Note: This post reveals my unconscious biases. I own that and realize how flawed they were in this case. But this post is also about an experience that many women share in navigating the world alone. I believe both things can be true.
I arrived at the trailhead early on a weekday morning. After winding through a maze of tortuous residential streets, I wedged my rented convertible precariously at the top of a dead-end street. Sitting in the car, I studied Google, trying to determine if I was in the right place to begin a hike billed as having one of the best views in Santa Barbara. After several moments, I got out of the car, grabbed my inadequate bottle of water, texted my friend in Texas and headed in the direction I supposed the trailhead to be.
A few paces later, I heard a car door slam behind me. I had noticed the truck—it was massive, with oversized offroad tires and a license plate that read “Renegade”—but I hadn’t noticed anyone in it. Not wanting to conspicuously look back, I kept walking. Stepping off the road and onto the dusty trail, I turned around to look for a trail marker, stall for time, and get a look at the person behind me. I realized then that it was only the two of us on the trail that morning. Not knowing what else to do, I asked him if I was in the right spot to hike the trail.
“Yeah, it starts here. Want to hike it together?” he asked.
I immediately began to run a rapid mental calculation about whether this was a good idea. I was alone on vacation. He was tall and young, and thus bigger and stronger than me, with tattoos in gothic script running up and down his arms and neck. Dressed in jeans, a plain t-shirt, and sneakers, nothing about him suggested hiking enthusiast. As my brain raced through these calculations, it occurred to me that he might have been waiting for me to get out of the car before following me to the trailhead—the timing certainly seemed suspect. And yet … something about him seemed trustworthy. I think it was the bottle of orange Gatorade that finally convinced me—it seemed like a reasonable thing to take on a hike.
“Sure,” I said, my heart pounding in my throat.
I let him lead the way and continued to scan the trail frantically for other hikers, but it was just the two of us. I began to make conversation, talking about my family, searching for connection.
“Oh, you were humanizing yourself,” a friend later told me as I recounted the story. I was amazed at how quickly she was able to label this strategy we both had apparently internalized for making ourselves less murderable.
As we continued to hike, Renegade and I talked about our dogs and our siblings and our mothers’ cooking. He told me that Santa Barbara was still affordable for working-class families like the ones he and I had grown up in. As we slowly made our way through the rocky winding path, I began to feel more at ease. Kind and considerate, he offered me a hand up on tough passes. At the top of the trail, we took selfies and paused to enjoy the view. I felt an occasional gentle hand on my back as we made our way back down. At the end of the hike, I felt equal parts glad that Renegade didn’t murder me and guilty that I had judged him based on his truck and tattoos.
But this isn’t a story about Renegade … or even about me. It’s about the dozens of micro-choices that women make every day to avoid being raped or mugged or murdered simply because of our lesser size and the fact that we have something that can be taken by force. These choices might take the shape of walking on the other side of the street from a construction site, getting off the bus three stops early to bypass that station, cutting a run short to beat the darkness, or huddling for safety with other women on a lonely train car.
Hiking with Renegade turned out to be a good decision. But just as easily, it could have meant ditching the hike and missing out on something I really wanted to experience just because I happened to be traveling alone as a woman … or it could have meant an abandoned rental car and my body at the bottom of the ravine.
These decisions might seem like minor inconveniences, but they abridge our freedoms and take up space in our brains and are part of the fabric of living life as a woman on this planet.