The natural world and the exploration of it is, most frequently, associated with men. John James Audubon. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry David Thoreau. John Muir. But women, too, are drawn to the woods–and their experience, as author, poet, and travel writer Suzanne Roberts beautifully explains in her forthcoming memoir, Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, are unlike those of the men who have gone before them.
A thoughtful, candid examination of the wilderness, the female body, friendships between women, and the way we view ourselves, Almost Somewhere follows Roberts and her two hiking mates on their graduation trip in 1993.
I talked to Roberts, who is as much a philosopher as a travel writer, about her trip (she’d just come back from another backpacking adventure, of which I was quite envious) and about what can be learned about our own selves from going into the woods. Here’s our conversation.
The particular trip that you describe in the book was a while ago–in 1993–what made you decide to write about it now?
The truth is I have been writing this book since 1993. I never thought I would write it for an audience—it started out with journal entries. I needed to write about the experience to make sense of it, in the context of my life. And writing a book takes a long time, sometimes 17 years. I needed to be the middle-aged me to see what the young-woman-me had learned from the trip. Sometimes, perspective is everything.
I did write an essay in 1993 about the experience, and it became the seed of the 10th chapter in the book, when Jesse finally got sick of us, and it became an all-women’s trip. I don’t think I even realized it could be a book until I read other books on similar subjects by women. In 2001, I began my doctoral work in literature and the environment and started studying female nature writers and ecofeminists. I don’t know if I realized how pivotal the hike was in my life until then. These women writers helped me make further sense of my own experience. That’s why a reading life is essential to the writer.
Until I read other women writing about gender and nature, I didn’t have the tools I needed to write my own book. I had read male nature writers before that, including John Muir, but I could not adopt their vision, at least not wholly. I needed a woman’s perspective and the nature writers and critics I read in graduate school—Mary Austin, Isabella Bird, Terry Tempest Williams, Pam Houston, Mary Oliver, Annette Kolodney—gave me the permission, and in some ways the courage, to write about the outdoors. Thankfully, many more women writers are joining the conversation. And the fact that a book about a woman backpacking the PCT—Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a gorgeous book everyone really should read—is a bestseller is proof that women, everyone really, are ready to hear from a woman on the subject of wilderness, on the wild human self.
One thing that I really loved about your narrative was that, as much as it was about the wilderness and John Muir and the experience, it was also very much about being a woman, and in the company of women in a typically male-populated subculture. Why do you think more women don’t do things like go hiking for weeks on end?
I think women are handed a story that tells them that they like certain things and that certain things are safe. I do deal with many fears as a woman in the outdoors, but unfortunately, many of those fears have been defined for me, and though I know a lot of it is bullshit, I can’t get past it (like many women can’t, and maybe never do).
We know most violence against women involves people we know, so a foray into the wilderness is safer than our everyday lives. But there is Little Red Riding Hood. There are the evil goblin men in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” There are all the other weird ways women die (or at least their virginity is threatened) in the Gothic Romances. It’s true that women do have to worry about strange men in the backcountry and in the sidecounty and in the frontcountry, but the truth is, the backcountry is probably the safest place of them all. I will say that I recently went on a two-week backpacking trip on the PCT, and crossed paths with 142 PCT thru-hikers.
Of them, 32 were women—yes, I counted. 22% women doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s many more than when my book takes place in 1993 (records show 13% of the people who completed the PCT in 1993 were women). And of the 32 I saw, 10 of them were hiking solo (though one was hiking with a mouse named Ella). I asked Ella’s hiking partner Rabbit (her trail name) if she worried about men on the trail; weirdos, I said. Creeps. The men I worried about on the JMT. She said, “I don’t camp near roads.” I am thankful that Rabbit, and the other women hiking solo, know the truth, that the backcountry is a much safer place for women than the frontcountry. But most women? They have not yet learned this very true truth. They will. In time. And the more women who write about their experience in the backcountry, the more women will hear a new story, one that allows them to feel safe outdoors.