Twenty-five percent of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail are women, and, let me tell you, these are hardcore women who take after the Mary Rowlandsons and Hannah Dustans of America. Before I reached the 100-mile mark, however, I had already heard several hikers use the phrase, “I’m going to take this mountain like a man,” which for this feminist was eye-rolling to say the least, especially after having climbed the mountain myself, through cobwebs and with a beaded brow, and maybe as the only woman on the trail wearing pearl earrings. Why can’t I be feminine and a tough mountain climber? Oh wait, I can.
Climbing mountains like a woman, I’ve trekked over 500 miles in 35 days…without a knife or what some would consider “protection” except for my own arms, legs, and brain. Sure, I cried a mile down into Hot Springs, NC over a pinky-toe blister, but I’ve also built a fire with wet wood, powered through 21 miles in thunderstorms, scared off bears, and stomped on a snake. I’ve also educated several armed men on proper precautions to take to avoid bears, precautions that would make firearms unnecessary. Yet manliness on the trail is something seemingly always at stake for male hikers, and masculine identity often drops into conversation in relation to strength, toughness, and endurance, especially in the presence of other hikers. There is no reason why strength, toughness, and endurance outdoors should be associated with manliness and not womanliness. Consider the cases of Rowlandson and Dustan, for instance.
Straight from the colonies, Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustan both trekked through the American wilderness for miles, soon after childbirth and witnessing the death of their infants they had labored so hard to bring into the world (one infant was shot and the other dashed against a tree). Their homes were burned and they were taken into captivity by Native American captors who supposedly threatened to run them through the gauntlet (essentially an unarmed, unclothed run through a crowd prepared to beat them). Rowlandson and Dustan survived to tell their tales, defying not only gender roles but also the Calvinist belief in passivity: the former negotiated her own ransom and sewed and traded with her captors to save herself, and the latter murdered her captors and brought home their scalps to make a profit (each was worth a pretty penny at the time). This is all to say that women mountaineers are not new to America. Long before these white female colonists there have been Native American women carrying large loads across long-mile journeys and laboring for months to cultivate gardens from wild land. Let’s fast forward to today’s wilderness trekkers, and some of the women hikers I met on the trail.
Doc (short for “Doc-40”) not only carried a 40 lb. pack but also literally ran up mountains with it. Not to mention that after medical school she’ll be saving lives. On the trail she brought the sunshine with her every moment, radiating joy and enthusiasm for every bit of trail life. She has been the motivating voice behind my every step through pain to get mind over mountain, chasing sunsets and sunrises because they were beautiful.
Flick (also a skilled ultimate player) met me in Hot Springs to share her stories and wise advice from her 2015 thru-hike. Her emphasis was on listening to one’s inner voice first and foremost on the trail, the best advice I’ve been given. Ever an inspiration to me with her optimism, originality, and hardcoreness, she opted out of the usual tent or hammock, instead going ultra-lightweight and using the tarp method. This lady didn’t let the fear of spiders or mice in the night get in the way of her journey outdoors, and now she’s a role model to young women in Asheville, NC.
ArtiSun (that’s where Flick and I met her in Hot Springs) hiked the whole trail at age 48, without a single blister. Every time she felt a hot spot she walked barefoot. She also carried a bottle of nail polish and a bottle of mascara with her the whole way. After breaking her arm in Pennsylvania and getting put in a cast at the Allentown hospital, she walked with her cast all the way to Katahdin, the end point in Maine.
Croft is a travelling nurse when she’s not travelling by foot on the trail and Curlz found creative ways to bring her home-grown vegetables to the trail with her, making incredibly delicious and nutritious meals. You can read Curlz’s story here as she goes back to the trail for round two. Both brought their inspiring self-reliance and love of nature with them to every conversation, not to mention their silly and wonderful sense of humor. Through good days and bad, these ladies made the most out of their summer A.T. experience and always shared the love.
Queen Bee (bottom left in the photo above) came out to the trail for three days to celebrate her 60th birthday, supported by her loving wife “Honey Bee” who picked her up in Hot Springs in a white van covered in flower power stickers. Queen Bee wasn’t shy about taking on the trail solo, but we’re glad she shared her birthday with us at Walnut Mt. Shelter, roasting marshmallows and watching the sunset at the end of a 20-mile day.
There are many more hardcore women mountaineering out there and breaking gendered stereotypes, but what I really love to see on the trail is women doing it their own way, maintaining their identities rather than performing a show of “manning up” as if being a woman weren’t hardcore enough. On another blog I read a story that ended with the punchline: “women are made of pain.” It stuck with me whether the story that led to it was true or not because the phrase itself feels right. I think about Rowlandson and Dustan, or even Anne Bradstreet, risking their lives in childbirth in the early American settlements without full medical care or provisions. Then Rowlandson and Dustan trekked through the wilderness with almost nothing compared to what we have between gear and dehydrated trail foods today.
These early American heroines inspired future fictional ones like Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (in Hope Leslie) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Cora Munro (in The Last of the Mohicans). They continue to inspire women and men in my classroom in the American Literature: Origins to the Civil War course that I teach in the fall. So when we think about mountaineering, perhaps we could include images of these women in our minds and rid ourselves of the perception that it takes a “real” man with a big beard to survive in the wilderness. In addition, let’s bring into our thinking the joy, delight, and peacefulness that come with spending time in the wilderness. What I love most about all the women I’ve mentioned above is their focus not on survival alone but their conscientiousness, overall well-being and sense of purpose, their firm centeredness and comfort with nonconformity. They all have successfully hiked their own hikes and did it their own ways without being shaken by the opinions of others and without imposing their methods on anyone else.
So go out there and hike those mountains like a you, however you do you. Just hike–gender has nothing to do with it.