This summer, I listened to the audiobook of Wild while backpacking through the New Mexican desert. The year before that, I'd hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone, and as the book continued I realized I'd started just where Cheryl Strayed had, in the middle of the Mojave desert.
I'm not much like Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles on the PCT in 1995 as a way to cope with the death of her mother, a divorce, an abortion, and sex and drug addiction. I didn't start the PCT in a state of deep despair, and I suspect my past would bore you. Since I hiked almost two decades later, my trip was easier and safer than Strayed's, and more comfortable. Unlike Strayed's backpack nicknamed "Monster," my 25 pound pack was the weight of a small dog. I carried an iPhone with GPS, and benefitted from the hundreds of other thru-hikers I met to share advice, food, water, or even medical assistance.
But despite these differences, I identified with Strayed in Wild as she panted up desert mountains, bantered with hikers, and swore at the frustration of snow travel. More than anything, I understood her experience as a solo female hiker on a trail of mostly men.
On the PCT, it is generally accepted that strangers are more generous to female hikers. There could be a lot of reasons for this: maybe these helpful strangers believe in chivalry, maybe they're attracted to the hikers they help, maybe they want to protect them from harm. But, for example, there is a hiker hostel in California where the owner insists that women cut in line to shower before men. And because cars seem to stop for women more often, men find a female partner, or "ride bride," to hitchhike into towns.
In Wild, male hikers name Cheryl "The Queen of the PCT" after a ranger brings only her a donut and coffee. The same ranger had earlier opened the post office for Strayed, but denied the male hikers. They joke about how Cheryl gets everything and no one gives them anything. I heard this all the time during my hike. If I told another hiker about how quickly I was picked up hitchhiking or how a stranger I met mailed me a care package, he would respond, "Well, you're a girl." For a male hiker the same story would be described as luck.
It's true that strangers were kind to me while hiking. I met two retired police officers who let me camp in the back of their site when a campground was full, then cooked me breakfast and charged my iPhone before a week-long stretch. Another time a former thru-hiker lent me his truck to drive ten miles to a grocery store. Two spunky, middle-aged women took me to a distillery before driving me to REI. And I met countless other strangers who offered me food, rides and even places to stay.
But it's hard to distinguish between the kindness of strangers and special treatment because I am a woman. While there were moments the difference became clear to me, much of the time I wasn't sure. It wasn't obvious to me that I was having an experience that was markedly different than the experience of other hikers, but each time I encountered kind strangers, I wondered: are they helping me because I am a young woman? Would I receive the same treatment if I weren't white and middle-class? If I were homeless rather than traveling? I don't know for sure, but I always doubted it.
What I do know is that hikers are more reluctant to discuss the other side of being a woman on trail. Perhaps the real reason that women get help more often is because they are at greater risk. In Wild, Strayed is terrified while riding with a farmer who asks her, "What kind of woman are you?" And the ranger who brings Strayed coffee is clearly interested in her; he also asks her to stop by later. Although she accepts the ride and the food, she is also uncomfortable and potentially in danger.
For backpackers, the presence and the possibility of female sexuality on trail is a fraught issue. Some hikers criticize Strayed for focusing on sex too much, a slant that intensifies in the movie: Even the simple act of putting a whistle in her mouth invokes a flashback of oral sex. (Backpackers also take issue with her less-than-environmental-consciousness; in the movie, she flings boots into the desert, and doesn't fully bury her poop.) But I found Strayed's awareness of sexual possibility on trail to be realistic. As a woman hiking alone on a male-dominated trail, I found it necessary to be attentive. Like her, I experienced both desire (I met my boyfriend on the PCT) and apprehension.
And I experienced many things in between. Once I was hiking at night along a steep slope dense with vegetation when I saw a tent squeezed into a small flat patch half on trail. I called out so I didn't scare anyone. From inside the tent, a man asked where I was going and told me there was no good, flat camping for a few miles. "But this is technically a two person tent, if you want to join me," he said. He wasn't joking. I hiked on and never met him face to face. But he did tell me his trail name as I was leaving: "Girl Slayer."
Another time, I woke up in the night and realized a section hiker I'll call "Mango" was sitting up and staring at me. I was camped outside a trail angel's house with two other hikers. I got up to pee and he followed. He grabbed my hand and attempted to pull me toward an empty room, saying "How bad are you, Bad Seed" (my trail name at the time). I pulled away and returned to my sleeping bag.
Other times I was less certain whether to be concerned. For instance, I met a nice, 40-something man in a burrito shop in Ashland. It was evening and I was looking for a ride back to trail. He was on a motorcycle, but rode home to get his car. I thanked him profusely. In the car, he invited me to stay in his guest room. I badly wanted to sleep in a bed without the price tag of a motel, but the uncertainty of his intentions deterred me.
Generally, though, I didn't find the PCT to be dangerous. There are so many other hikers that you don't have to be alone, and the trail felt safe; strangers were kind and helpful. I heard stories from other female hikers about being hit on, but most of what they had to say wasn't scary.
But I wonder if the fact that hikers are more comfortable talking about how women get more help is because those are the stories we hear, not the scary stories. I wonder if women on the trail—just like in so many other environments—are hesitant to speak up about stories that put them up for undeserved blame. Women are always scolded for putting ourselves in dangerous situations, i.e. simply being alone. I was once picked up by a priest who preached to me about the dangers of hitchhiking by myself. Another time two women picked me up and said, "you're hitchhiking in a DRESS?" (I hiked in a dress or skirt because it's more comfortable, breathes better and is easier for peeing.)
There is always a possibility of something bad happening, no matter if you live in the woods or a city, if you hitchhike in a dress or wear a baggy rain suit backpacking. There's no way to know someone's intentions for sure, so you take a guess and keep walking.
Myla Fay is a designer and a long distance hiker living in Chicago.
Images of Cheryl/Reese/Myla via Cheryl Strayed/Fox Searchlight/Myla