“Adventurous. Alone. Attacked.”New York Times headline, March 25, 2019
“Traveling the World, While Looking Over Her Shoulder”New York Times, March 26, 2019
I met a friend in darkest Florida this week. We stayed at an 1870s old-Florida inn on the Baron River in Everglades City, decorated with trophy fish, stuffed otters, alligator jaws. I could almost see Teddy Roosevelt’s reflection in the varnished oxblood floors. We rocked in wicker rockers on the verandah as ceiling fans stirred the salt air, catching up on a two-decade break in a Florida friendship.
Summer has arrived there. It is still spring even up the road in Orlando and Sarasota. But after two days in Everglades City, I look like I have the measles. My body is polka dotted by sand fleas and mosquitoes that loved me up for two tropical days and nights.
Over dinner on the verandah on my friend asked if I was scared to travel alone. “Did you see the article in the Times last week about the woman who was attacked in Costa Rica?” she said
“No,” I said, “I haven’t read it, and maybe I shouldn’t. I’m not scared, but I have my moments of fear, and I think that’s part of what the trip is about.”
My travels have anchor points of connection with old friends in New York, Asheville, Atlanta, Ormond Beach, Orlando, Everglades City, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Grass Valley, Bend, Seattle, Missoula, Boseman, and Chicago. In between, I am letting my curiosity steer my car. What’s more, to manage the cost of three months on the road, I began camping once I escaped winter’s clutches.
In general, I’m baffled by the question, Are you scared to travel alone? I am driving a 2017 Toyota Prius Prime that gets 62 miles per gallon even without an electric charge. I am a card-carrying member of AAA and AARP, not to mention those popular sororities, MasterCard and American Express. I take sensible precautions about where I park and what I leave visible in my car. I have a guard dog, Tiglath-Pilezer IV. I have pepper spray and flares. Why should my fear be greater because I am driving these 15,000 miles solo? Aren’t I more likely to get hit by a bus on Pine Street in Burlington than mugged in a national park?
I was not fearful camping in Collier-Seminole State Park. Yes, I was alone in a tent in the Everglades. Surrounded by others who, like me, had paid their $22 to the uniform park ranger, gotten the access code for the gate, and pitched their tents in the non-RV campground in search of peaceful “wilderness.” We were probably safer from human threats than we are on an average day in the real world.
A young raccoon arrived in time for dinner, but he soon became disgusted with my lack of hospitality and departed in a huff. No coconuts dropped from the palm trees on my head. No snakes slithered into my tent. The mosquitoes posed the only threat to my sanity, driving me raving into my tent to read in a prone position at 8 p.m.
Will I sleep in my car in a Walmart parking lot in Shreveport, Louisiana? I’ll see when I get there. Walmart’s corporate policy is to allow parking lot camping wherever it is not prohibited by local ordinance or store lease conditions, which is the case for about a quarter of the ~4,000 US Walmarts. I’d really like to try this somewhere along my route, even if it means taking a sink bath in a McDonalds or locating the local YMCA after breakfast.
I have become adept at finding decent two-star motel rooms at campsite prices by calling for reservations late in the afternoon when I’m ready to stop for the night. In Roanoke, I dialed the reservation line of a national chain from the motel parking lot and asked for the best price available. The agent quoted a price.
“Do you have a AAA or AARP discount?” I asked. The agent quoted a lower price.
“No, that’s still too much,” I said.
“What would you like to pay?” the agent asked.
“Thirty-nine dollars,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “I think we have a discount available we could give you.”
It has helped that I am traveling off season, and many properties have been nearly vacant. I guess they’d rather have half than none, up to a point.
Enough bragging about my resourcefulness. I sometimes feel uneasy, and I am working to distinguish between realistic fear and free-floating anxiety. Deep in the Nantahala National Forest outside Asheville, North Carolina, I stopped at an adventure outfitter to ask about hiking trails. A staff woman, whose brother is a teacher in Montpelier, and who herself went to college in New Hampshire (small-world stories), suggested a two-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail leading from Tellico Gap to a fire tower with splendid views of the range, and an easy descent down the fire road. Perfect length and level of effort. Off I drove with a paragraph of driving directions, not noticing that 15 miles of steep, unpaved switchbacks led to the trailhead. Later I learn that “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noon-day sun,” for the sun only reaches into these gorges for about 20 minutes at high noon. In my family, we would call this drive a “heebie jeebie” road. I normally prefer my husband to do the heebie jeebie driving, but it was too late to turn back, and, since I passed many fly fisher people along the wild creeks flowing by the roadside, at least I knew I wasn’t in a Deliverance remake.
As sunlight began to penetrate the dense forest, signaling I was nearing the gap, anxiety overtook me. Was it a mistake to leave my car, loaded with three months of clothes, gear and electronics, at a deserted trailhead? I had told the adventure center woman where I was going, but if I disappeared and my car was the only evidence I left behind, would she remember the woman from Vermont? No cell signal reached here to leave word with anyone else. I refused to be paralyzed by these questions, but neither could I completely purge them.
As I reached Tellico Gap, where the AT crossed the mountain road, I did not find a deserted parking lot. I found dozens of teenagers, a few adults and six-foot folding tables groaning with picnic food. A church group from Robbinsville was spending the weekend doing “trail magic,” unexpected acts of kindness that are “a quintessential part of the Appalachian Trail experience.” They fed every through-hiker who crossed the gap that day. And they fed me when I finished my little 4-mile day hike.
I was grateful to hike alone despite the crowd—most of the church group took the easy way up the fire road—but I chatted with kids and adults and petted dogs at the top of the fire tower, and I was probably within shouting distance of humans the whole way up and down. The AT hikers are so trusting, some had left tents pitched below the tower with all their worldly possessions while they hiked down to the picnic.
I would have done this hike even if the universe hadn’t provided unexpected protection from nearly all my anxieties that day. I suspect I will often encounter similar forms of serendipity that not only ease my mind but provide for good stories. The trick is to go regardless and without expectation.
While not fool-proof, I have reached the age of invisibility that lends me a modicum of safety. In a bar in Lexington, I guessed the man sitting alone next to me was from the area, and I asked, “What is the one thing you would tell a visitor to be sure to do here in Lexington?”
“Meet me,” he said. We introduced ourselves.
Now if I were 30, this would have been flirtation and perhaps annoyance, but we both knew in this case it was jocularity. As a young woman, I probably wouldn’t have asked that question. And had I gotten that answer, my defenses would have been up against a come-on.
Instead, I spent two hours talking across a massive political divide to the son of the local blacksmith. He invents things. He says he invented a technology that will make universal broadband access possible and economical, and that high-tech giants are beating a path to his door. I don’t care it it is true or not. The conversation made me grateful for a stage of life when sex appeal is background noise, and this stranger and I could talk freely without questioning one another’s agendas. I thought of all the opportunities for human connection in my life that have been distorted by gendered relations.
I told this story to my friend, who told me about the psychopath in Sarasota who raped women in their 70s and 80s. I’ll keep my healthy anxieties along for the ride, but carry on believing random violence is a threat precisely because it is random. So what would be the point letting fear keep me off the blue highways.