There’s magic in hiking alone, but as women, we’ve been taught to worry about venturing far on our own. In fact, we’ve been taught to worry about a lot more than that.
Though once I merely shrugged off the warnings and the horror stories, confident that I was wrapped in some sort of “not me” protective veil, I don’t usually take my safety for granted anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve outgrown the belief that I’m invincible. Maybe it’s because I’m a mother and have a different understanding of the fragility of life and the female body. Maybe it’s because that murderer on the Appalachian Trail went by the nickname “Sovereign,” appropriating the powerful, beautiful word that is so essential to my life’s work.
This particular day, however, my desire to be outside was more compelling than my new bend toward caution. I called my husband to tell him just where I’d be, joking that he needed to know where to look for me if I didn’t pick up the girls from camp on time.
The woods are thick and the trails are steep near this part of the Hudson River. This was the place to be in the hours before the national heatwave would blanket our valley. Two hipsters with a fluffy little dog barely said hello when they passed. I assumed the single car parked at the trailhead was theirs and I would see no one else on this warm weekday morning.
Fully enraptured by the forest, all my attention was on the rustle of trees and the pop of falling acorns. I was surprised when, as I made my way down the sloping curve that took me to the edge of the river, I saw a man standing there. Alone.
His back to me, he was snapping pictures of the golden light dancing on the water. Clearly, he was enchanted. I could feel the wonder and the happiness radiating from him, even from twenty-five feet away.
But I felt something else too.
I was a woman in the woods who had been taught that smart girls are always supposed to be a little bit scared. Certain that just the right dose of fear would protect me, I’d briefly pictured my potential attacker as some rangy old pale-faced dude in dingy flannel. Then I had set off on my hike, quite confident that I would not encounter such a monster.
I didn’t. Instead, the stranger in the woods was good-looking. He seemed a bit younger than me. His muscular arms looked damn fine in that tank top he wore. The diamond in his ear was bright. His skin shone in the sun. And he was black.
And yes, that sentence sinks like a stone. Even in that moment, I wanted to erase all the programming that made me attach a story to the color of his skin. It’s not something I want to admit now, but if we don’t cast light on our shadowy, shameful thoughts and speak them aloud, they’ll never change. We’ll never change. The myths we’ve attached to race will never change.
And I was a white woman in the woods who, when forced to admit it, would tell you that the scary men in the wilderness are white and the scary men on the streets are black. Suddenly, all the carefully arranged fears that had insidiously slipped into my white girl’s brain over the past four decades were being thrown into disarray. Was this man more or less of a threat because he wasn’t someone I was prepared to see? Did something like race matter when it was just a stranger, the woods, and me?
“Hey!” he called out. I’d surprised him too.
“Hey!” I responded with a grin, willing the fates – and this guy – to see that I was open-hearted, open-minded, and unafraid. “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”
“It is!” he exclaimed. “Looks so nice I want to get naked and jump in. If you’re single, you can join me.”
In that split second, I wanted to run away and laugh at the same time. The terror I didn’t want to own was colliding with the fact that the universe was sending me this experience in this moment.
I chose to laugh instead. Only later would I realize how long it had been since the last time someone had invited me to go skinny dipping. “Not today, sorry! But the water does look amazing.” Briefly I thought of PCBs and all the other pollution in the river. It felt better to be scared of invisible waterborne bacteria and carcinogens than it did to be scared of a person who was simply out enjoying the beauty of the day.
My legs were still moving, however. He was a distance off the trail and I could keep walking and still carry on a polite conversation while making it clear I wasn’t there to linger. Trying to maintain the connection, he called out, “It’s a great day for sunbathing!”
“I’m sure it is,” I said as I reached the far edge of where our voices could carry. “That’s not something we redheads do, though.” Later, I’d realize how I managed to cling to my whiteness so completely and so unconsciously in such a brief exchange. I used it to protect me and make it clear that I needed to stay away, safe in the shade.
“Oh, ok…” he said. I bid him farewell and kept going, still aware that there was a big, friendly stranger behind me, and I was a mile from the parking lot. I pushed on because I was doing this hike for the cardio and because I needed to get home to work. But really, I pushed on because I was a woman alone and I was only so strong and the weight of the known was heavy on my back.
Away I went, back up the hill that would take me away from the river and from my momentary friend, but deeper into this journey that everyone who has been raised within the privilege of white womanhood needs to consider in this moment.
Where do our fears come from? What people and what systems planted them in our minds? What other unexamined beliefs do we hold that are rooted in what “they” say, rather than lived experience? When are they useful and when are they used to control, to limit, to divide?
Back in the car, the panel on NPR was debating whether it’s ok for the media to call the president’s ongoing attacks on four congresswomen of color “racist.” (Of course the comments are racist. Of course the man is racist. Let’s quit debating this and do something about it.)
Back at my desk, my book-in-progress about women’s sovereignty is forcing me to explore how my complexion and the accident of my birth made me more sovereign than others from the very beginning. (Of course I was raised in the midst of a subtle, unspoken sort of racism. Of course I am racist in subtle, unspeakable ways. I’m going to keep learning and do something about it.)
And back there in the space between the forest and the river, a divine force conspired to help me see that the questions of race and safety, of prejudice and fear, of reality and rhetoric aren’t just out there sort of issues to be worked out on the radio and on the screen. They’re rooted into my very nature by the culture we live in.
The journey toward healing and changing the way we understand what’s truly scary out there – and in here – has just begun.
Marisa Goudy is a coach and healer for writers and transformation professionals. She is also the founder of the Sovereign Writers Circle, an online group for women who are ready to live and write a more powerful story. Her book, The Sovereignty Knot: How the Modern Woman Can Reclaim Her Magic and Her Power will be released in February 2020. A graduate of Boston College’s Irish Studies program and recipient of an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin, Marisa lives with her husband and daughters in New York’s Hudson Valley. Visit her website to get the details on her upcoming book (https://www.marisagoudy.com/book-of-sovereignty)