the universe of how I approached life itself. Perhaps my 20s had all been a vain attempt at searching for the best thing, the biggest job, or the most compatible partner. I began to feel like I had it all wrong.

 

Maybe the real journey is to give up the hope of better things on the horizon so that we can follow our gut and truly embrace all the good and badassery that we have in the present. I felt it on that summit, the need to hold fast to my strength and my self-respect so that I would not allow another love to topple my ego. “I am a goddamn mountaineer,” I thought. “It’s time to start calling my own shots.” And, with that, I took off down the mountain, feeling more free than I had in a long while, the halo of Johnny Muir’s phantom trailing behind me like a superhero’s cape.

Man Woman Mountain 5

 

8 Ways to Mentally Prepare for a Solo Adventure

By Marinel de Jesus

Mentally prepare 1Being a solo traveler, and even more so, a solo hiker or backpacker can be an intimidating endeavor to undertake.  I cannot emphasize enough the need to be comfortable when partaking in anything serious such as hiking or backpacking in the wilderness by yourself.  The same goes for traveling as it’s just not worth it to feel overwhelmingly anxious to the extent that it outweighs the joy of traveling or trekking solo.

I, too, have gone through anxiety over being alone on my travels or in the mountains in my prior travels/treks in the past 15 years.  Despite being fully prepared, sometimes, the unexpected happens and the best you can do is to stay calm.  That way you can assess your situation more clearly and decide on the most appropriate action. But before you even dive into going solo on an extended travel or trek, it’s important to take baby steps to get you to a point where solo hiking/traveling falls within your comfort zone.   Here are some of my tips based on my own personal experience with hiking/trekking/traveling solo that will help prepare you mentally for the solo experience:

Start small

If you are completely new to traveling or trekking solo, then start out with a day hike or day trip.  Then, as you feel more comfortable with solitude and organizing the logistics of your hike or travel, you can build that up by adding more days, thereby transforming it into a weekend trip.  There’s no reason to go extremely extravagant on your first time hiking or traveling solo.

Why would you want to spend so much money on a 4-week solo trip only to find out that you dread the experience of going alone?  Avoid regrets and do a test run first.  Start with a day or two, and then build up.

Mentally prepare 2

 

Study your itinerary

Sure, at some point you will want to be spontaneous. Book the flight and go.  But to calm down that anxiety from going solo, it’s recommended that you do plenty of research on your destination or the trail you wish to hike.   You can never have enough information, especially if the place you’re traveling to or hiking in is a first time destination.  Even with a place you have been to before, I would still recommend doing plenty of research because oftentimes when we go with people, we tend not to pay attention to the logistics the way we normally would when it’s only us that we have to rely upon for guidance.

Mentally prepare 6

 

Get advice and tips from others who have been to the trail or place you are eyeing

Mentally prepare 7This is part of your research and it’s crucial to take advantage of any resources that are out there for you to learn about the trail or place.  For example, when I went to China, the resources for the trails in that country were hard to find because it was either the trails were still unknown to the western world or the blogs or information were written in Mandarin.  However, still, I managed to find a few websites which turned out to be heaven sent as they helped significantly in planning my trip.  An equally better resource is, of course, an actual consultation with someone who had been to the trail or place of your choice.  The advice given is usually invaluable as you won’t find such information online or anywhere else.  Note that most people are more than happy to share their travel wisdom and experiences so there’s no reason to be shy.

 

Learn to love yourself

Somewhere along the way on your trek, travel or both, you will get frustrated with yourself.  You will make mistakes here and there.  Before you venture out on your own, it is important to have a good grasp of self-love.  By that, I mean, learn to be easy on yourself.  Be forgiving of your mistakes and learn to go with the flow of life.  Understand that mistakes are inevitable including yours, and that’s okay.  In addition, loving yourself also means taking care of you.  While on the trail or the road, eating healthy and maintaining a workout routine are critical.

Mentally prepare 3

 

Learn to smile and be friendly

This should really be a given even if you’re traveling with others.  But in the world of solo trekking or traveling, a friendly demeanor can truly save you at times.  A smile can easily attract the right stranger to help you with directions or a fellow hiker who can become your trail friend for days.  At the same time, be mindful of the level of friendliness that you are exhibiting, especially if you are a female who finds herself interacting with a male.  An appropriate level of friendliness is the key.  Practice smiling and chatting with strangers in your daily life and you’ll soon make this a habit that will carry over to your solo adventure with ease.

Mentally prepare 4

 

Practice fine tuning your intuition

Mentally prepare 5Expect chats and interactions with strangers when you venture on your own.  It’s part of the adventure, and in most instances, it’s really the highlight.  Oftentimes, the people you strike a conversation with in far-away places or in the middle of nowhere are exactly the ones that become your long-time friends.   At the same time, learn to pay attention to your intuition.  You have it for a reason.  Your intuition is your imaginary friend – it knows better than you at times even though the actual circumstances in front of you may not clearly support the sense of danger that your intuition is warning you about.  So, listen to that intuition the same way you listen to your body when you feel pain.  It is nagging you for a reason.

 

Disregard all the above preparation and go for it (assuming you keep an open mind)

Having said all the above tips, you can still opt to disregard them all and just take the leap into the abyss of solo traveling/trekking.  By doing so, you will learn at a faster rate all the above.  It’s a crash course that can potentially maximize the lessons learned in a little bit harder way.  As long as you are aware of the risks, then, sure, why not just go for it all at once?

So, there you have it.  This list is just a start.  Preparing your mind for that solo adventure is as important, if not more, as the things you put in your backpack.  So, take the time to prep!

Mentally prepare 8