Late last summer was the first time I had ever been called an inspiration.
I had taken a Saturday to drive up north to hike Mount Martha and Owl’s Head—two mountains that had expansive views of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. I was looking to check this hike off my 52-With-A-View list and I picked a great day for it.
The morning was cool and the dew latched onto my shins and hiking boots as I navigated through the tall grass at the trailhead. As I started to ascend the gradual grade of the trail, my body knew exactly what to do. I had garnered about four years of hiking muscle memory.
My body no longer screamed out, “What in the world are you doing to me?” as it used to when I first threw myself into tackling these mountains. My shoulders and back were accustomed to the extra weight of my pack, and my legs were now familiar with the ache of pushing against gravity as I made my way steadily uphill.
About an hour and a half into my hike, I got to my first trail junction. I removed my pack and sat down on a stump, sipping water and taking in my surroundings. I pulled my earbuds out of my ears so I could listen to the nothingness of being absolutely alone in nature. I stretched my arms and rotated my shoulders, feeling temporary relief before I had to put my pack back on.
As I stood up after my short break, I stopped suddenly and looked around. I could’ve sworn I just heard a bell. Taking a second to listen again, I heard it closer this time. I turned to the trail I had just come from and saw an older woman decked out head to toe in hunter orange. In her hand was a bear bell that she shook so frantically at each step you would’ve thought she was calling in the farmhands for dinner.
She was so focused on her footsteps, trying to navigate around the rocks and roots, that she didn’t even see me until I called out, “good morning” to her, trying to make myself known so I didn’t startle her. At the sound of my voice, she looked up and got startled anyway, dropping her bear bell and letting out a slight yelp. I apologized for frightening her, but at the same time, I also didn’t understand why she was so on edge.
After she picked up her bear bell she looked at me, exasperated, and asked if I was out here by myself. I let her know that I was, indeed, a solo hiker. She asked me my name, age, how long I had been hiking, and if I hiked alone often.
“Kylie, I’m 28, been doing this for a while.”
She took a seat on the stump I just occupied, putting the bear bell by her feet. She set her pack down and emptied her water bottle over her head. She, then, explained how she had been hiking for 35 years and had never done it alone, as she had always been too intimidated and scared to venture out alone without her hiking friends.
This was her first solo. When I told her I had solo hiked all the 67,4000 footers in New England, you would’ve thought I told her I hiked Mount Everest. “Wow,” she said, “you are an inspiration!”
Uneasy, I quickly told her I just liked hiking by myself. She wouldn’t hear any of it.
“Do you know how much I wish I could’ve done that when I was your age? You’re out here by yourself, and you’re not afraid.”
Frankly, I never really thought about it. To me, hiking wasn’t some grand sport that required an Olympic athlete’s ability to achieve. I did it because it was therapeutic for me, and it also didn’t hurt that it burned quite a few calories.
However, the more I think about it, the more I understand why other women may have their hesitations when it comes to solo hiking. In all the hikes I have ever done, I can count on one hand the amount of solo female hikers I have ever come across.
As young women, we are taught to always be on guard, whether that be in a public place or on an isolated hiking trail. I subconsciously do this when I go hiking—I always wear sunglasses, a can of pepper spray is within arm’s reach on the strap on my pack, and my long, brown hair is always tied up in a bun at the nape of my neck under a baseball cap. I have to radiate the look of “don’t you dare try to mess with me.”
I have to look intimidating.
There are far too many stories of young women disappearing and being killed because they simply went out for a morning run or walked a couple of blocks home from their friend’s apartment—like Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped by an off-duty cop in London on March 3rd. Her body was found days later.
That woman hiker I came across last summer had hiked for almost 40 years and had never gone on a hike alone because she had never felt safe enough to. She felt she couldn’t strive for solitude simply because she is a woman. I hope one day that I and the billions of women around the world don’t have to navigate the route home with the most streetlights after leaving a friend’s house or have to grasp our car keys between our fingers, like a shank, coming out of the grocery store while we walk to our cars.
I hope to never be called “an inspiration” again just because I want to live my life.