The wild women among us

There is a long and interesting tradition of female adventurers and explorers whose exploits have been widely chronicled in literature. In 1873, spinster Isabella Bird set out for the Rocky Mountains and wrote volumes about her travels in the form of letters to her family back in England. In 1879 Libby Beaman, a Victorian lady, became a pioneer in the wilds of Alaska and a tireless journal-keeper. Gertrude Bell traversed the Arabian Desert and wrote thrillingly about consorting with pirates, thieves, sheikhs and Bedouins in 1914. Several biographies have been written about Freya Stark, the first woman to explore Luristan in western Iran, knighted at age 82. Beryl Markham wrote an enduring best seller, West with the Night, about her adventures as a bush pilot in Kenya in the 1930s.

Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, edited by Susan Fox Rogers, is the latest offering from Seal Press for the adventurous woman (or the woman who can’t quite bring herself to get up and leave the comfort and warmth of her own home, but who likes to read about other women’s adventures). This elegantly designed, intelligent and introspective book would fit neatly into a backpack or rucksack, and would be a wonderful choice of reading material to take along on a solo adventure—it is lightweight (not in content) yet sturdy. Susan Fox Rogers has long been fascinated by the subject and has edited other collections exploring the same theme: Solo: On Her Own Adventures and Notes from the New Outdoorswoman.

None of the women in these pages are famous adventuresses like the ones mentioned above. Among their number are a bookseller, numerous writers, a forest service employee, a human rights worker, a kindergarten teacher, wives and mothers, and all share a fierce love of the outdoors and a recognition of the value of serious solitude.

Rogers’ introduction to the collection is sweet and to the point. She has no fancy, flimsy academia-fogged theories about these women and their need to challenge themselves, and her commentary is implicitly (and humorously) contained in a few choice epigraphs like this quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Thy going is not lonely; with thee goes thy husband.”

All the stories deal with the love/hate relationship and inner monologues that accompany being cold, wet, uncomfortable and daunted by the challenges to be tackled. Many explore why the author felt compelled to take on the challenges she has, and, of course, each writes about the rewards. The author’s voices are distinct; there isn’t a weak or disposable story in the bunch, and it’s hard to name any one favorite among them.

Nancy Allen Cook’s “Stillwater” describes dip-netting for salmon in the Copper River wilderness of Alaska as the World Trade Center is falling. 9/11-related stories are difficult to pull off at this point without appearing to use those events as an exploitative gimmick, but Cook’s story manages to paint a delicate counterpoint between 9/11 New York and wild Alaska without a whiff of exploitation.

In “Unanticipated Snow Cave,” a gripping, sharply written account of involuntary solitude, Barbara J. Eusar recounts nearly freezing to death after wandering off the trail on an afternoon ski trip. Eusar tells of the euphoria that accompanies her hypothermia, and the aftereffects of her 30 hours of misadventure.

There are plenty of wilderness adventures in this collection, but the editor thankfully realizes that “going alone” doesn’t always entail a sleeping bag, wilderness and no other humans for miles and miles. In Kathryn Kefauver’s “By the Sides of the Deep Rivers,” “alone” is a state of mind and Kefauver shows us how one can be as alone in the populated Himalayan foothills of Nepal as in the deepest wilderness.

Obviously, all the stories deal with the writers’ love of the outdoors and the necessary purgative of being alone, and some of the most poignant pieces deal with the idea (and the fear) that the writer might not be physically capable of doing this thing that she loves in these harsh locations forever.

Susan Marsh tackles the issue of aging matter-of-factly in the elegiac “How Should I Pray?” She writes for pages with joy of the things she’s seen in the backcountry, and with clear-eyed practicality. The reality is bittersweet, but it is with no regret she tells the reader: “I’ve woven my life around the outdoors ever since [I was 19] and I’m paying for it now. Too many years of carrying a heavy backpack, too many turned ankles and twisted knees, too many miles off the trail scrambling in tenny-runners instead of stiff leather boots…These days I know that each trip to a high remote peak could be my last. What made me expect I would be doing this forever? At fifty, I confront a new reality: a body asking for rest.”

I’d bet that the women’s motives, thoughts, feelings, doubts and fears are not so different from those of their male counterparts, and I look forward to the day when it is no longer necessary to categorize adventurers by their sex. It is a sad cultural commentary that there still exists the need to differentiate and segregate them by gender.

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