Quite awhile ago, Sarah of JabberWalk, posted this poem by Elizabeth Austen, Washington State’s poet laureate. I read it and absolutely loved it. Recently, I found myself talking about the poem and how much I’d loved it.
Reading again it again recently, I found myself crying. I do go alone, often. And each and everytime I go alone, I have to justify how it was safe and wise to do so. Now, I find myself not only doing things alone in the outdoors but also eating alone, making life plans alone, sleeping alone, and dreaming my very own alone dreams. (Except for my fuzzy companion, of course.)
The Girl Who Goes Alone
Here’s the thing about being a girl
and wanting to play outside.
All the grownups grind it into you from the get go:
girls outside aren’t safe.
The guy in the car? If he rolls down the window and leans his head out, run,
because the best you can hope for is a catcall, and at worst,
you’ll wind up with your face on the side of a milk carton.
Even when you’re a grown-up girl, your father—because he loves you—
will send you a four-page article about how to protect yourself
while standing at the ATM, while travelling unescorted, while jogging solo,
an article informing you how to distinguish phony police
and avoid purse snatchers, pickpockets, rapists and thugs.
Tell someone you’re going into the woods alone
and they’ll fill your ears with every story they’ve ever heard
about trailside cougar attacks, cave dwelling misogynists,
lightning strikes, forest fires, flash floods,
and psychopaths with a sixth sense for a woman alone in a tent.
To be a girl alone in the wilderness is to know
that if something goes wrong—
you picked the trailhead where the ax murderer lurks
or the valley of girl-eating gophers—
if you don’t come home unscathed, the mourning
will be mixed with I-told-you-sos
from everyone whose idea of camping involves an RV or a Motel 6.
The message is clear: Girls must be chaperoned.
So when, at the end of the day, you zip up the tent
and lie back in your sleeping bag,
fleece jacket bundled
into a lumpy pillow under your head, the second
you close your eyes every least night noise is instantly magnified.
You lie there and consider the pungent heft of menstrual blood,
how even your sweat is muskier, louder, when you’re bleeding.
Not hard to imagine its animal allure—every bear for miles around
sniffing you on the night wind.
You lie there listening, running a mental inventory of any
potentially scented item—
did every one make it into the food bag hung from a tree?
Toothpaste, trail mix, chapstick, sunscreen—fuck.
Sunscreen still in your pack, nestled right beside you
where Outdoor Man used to sleep. So you’re up, out of the tent,
headlamp casting its too-bright spotlight, darkening the dark outside its reach
as you lower the bag, shove the sunscreen in on top of the trash
with its food wrappers and used tampons. Hoist and tie.
Far enough from the ground to elude the bears?
Far enough out from the branch to thwart raccoons?
Tree far enough from the tent to keep from signaling the proximity
of ground level, girl-shaped snacks?
You go alone—in part—to prove that though Outdoor Man has left you,
his body is the only geography he can deprive you of.
He can give his muscled calves and thighs, his shoulders, chest and hands
to another woman, but not the Sauk River old growth, snow fields of Rainier,
sea stacks of Shi Shi.
He can keep from you the sweet, blood-thrilling hum of his body, but not
the sweaty, blood-thumping-back-aching pleasure of a hard-earned
panoramic view, high altitude starlight or the singular blue of a crevasse.
The thing about being a girl who goes alone, who goes
again and again is that it freaks
the potential next boyfriend. He doesn’t want to be out machoed
and he doesn’t want to admit it and he hopes you can’t tell.
The thing about being the girl who still goes alone is that it proves
you don’t need him and no matter how you show him you want him
it’s not the same
and you both know it.
Zipped back into the tent you remind yourself you’ve never really been in danger.
When have you ever been in danger? Well there was that boy, but years ago,
a teenager like you, driving around bored and pissed at the world,
his BB gun and his father’s two rifles
and on the seat beside him. Lucky you.
The gun he leveled on the window ledge
lodged nothing more than a BB in your thigh.
The thing about being a girl alone in the woods is you know too much
about the grain of truth in the warnings.
Even if you seem impervious, weird good luck leaving you so far unscathed,
you know the other girls’ stories—your sister
date raped after a party in college, a friend
raped by a stranger at knife-point, the two women
shot on the Pinnacle Lake trail. The singer
killed by coyotes in Nova Scotia.
about being a girl
who goes alone
is that you feel like you shouldn’t go
if you’re afraid. If you go it should mean you’re not afraid,
that you’re never afraid. Your friends will think that you go unafraid.
who goes alone
is always afraid, always negotiating to keep the voices in her head
at a manageable pitch of hysteria.
I go knowing that there will be a moment—maybe long moments, maybe
hours of them, maybe the whole trip—when I curse myself for going alone.
When I lie in the tent and all I am is fear.
I walk in the wilderness alone so I can hear myself.
So I can feel real to myself.
I walk into the wilderness alone
because the animal in me needs to fill her nose with the scent of stone and lichen,
ocean salt and pine forest warming in early sun. I need to feel my body—
taxed and stretched and aching.
I go because I know I’m lucky to have a car, gas money, days off,
the back and legs and appetite
to take me there.
I go because I still can.
The girl who goes alone
claims for herself
the madrona, juniper, daybreak,
she claims hemlock, prairie falcon, nightfall,
nurse log, sea star, glacial moraine,
huckleberry, trillium, salal,
snowmelt, avalanche lily, waterfall,
birdsong, limestone, granite, moonlight, schist,
cirque, saddle, summit, ocean,
she claims the curve of the earth.
The girl who goes alone says with her body
the world is worth the risk.