A few weeks ago in a random historic-site parking lot in far-flung western Colorado I met a 60-something woman from Atlanta. “You’re traveling alone? Well good for you. I always wanted to do that but I just don’t have the courage. Some day I will. You’ve never had any problems?”
This is a common question when people see me alone. A few variables in wording, some more direct language about scary people and places to avoid, but the sentiment is the same.
I’ve worked alone in many remote places over the years. I have occasionally stepped out of sight when I felt unsure about what was coming my way. I’m more often worried about destroying an axle, not finding my way out of a random maze of canyons, or falling off a cliff than about other people.
A few years ago while traveling in Scotland with an old friend, we were ready to stop for the night; we needed food, Scotch whisky, and a place to stay. We found a pub with a few rooms for let on the second floor but they were already full for the night.
Explaining that we would like to have dinner and a wee dram or two of whisky, we asked for a recommendation on a B&B within walking distance. Oh, well, sit, eat, we’ll call around and see what we can find.
We sat, we drank, we ate.
“So, I found a place for you to stay,” the owner, a rather burly Scotsman, told us. “At ten o’clock I’ll take you out back to the walking bridge over the river. You can take your bags across with you; a man will meet you on the other side with his car, and take you to his B&B for the night.”
My friend and I looked at each other. In the US, this is a set up for an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
He continued, “There’s only one problem.”
We looked at each other again, clearly thinking the same thing: there’s only one problem with a man transferring two American women across a Scottish river to another unknown man in the middle of the night?
“The breakfast is vegetarian.”
Of course, we should have thought of that. A vegetarian breakfast could be a problem; those tempeh sausages just don’t set well with many.
Bad things can happen to men and women. Sometimes they happen in remote places, sometimes not, occasionally to people traveling alone, sometimes not. Obviously, some places are inherently more dangerous, more restrictive, or more stressful. Being open to situations as they unfold and using common sense go a long way toward staying safe.
Every culture, every country, has its idea of what is safe and what is acceptable for women to do. Pushing the envelope with vegetarian sausage is not exactly ground breaking. But being able to travel freely, especially in your own country and specifically in one that prides itself on individual freedom, must not be a privilege.
I am not completely foolhardy. I carry bear spray, not mace but real bear spray, as in, for grizzly bears. I keep it in the truck and take it into the tent/camper with me each night.
Last summer while camping alone in Oklahoma I had the sudden thought that I should check the new canister. It was already late and dark and I was cozy in my tent but had some odd feeling that made me want to be sure it was good to go. Apparently, it was more than good to go. Before I fully removed the glow-in-the-dark safety clip the canister discharged, just a small blast, in the tent.
The tent is pretty roomy for one person – it is, after all, a 2-3-person tent. But no tent of any size is sufficient to escape bear spray. I closed my eyes and gulped spray-free air as soon as I heard the spray escape. Unzipping the tent and staggering outside I could feel the pepper burning into my nose and eyes. Cursing, and laughing at my own stupidity (once again!), with my eyes still shut I wandered the 50 meters to the truck, found the spare key, unlocked the door, found the water containers, and tipping my head sideways, poured two gallons of water across my face.
Eventually I was able to breath freely again and my eyes stopped burning and watering but the tent took much longer to air (think: weeks) and every time I turned in my sleeping bag a little puff of pepper spray would hit me. There is still a cayenne-red stain on the tent wall.
Now, when I am asked about camping alone I think of this incident. The fears we may have about stepping into the world like this are mostly unfounded. And, I am here to tell you: we are mostly our own worst enemies.