Inspiration for the (Female) Adventurer’s Soul

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Where do you find your inspiration?

By Andrea Willingham

I confess: I’m a sucker for a good story with a strong heroine, and we’re not talking Scarlett O’Hara here. We’re talking that rare breed of female lead that somehow seems to elude most mainstream media, disproportionate to the number of male protagonists that dominate our literary landscape and cultural narratives.

Although this topic has become of great interest to me in the last few years, I have tended to shy away from addressing it, frankly because I don’t want to be pegged as some feminazi whining about the patriarchy. That’s not why I’m writing this. I am writing it because I think there are a lot of other people out there — men and women alike — who enjoy hearing the stories of female characters just as much as I do, and just as much as we all like stories about male characters. Females can provide just as much inspiration as males.

I will be the first to admit that some of my favorite stories of all time center around the dude protagonist. Anyone who knows me knows that Into the Wild was one of my biggest inspirations for going to Alaska myself, and before that, Kingbird Highway fueled my teenage obsession with birdwatching and hitchhiking.

In my early naïveté, I wanted so badly to have the adventures that Chris McCandless and Kenn Kaufman had in their solo treks across the US, following in the legacies of even earlier explorers like Lewis & Clark and John Muir. But I was always torn between the dichotomy of being told I can accomplish anything I want, and that I am more limited because I am a woman, vulnerable by default.

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Oddly enough, I never actually experienced the gender bias myself until I moved to Alaska. Growing up in a family of strong women and graduating near the top of my class in college, nothing ever held me back, though I was aware that my privilege was unique. Yet suddenly when I embarked on my own life of adventure, everyone seemed concerned for my safety and success, probably more so than they would have if I was a big, burly dude. And for good reason.

In rural Alaska, I found myself in a man’s world. For the first time in my life, I was being called at in the streets, followed occasionally when I went out for a walk, offered drinks, sex, and even marriage, and told I was “beautiful” or “cute” by complete strangers. Most of these things are easy to avoid or ignore, but it brought to light the unique challenges faced by female travelers — challenges that possibly make their stories all the more compelling, because they are being dealt with in addition to the usual adversities of any other adventurer.

“A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone,” writes Vanessa Veselka in her essay Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters, in The American Reader. She continues, “This is not cute wordplay, but a radically different social experience. Often, I was asked why was I travelling. But over time, I came to understand that the question was not ‘why,’ but ‘how.’”

My experience has been similar. When I’m in uniform as a park ranger, I’m occasionally met with surprise when people find out I’m from so far away, or that I travel just for the experience of it. “Why would you want to come all the way up to Alaska?” or “Why did you leave?” or “You’re so brave to do this by yourself.” One older lady even said to me (I kid you not), “It’s so interesting they’re letting women do this now. I met another young female park ranger this year, and I just couldn’t believe it!” A lot of people still have an antiquated view of the mustached man with pith helmet, so the idea that travelers today can be any one of us is quite a different pill to swallow.

Are female adventurers less common than their male counterparts, or simply less noticed? Sometimes I think the latter may be true, which is perhaps why I’m so intrigued by their stories when I do hear them. If you are too, check out some the following and feel free to share some of your own favorite heroine books and movies in the comments.

 

Some great sources of Inspiration:

 

Book and Film | Wild

Inspiration 3“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…” ? Cheryl Strayed

I first heard about this book in the summer of 2013, being criticized for similar reasons that Chris McCandless was criticized for in Into the Wild. In many ways, the story is the same, only this time it’s a woman who goes into the wilderness to escape demons of her past, ill-prepared and misguided in her efforts and judgment. It’s great! It’s raw and honest and lays everything out in the open. Unlike McCandless though (spoiler ahead!), author Cheryl Strayed does not succumb to the deadly forces of nature, and instead lives on to write this memoir. It’s exciting, yet a realistic look at the challenges and torture of hiking over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with no prior experience. The movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon came out in 2014, and did a surprisingly good job of capturing the spirit of the book. My one qualm with it was that it focused more on Strayed’s emotional grappling with her past and less with her experiences on the trail than did the book. I would have liked to see more of her trail stories depicted, but perhaps that’s a good argument for both reading the book and seeing the movie – you can get a good taste of both that way.

 

Book | The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost

Inspiration 4This book far exceeded my expectations, capturing the very essence of the coming of age journey that so many young woman travelers experience. I wish I had read it about 7 years ago, when I first traveled abroad. It is the story of Rachel Friedman, a college student who finds her love of travel after spontaneously spending a summer waitressing in Ireland. There, she meets a free-spirited Australian woman who inspires Rachel to spend the next year traveling for the sake of the experience, and together they encounter wild adventurers across three continents, as the title suggests.

It’s a fun read, relatable for anyone who has ever fantasized about traveling the world with their best friend but has absolutely no idea where to start or how to do it. Instead of worrying about that though, Rachel learns to just go for it, inspiring the reader that anyone can do the same.

 

Book | Life List 

Life List is particularly interesting because it is the true story of a woman who finds her adventurous side after raising a family and spending some 30 years as a humble housewife. At the age of 50, after being misdiagnosed with only a year left to live, Phoebe Snetsinger sets out to turn her hobby of birdwatching into the most exciting quest of her life. She ends up spending the next 18 years traveling the world in search of rarer and rarer bird species. Although she often takes guided birding tours in each place she goes, her journey is far from sheltered, as she encounters accidents, a kidnapping, and malaria among other misfortunes. But despite all this, Phoebe is never deterred and it is truly her enthusiasm, commitment, and perseverance that makes this such a compelling read.

 

 

Film | Open Road

This fascinating little film tells the story of a young Brazilian artist who lives a solitary and nomadic lifestyle, on a journey of self-discovery. It has a definite independent film-vibe, excellent character development, and a dash of mystery as the story unfolds and the heroine struggles with the desire for human connections while also holding herself at a distance from others. I think it’s a common struggle for many young people who take off on their own, and this film does a good job of taking you along on the journey without revealing it all too fast. It’s a bit slow-paced and the scenes are acted out so naturally you could almost forget you’re watching a film.

 

Film and Book | Tracks:

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavour is taking the first step, making the first decision.” ? Robyn Davidson

Literally, it’s a true story about a girl in the 1970s who decides to walk 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with 4 camels and her dog. What’s not to love about that? The book has been out for a long time, but I’ve only seen the movie so far and it immediately became one of my favorite movies I’ve ever seen. Like so many other stories of this caliber, it has a number of flashback scenes alluding to Robyn Davidson’s troubled past, but unlike some of the other stories, these don’t seem to completely dominate her motivation for her journey. Ultimately, she is simply on a quest to prove to herself that she can do it. As a character, Robyn is fascinating and you can’t help but empathize with her: she does what she needs to get what she wants, but rejects offers from others to accompany her on her trip because she wants to have the experience alone. Without giving too much away (because you really HAVE to watch this film), she finds that in some sense, shared experiences are what make life worthwhile — and survivable.

 

While I am continuously building up my personal library of strong heroine stories, I will leave you with these for now. I invite others to share their favorite heroine stories as well — and most of all, I hope you will be inspired to go out and live your own. Adventure on!

Enjoyed this article by Andrea? You can find more of her fabulous inspiration on her website.

 

Guest Author at

Andrea Willingham received her Master of Science degree in Environmental Studies, Media, and Geography from the University of Oregon in 2017. Before diving back into academia after earning her Bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College in her home state of Florida, Andrea spent four summers and a winter working for the National Park Service in Alaska. There she realized her dream of pursuing environmental communication through multimedia as a way to explore and address issues of climate change.

With a background in both the arts and sciences and a special interest in the cryosphere and all things cold, desolate, and remote, Andrea hopes that her sense of adventure and wanderlust will inspire others to appreciate the far reaches of our planet, as well as the amazing people with whom we share our world.

46 thoughts on “Inspiration for the (Female) Adventurer’s Soul

  • June 5, 2017 at 7:00 am
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    Great post! It gives me a sense of hope and that I can conquer the world. Just need the funds first, lol

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    • June 5, 2017 at 11:10 pm
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      Hooray! Fortunately traveling doesn’t cost too much if you’re willing to rough it a little. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

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  • June 5, 2017 at 12:59 am
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    I have always camped with my friends but was thinking of going solo soon! I can totally relate to few of the points that you have mentioned in this post!

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    • June 5, 2017 at 11:11 pm
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      That’s awesome! There’s a lot to be said for camping with friends, too. An entirely different experience, but wonderful in its own way.

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  • June 5, 2017 at 12:08 am
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    You’re make my reading list longer haha. I love to read when I’m on the train or bus, so this post is perfect for me. I’m also a solo female traveler as well, so I find your post inspiring 🙂

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    • June 5, 2017 at 11:12 pm
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      Excellent! If you know of other good travel/adventure stories, I’d love to add them to my reading list too! Glad you enjoyed the post, and happy travels!

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  • June 4, 2017 at 8:44 pm
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    These sound like great reading material for a holiday. I don’t travel much unfortunately myself and don’t go anywhere on holiday on my own.

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    • June 5, 2017 at 12:35 am
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      Thanks for your comments! Even just a short day trip out on your own can be a fun way to see something new and get a feel for traveling alone. 🙂

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  • June 4, 2017 at 5:46 pm
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    What a good post and I love reading this I love travelling too and I love the idea of being a solo in travel I wish I could do this someday.

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    • June 5, 2017 at 12:36 am
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      That’s great! I hope you can get out on your own someday too — it really is a different experience!

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  • June 4, 2017 at 9:40 am
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    It is really inspiring for all female solo adventurers. I will really pass on this articles to my trekker friends. Also the list of books you are reading is amazing. I have never travelled solo but your story give me strength to see the world like this.

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  • June 4, 2017 at 6:24 am
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    I feel bad to know about the gender inequality that still exists in this world. Women can venture out for any adventure in the world and can excel better than men.
    I have not heard about these books and movies mentioned but for sure will watch them for inspiration. Great! 🙂

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    • June 5, 2017 at 12:39 am
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      It is rather shocking that gender inequality is still so prevalent, but there’s a lot we can do as individuals to set examples for others and stand up for each other. Thanks for your comments! I hope you enjoy the books and movies! 🙂

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  • June 4, 2017 at 5:14 am
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    Interesting and enlightening article! I have never tried to travel alone because I’m concerned for my safety. From where I came from, I have also experienced being called by strangers or looked at it an uncomfortable way. After traveling to other places (with my husband), I have learned that the situation also depends on your destination. I wouldn’t mind traveling alone when I know that I will be traveling in a safe place. I will watch the films you’ve suggested!

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    • June 5, 2017 at 12:43 am
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      It’s definitely important to be aware of your safety, especially depending on where you live or where you’re going, like you said. But also I think it helps a lot to hear other women’s stories and how they’ve dealt with safety issues, and to see that we are capable of standing up for ourselves more than we may realize. As a side note, I’ve recently taken a women’s self defense class, and it was tremendously helpful in boosting my confidence and ability to confront questionable situations — I’d highly recommend finding something like that!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm
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    I watch Wild and Tracks. It’s intersting to see them reflecting their life during the activity of hiking.

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    • June 5, 2017 at 12:43 am
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      That’s awesome! Walking long distances leaves a lot of time for self-reflection, for sure. Thanks for your comments!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 5:07 pm
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    Weird experiences indeed, to be offered drinks to marriage, that too by strangers!
    As I always believe there is no better teacher than travel and we learn the most when traveling!!!!
    Btw, just reading the 1st para, the first movie that came to my mind was Wild!!!

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    • June 3, 2017 at 11:14 pm
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      Yes, some of those experiences are not super typical, but interesting nonetheless. Thanks for your comments!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 3:27 pm
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    I’m not much of a camper and could never imagine camping solo, but your post certainly is inspiring. I think if I read/watched all the resources you listed I might be up for the challenge – there are certainly some strong women tales in there that would kick my butt into gear!

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    • June 3, 2017 at 11:16 pm
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      That’s great! There’s a lot to be said for being able to hear other peoples’ stories and not feel so alone in our experiences and discomforts.

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  • June 3, 2017 at 1:35 pm
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    I had not heard of any of these before now. Really keen to check them out. I love a good an inspiring movie and book, especially travel ones!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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    Thank you for this post, it’s full of inspiration and I’ll get my hands on “The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost” as soon as I can, it sounds like a really good book!
    I think, as you said, that many people, especially in such a far away state, have an antiquated and close-minded view of the modern world but I’m happy you were able to face it so well.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm
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      Yay! That one is so good. I need to re-read it again soon too. 🙂 There is always that challenge as your mind expands from travel and new experiences, and other peoples’ minds seem to stay so closed, and how to grapple with that. There’s never an easy answer, but I guess we all do the best we can.

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  • June 3, 2017 at 12:32 pm
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    It is very frustrating that we are judged on the basis on our gender when we should be treated as equals. I am so taken aback by what that lady said to you but sadly I know all too well how people see women as stereotypes and god forbid we would want to do a job that is adventurous lol x

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    • June 3, 2017 at 11:20 pm
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      I know, right? Things are getting better for gender equality for sure, but it’s still shocking how prevalent it can be in certain contexts. All we can do is keep setting a good example for others!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 11:55 am
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    I have actually read several of the books mentioned but never heard of Tracks and will definitely be checking it out. Maybe after I read the book Ill watch the movie. It looks interesting. I definitely like a little adventure in my life.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 11:21 pm
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      Awesome! Tracks is definitely one of the lesser known ones — I’ve hardly met anyone else who has read/seen it. Thanks for your comments!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 7:47 am
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    Great post – really enjoyed reading this and now have some more travel books/films to add to my list. I have watched Wild and thought it a brilliant film, I wasn’t aware it was based on a book – it’s nearly my birthday so I might ask for a copy for my birthday! X

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:48 pm
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      Very cool, Becca! I would highly recommend the book version of Wild — in some ways I liked it better than the movie, since you do get a lot more detail than a movie is able to provide, and Strayed’s writing style is easy and enjoyable!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 6:28 am
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    Good article. The wilderness should empower women and set them free. When I was 18, I took a gap year to be a ski bum. That gap year turned into 20 years of professional skiing in the winters and guiding whitewater in the summer (technically, that was only seven years but…) It was only developing my relationship with nature that I could get to know myself, in particular my demons and fears. I had to face them and reach my peace.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:49 pm
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      That’s an awesome story! Isn’t it amazing, how just one little decision we make early in our lives can change the whole course of who you become?

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  • June 3, 2017 at 5:42 am
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    Oh, I am very excited about this book list! I’ve read Wild, but not the others. I love books with female adventurers and have read a lot. As a Wilderness Ranger for the FS in 1993, I can relate to being looked at as an oddity. 😉 Stay tough!

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:50 pm
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      Thanks for the ranger solidarity, Mel! 🙂 I’m sure in the 1990s, it was even more unusual to be a female ranger. Hope you enjoy the other books!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 5:32 am
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    I have been thinking of camping as a solo traveller for a while but haven’t yet got the courage. This post is inspiring!

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:52 pm
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      That’s great, Sona! I would highly recommend it. Start small — go on a couple short, local overnight trips to get your feet wet and work up your confidence, and then go from there!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 5:24 am
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    These are great recommendations. I also read Wild and had mixed feelings about it. I felt she went of half-cocked and did some stupid things, maybe because she was struggling emotionally. I loved Into the Wild. Couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting. I haven’t read any of your other suggestions in this post, but I will definitely be checking them out. Thanks for sharing these! I would love to hear more about your experiences in Alaska.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:55 pm
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      Thanks for your comments, Mary! I think we all make stupid decisions especially when we are alone and struggling with various pressures on our lives; it takes a lot of vulnerability to be able to admit those mistakes so that others can learn from them. And I’ll definitely be posting more about my Alaska experiences here in the near future — stay tuned!

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  • June 2, 2017 at 11:39 pm
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    I am also a big fan of the outdoors and adventurism !! I loved this post as it really was inspiring and provided plenty of examples of wonderful material that is available to enjoy. Thank you for sharing these examples which I can’t wait to delve into further.

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  • June 2, 2017 at 9:54 pm
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    This is an insightful post! A close friend of mine makes every effort to leave her flat on the weekends and walk in the country. Another is tempted but worries – I’ll point her to this site as I think the shared experience of others will be a helpful reference.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 4:57 pm
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      Thanks for your comments, Andrew! There are tons of great resources out there for women solo travelers and those trying to get started. I think the hardest thing IS getting over that first hurdle of doing it a few times and getting comfortable with yourself and others around you, but once you do, it’s the most empowering feeling in the world!

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  • June 2, 2017 at 8:28 pm
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    This is an interesting article on your experience as a solo female in Alaska. I can imagine some of the unwanted attention you received from males. I’ve met solo female travelers who travel in Africa, Asia and South America and they received an incredible amount of unwanted attention, but, like you, they were strong enough to deal and live with it. It’s incredible what the old lady said to you, she was definitely from a different generation!
    The Life List looks to be a really interesting read, almost an example of ‘it’s never too late to do what you really want’, I’ll check this book out.

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    • June 2, 2017 at 8:53 pm
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      Glad you enjoyed the article! It’s interesting how many of these stories come up over and over again once you become tuned in to them. Thanks so much for your comments!

      Reply

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