In the Shoes of a Woman–Fear and Freedom on the Trail
It is eight o’clock on an August evening, and it is too hot. The air hangs tired and damp from my skin. Sweat trickles and stings my eye despite the fact my body is still except for fingers tapping the keys of the laptop. Another drop stings my eye. It is too much. I stand, grab the small orange pack by the door which I know holds a towel, headlamp, and car keys, and walk out the open door.
I arrive at the trailhead fifteen minutes later, the light already fading, turning everything into a blue-gray monochrome. The heat presses against my flesh. Ignoring the approaching darkness, I start down the trail pulled by the promise of relief in the black lake water a mile out.
I am breaking all of my own rules of hiking. I haven’t let anyone know where I am going, I have almost nothing in my pack, and darkness is approaching. But I continue. A few hundred yards in, I pass two young women on their way out. We smile at each other and I feel a pang of guilt for not having a buddy. A few hundred yards more and a group of eight twenty-somethings pass. That would be enough people to easily fill the three cars in the lot aside from my own. There’s no one here but me.
I hike deeper into the forest. The late summer crickets and a tree frog or two chirp me along. The only other sound is the crunch of pebbles beneath my sandals. The voice of a young woman from a workshop I attended earlier in the day crawls up through my mind, “They found her in the park dead with her head and feet burned.”
Stop it! I tell myself. That was in another town. You are forty-six and have been wandering alone in the forest day and night for more than twenty-five years. I take a deep breath and press on at a slightly faster clip. It’s not far now. More images of violence against women surface. I break into a run.
The trail turns right, and I can sense more than see the water ahead. I maneuver over a rotten footbridge above a dry stream and the path to the water is close. I slow so as not to miss the tiny unmarked break in the trees. A sound of movement to the left stops me. I peer into the near darkness toward the sound, all senses piqued. Again the sound. I squint…only a toad hopping on dry leaves. Feeling silly, I smile, exhale, and keep on.
The forest presses in on the narrow trail. It is harder to see, but I know this trail and soon the blueberry bushes are brushing my arms and scraping my pack. I know the water is close. I slip slightly on a small slope and regain my footing near the edge of an enormous rock outcropping that rings the lake. I have arrived.
I scramble across the rock expanse edging around a hemlock growing from a crack, bark smooth from the touch of many hands. The open moonlit water stretches silver before me. The air finally feels slightly cooler but no less still. I scan down the lake. No one here but me.
I slide off the pack and set it down with a scrape that seems too loud in the heavy silence. I have the ridiculous impulse that I don’t want to use the zipper on my pack, somehow afraid I will offend the silence. But I need my towel, so I jerk the zipper open quickly to get it over with. I find the towel and undress. No suit. The moon won’t care. I have swum here discreetly in the nude for nineteen years. The first time when my daughter was three and we had no suits with us and she wanted to swim. “Come on, Mama!” I couldn’t refuse.
I pad down to the water to dip in a few toes. Perfect. I slip off the rock ledge through the mirrored surface into blackness too deep for toes to touch bottom. The water caresses me with waves of warm, then cool currents, no fabric to interfere with sensation. I dip under completely relishing the cool relief. See, you weren’t a fool to come after all. I float with the moon for company, nerves soothed, feeling home. Slipping under again the silent blackness holds me. Rising to the surface, I tread water for a moment then something large hits my face. Instant adrenaline.
In the dark my mind races to tease out the sensation. Soft, powdery, small prickles…thud. It hits me again. This time I am sure—moth. The adrenaline fades, but a trace remains and some of my earlier fear trickles in. I become aware of my nakedness. What if next time I emerge a man is standing at the edge? My mind leaps sideways. I could easily swim to the other shore and run the back way to the trail. I’m confident I could do it in the dark…but my keys…
Not helpful. Deep breath. Just the soft wings of moth. No demons here.
A memory of another moonlit night long ago swims up to consciousness to be seen. My daughter was at a sleepover. I was sleeping alone in my small house at the edge of a high field. The sound of the back door opening woke me. I bolted upright, even my skin listening. The back door opened into the living room adjacent to my bedroom. Footsteps. Someone was in my house. I didn’t have a weapon but I had to do something. For some unknown reason I went to meet the person.
The man standing there, metallically lit by the near-full moon, was easily over six feet tall. He was wearing a wool hat. I didn’t know this man. My mind reached for the first thing it could do. “I think you are in the wrong place.” I heard my voice speak with odd clarity. He looked at me, looked toward the kitchen, back to me, and then toward the door he came in through. He took a few awkward steps to the side. He looked back at me, seemed agitated, and stammered something I couldn’t make out. He looked around one more time and swiftly exited my home.
The sound of the door latching behind him sent a rush of sharp white relief through my body as every cell trembled and sweat leapt to my skin. I stood frozen until my unconscious mind forced me to breathe and I lurched toward the door and locked it. And then locked the front one. Jittery, I walked to all of the windows and looked out across silvery fields and forest scanning for the man. He was gone. I stood dumb—what now?
It was past midnight and I was unhurt. I grabbed the cast iron wood stove poker and went back to my room. I sat on my bed with the moon, clutching a blanket. Eventually, I fell back to sleep. I never called the police. I wanted the man to just go away and feared the police would make him feel too real. I never found out who he was or how he found himself in my home.
I lived the opening chapter of every woman’s nightmare. The ending, I like to think, unwound as it did because I was raised with the enduring belief that people are good and violence begets violence. That wisdom allowed me to act with words instead of violence. Those words afforded the unknown man an out and I am eternally grateful that he took it.
Lifting my head from the water, this time, I expect the bump of the moth as I swim toward the rocky shore. I chuckle to myself when the bump does come. I turn and float on my back, ears under water, the only sensation is cool softness. Total bliss. The faint purple in the sky is fading to gray, so it must be nearly nine o’clock. I have to get home before my daughter returns from work and worries about my absence.
Emerging naked from the water, the air feels lovely for the first time today. I dry quickly, throw on my tank dress, strap on my sandals, and sit for a moment sending gratitude to this small body of water for taking me in. We sit in stillness. No demons here.
I shoulder my pack once again, comforted by its familiar weight. I stand and turn to face the forest’s full darkness. I have a lamp but don’t use it. The moonlight is just barely enough. After all of my years running in the darkness on dirt roads, I prefer it to the disorienting glare of a headlamp. My feet know this trail anyway. A sound of movement to the left and I recall–toad. I smile again and continue.
A little more than a mile and I will be back to the “safety” of my car. The thought that the car is safe and I am not allows a tinge of fear creep into the corners of my mind again. Suddenly I am angry. How many women have been afraid tonight?
I think of women walking toward their cars in cities with pepper spray at the ready; of women who must gather firewood wood to cook their meals in teams for there are certainly men waiting in the forest; of women in war-torn countries who fear abduction by armies.
I feel these women in my bones as my feet move over unseen rocks. I hold these women and know deep gratitude that I live in a part of the world where those risks are insignificant and I can go for a swim at night and be frightened only by toads and moths and a strange man in my house is a mistake instead of a horror.
Still, I know I am being a tiny bit foolish in this solo night pilgrimage to water given that this spot is remote but known by many, and I didn’t follow my own rules for solo hiking. More anger creeps in. Why should I have to worry at all?
Energized by the anger I break into a run, not out of fear but out of defiance; I will not shrink with false fears, I will not avoid life because I am a single woman. I am strong, I know this forest, and how to move in the dark. I also know that I am statistically safer on trails than in many public spaces.
But defiance is no excuse for being foolish, and I know much of my evening’s fears come from being unprepared compounded by the story of violence I heard earlier in the day. I continue to run knowing my small act of defiance is minute compared to the courageous acts of other women all over the world.
Ahead, the forest opens to gray sky. Climbing a small rise and I stand alone in the unlit parking lot with my blue Honda. Back in the human world, I feel unsure for a moment. Have I just reached safety or just left it? Fear tells me to get into my car right now!
I stand motionless for a moment hesitating. I know I have to leave but the water whispers for me to return from the dark mouth of the path; two voices pulling me in different directions. I think of my daughter and make my choice. Don’t worry, I promise the forest and myself. I will return. I gaze at the gibbous moon, take a deep, soothing breath, and unlock the car.
About the writer
Willow Nilsen fills her days by working as an advisor and educator for Dartmouth College’s Outing Club where she helps students access and engage in outdoor activities. In addition, she supports students and community members in the stewardship of seventy-five miles of hiking trails including fifty miles of the Appalachian Trail.
When not working, Willow can be found in her home state of New Hampshire, hiking, running, backpacking solo, Nordic skiing, paddling, searching for porcupines, meditating, and exploring the connection between people and place through writing. Follow her Instagram here.