According to many people, I put myself in great danger last week. I took an irresponsible risk. I performed an act that, while totally stupid, required great bravery. I did something many others said that they’d like to do, but never would, because of the danger involved.
What did I do?
I—a 44-year-old-woman—camped in a state park without a human companion to share my tent.
Yes, the fun enjoyed by families and couples and (usually male) groups of friends—the outdoor activity that’s described as rejuvenating, stress-reducing, and good for one’s health—transforms into a courtship of death and dismemberment when undertaken by a woman alone.
Never mind the bears roaming the park in search of final pre-hibernation snacks. Never mind the overnight temperatures dropping into the upper 30s, and the daily potential for thunderstorms and lightning. Never mind the known risk of falling rocks. And certainly never-you-mind the danger of driving first on a highway at 70 mph, then up a mountainside of steep drops and hairpin turns while a local in a sportscar tailgates before passing on a blind curve. No, the danger a solo woman is told is the most dangerous—dangerous enough and likely enough and terrifying enough that any right-thinking woman would abandon all camping aspirations—is sexual violence.
This recent trip of mine was to Golden Gate Canyon State Park, in the mountains above Denver, Colorado, and it was truly a solo camping experience. My tent site was isolated, set back from the dirt road, bounded by forest and rocky slopes, just barely in sight of the parking area up the rise. If I sat still, no one would know I was there.
Since I was there midweek, the two sites that shared my area of the campground were empty. The next-nearest collection of sites was about a football field away, tucked among trees on the other side of the slope, far beyond my line of sight. Only one of those campsites was in use. I saw their truck and, once, passed the woman on the way to the nearest vault toilet.
In fact, I saw fewer than a half dozen humans in three days, and spoke to only one of them. Add in the fact the region is remote enough there’s no cell phone service anywhere within the park, and you could say I was somewhat isolated.
And isolation is what most people believe was the most dangerous aspect of my camping trip.
But, my darlings, isolation was actually what made me safe.
In The Woman Traveling Solo Question, writer and traveler Christine Gilbert does a fabulous job outlining the reality of the sexual violence risks women face, and places it in the context of global travel. The same facts—that a woman is overwhelmingly likely to suffer sexual assault in the company of people with whom she has an existing relationship—apply domestically. Yet we tell women to curtail their public lives and experiences by terrifying them with tales of brute men in the bushes and predators lurking in the darkness.
And when we consider the risks to a woman camping alone, she is at greater statistical risk—at greater factual risk—in a crowded RV campground than an isolated campsite.
“You’re so brave!” a woman told me. And I don’t really know how to respond to that. I certainly don’t feel brave for choosing to camp, no more than I felt brave traipsing through London, or driving from New York City to Indiana, or any of the other things I’ve done in my life.
What I do feel is “prepared.” I pack up my food and pack out my trash every night to deter bears and other wild things from snuffling around my campsite because I know a bear preparing for hibernation is far more dangerous than a skulking human. I bring along a variety of things that’ll help me keep warm in case temperatures drop more than anticipated and/or I end up soaking wet. I’m educated about what to do in the event of a severe thunderstorm, a possible flash flood, a brush fire. I bring my dog—not because he’s an attack dog (because he is so not!), but because he’s a excellent alarm. And yes, I carry weapons that are legal and that I am trained to use, while recognizing the realistically rare need I’ll have for them.
So what would I consider most dangerous? Camping under the conditions in which I camped without ever considering any of those non-sexual things. The real idiot isn’t the woman who camps alone. It’s the parent or scout leader who takes kids for a hike on the mountain while lightning flashes overhead. The person who doesn’t think to pack in waterproof matches or a handful of dry tinder. The person who thinks it’s just fine to keep a bag of fruit and beef jerky in the tent because no bear would really come close to humans. And it’s the person who assumes the woman is in great danger because no one else is around to protect her.
I absolutely, positively refuse to curtail my life, my aspirations, my visceral experience of living, and so I choose to camp alone.
I sit alone in the cool mountain sunshine and listen to the wind caress the trees, to the whoosh of a raven’s wings, to the chitter of chipmunks.
I take my dog on a hike and immerse in the experience of wild places, and learn to read the signs of my dog’s even greater sensory immersion.
I sit by a campfire after sunset to feel both infinitesimal in the darkness and secure in the night.
I creep out of the tent in the wee hours to see the silver and shadows of unsullied moonlight, and the swath of crystal dust in the sky.
And I return to people knowing myself, rather than a camping companion, better.
And, frankly, if driving across town for a movie is worth the rather high risk I’ll be injured or killed in in an auto accident, it’s more than worth it for me to “risk” camping alone.
I’d invite y’all to join me but I’d much rather you invite yourself to a personal retreat. Don’t listen to the doubters. Know what’s real.
Y’see, knowledge is potential. Action is power. Put them together, and you have the freedom of discovery. 🙂