Bring Extra Pants
By Taylor Ciambra[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]C[/dropcap]urled up, soaking wet in the corner of a shelter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was a woman having a miserable time. Her male hiking partner, stood outside the shelter, under the awning talking with some other male hikers. My hiking partner, Mamie, offered this newcomer a dry pair of pants.
On the Appalachian Trail, you don’t see a lot of women. At a gathering of about thirty, I think there were ten of us. A record in my experience so far. Most days on the trail, I don’t see another woman besides Mamie, and when we get into camp, we’ll only see between one and three other women. There’s usually around ten guys.
My first few days on the trail, I was walking almost side by side with a father and son. The dad was impressed and went out of his way to tell us this. His eyes shone like he was jealous of our dads for having daughters like us. The son, who looked to be in his twenties like me, nodded silently and seemed a little embarrassed at how his dad was gushing over how cool he thought we were. I thanked him and smiled, feeling a little awkward. “I just wish it wasn’t a big deal.” I’d tell Mamie. “I mean, we’re all walking the same miles, our packs all weigh the same.” These complicated feelings would only intensify as we walked on.
Introductions typically happen at camp at the end of each day. On the trail, you’re in your world and other people are in theirs. If you pass the same few people without introduction all day, you tend to come up with nicknames for them. “I wonder when we’ll see Earrings again.” Or “Green Bean looked like he was truckin’ today.” The women tend to call us “the sisters” before learning we are Mamie and Breeze. To the men we are called, “the girls”, even after introductions. My mom doesn’t tuck me in at night. My brother doesn’t walk the trail with me to make sure I get where I’m going safely. I walk between 10 and 15 miles a day, filter my own water, and dig my own catholes. I am not a girl. Just like the 20- to 65-year-old males I come into contact with are not boys. [divider type="short" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]M[/dropcap]amie and I don’t often get frustrated, but we do laugh a lot. Especially when trying to hang a bear bag. After a few misses and a few different rocks, we finally get the rope over a strong tree branch. Now there was the task of pulling the heavy food bags up. Our friend, Bones, a bald headed, friendly, forty something from Texas, offered some advice he learned while in Boy Scouts. “Were you an Eagle Scout?” I ask him. He says yes and a catch a glimmer of pride all Eagle Scouts have. I know this is a big accomplishment for men and boys and that there is no comparable achievement for girls and women in the Scouting world.
[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Mamie goes off about how she’s seen this kind of thing before. Men dragging women into the woods without a clue. “No one goes home happy.” She says with an air of solemnity. “This is the kind of shit that tells women they don’t belong or that they won’t like being outside.” I say, shaking my head in defeat.[/pullquote]
Which is when it hits me. This funny bear bag fiasco we get into every so often, is a struggle I was set up for. I never had the chance to learn how to do this in Boy Scouts. Or the sham of girl empowerment that is Girl Scouts. In fact, most of what I learned about hiking and camping I learned from living in Alaska and from the Internet. My houseful of female roommates and I taught ourselves or asked people to teach us these things. There was no formal instruction, no program we were encouraged to complete.
“She’s very grateful.” The male hiking partner of the woman in the shelter tells Mamie as he hands her back her pants. We head out for a twelve mile day but something about the interaction with that couple irks me. “I don’t know why she didn’t thank you herself.” I say in a voice that is too loud for life off of the trail. “And like, ugh, I don’t know. Why did he leave her alone last night? Why didn’t he show her how to hang up her clothes over the fire?” Mamie notes that they should have had extra clothes to begin with. Hiking 101: It rains. It get’s cold. You layer your clothes.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap] wonder we’re being arrogant thru hikers. What’s the line between knowing your shit and being condescending? I think about my most recent mistakes. The decision to not wear rain pants, spilling our fuel as I prepped for dinner, and leaving the bite valve on my reservoir on the ground where the mice could chew through it. Mamie goes off about how she’s seen this kind of thing before. Men dragging women into the woods without a clue. “No one goes home happy.” She says with an air of solemnity. “This is the kind of shit that tells women they don’t belong or that they won’t like being outside.” I say, shaking my head in defeat. I’m a big believer in the natural world being for everyone. If you want to be out here, you should be able to. But you’ve got to be safe and you’ve got to be considerate. It’s not that I didn’t want that couple to be outside, but I did want them to be considerate and successful about it. Mamie and her pants seemed to be the only hope of them taking away a lesson from all this. But then again, the woman not thanking Mamie herself, didn’t inspire hope in me.
There is a distillation that happens when you live in the woods. Smelling bad is not even noted. Changing your clothes in public is no big deal. Talking to strangers is a matter of fact. Going by a name other than the one you were born with is the norm. Parts of you fall away that you’re glad to see go. Parts of you surface that you can now confront. It’s a beautiful, honest thing. It’s revelatory. Being a woman is another dimension of this distillation process. I don’t know what to do in the situations I’ve shared with you. I don’t fully understand the responses I have to them or know how to act in the future. But I do hope that by bringing these incidents to life, we can think about them together. We can see how a life in the woods and in the cities plays out in much the same way but without the lattes and cell phones, maybe something new can come into focus.