It was a bright, clear, cold morning in early September and the Presidential Ridge, already flecked with ice, was sprawling out for miles on either side of me.
I was twenty-three and working at Lakes of the Clouds, one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s backcountry huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Madison was the next hut over, a 6.8 mile journey past Mt. Washington, Jefferson and Adams, through boulder fields, up and over countless rolling inclines. I had the time between serving breakfast to guests at 9 and serving them dinner at 5 to hike as far as I could and back, and today I had my sights set on traversing the northern end of the ridge—solo.
I had been running alone for years, but this would be the first multi-hour hike I would attempt without companions. It began as something done out of necessity—my coworkers were stuck inside cooking and manning the front desk—but I quickly realized that hiking alone was actually this energizing, clarifying, amazing thing.
It was exhilarating, to be alone in the hugeness of it, of the wide granite ridge, the mountains rolling out over the horizon in blues and greens, the clear sky spreading itself overhead. There was nothing but me and the rhythm of my feet, the feeling of my muscles working, the clear air coursing through my being. It was magic, like someone had pulled back a curtain and presented me with this thing, this amazing energy I had never tapped into hiking in groups.
My pace was unhindered. I didn’t have to wait for others to de-layer or grab a snack. I could stop when I wanted to take pictures without having to worry about holding anyone up. I felt like I could process what I was seeing better in the silence, without chatter or other people’s perceptions or distractions getting in the way. I tapped into a rhythm and rode it all the way along the ridge and back, and when I returned to the hut just in time to serve dinner, I felt recharged and energized in a way I never had before.
What was it? What was it about staring out at mountains for as far as your eyes could see, with no purpose except to run your feet over as much of them as you could? About just being a tiny human out in the middle of all of it, without music or conversation or anything to cloud the connection between you and the ancient, elemental earth?
When I moved to Colorado I was itching to explore every rocky corner and forgotten alpine lake of the Front Range, but had not yet met anyone willing to wake up before dawn on a weekend to drive almost two hours to hike. I contemplated the options, staying home until I could find adventure buddies to accompany me into the wilderness, or going it alone—setting out for a trail I’d never been to by myself to chase the hit of mountain high I craved.
It soon became clear that the pull was too great to ignore—and so I began venturing out—driving long hours and hiking long days by myself. I saw crystalline lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park and thick coniferous forests outside Boulder and rolling fields of wildflowers in Crested Butte and herds of fleecy mountain goats in Summit County. I sometimes hiked quickly and without pause, I sometimes stopped for minutes at a time to stare up at towering rock walls. I consciously noticed the sun on my face and sat at summits for longer than most people want to. I pushed myself up switchbacks and steeps harder and faster than I thought I could. I worked through problems in my head or I turned off my thoughts completely. I had to route-find and make decisions and rely on myself. I came home feeling energized and bright-eyed and full.
There is a stigma with this, especially as a woman—one that I came up against constantly when anyone found out I regularly hiked alone. I would be recounting something I’d seen or a place I’d been and people would default to asking me who I’d done it with—and when I answered that I’d been by myself, there was this unspoken sense of pity, that I couldn’t find anyone to go with and therefore must have been lonely and resentful the entire time.
And the other piece is the you-shouldn’t-be-going-out-into-the-wilderness-alone-as-a-lady piece. The piece that even as an adult prevents me from mentioning most of my excursions to my parents, that gets me nervous looks or misguided advice that maybe I should take a man with me when I go out. This sense that doing anything independently as a female is ill advised, that men can venture out alone as much as they want, but that we should wait until we have someone to protect us.
There is inherent risk, of course, in hiking alone, that can apply to any gender, and it is all about mitigation. Every time I leave the house, I text the GPS coordinates, trail description, and trailhead directions to my roommate so someone knows where I am if there is no reception. I carry the ten essentials with me. I make sure to slow down and assess situations when the risks outweigh the benefits (resulting in several sprinting-back-down-the-mountain episodes just before summer thunderstorms hit).
But the possible risks shouldn’t stop you from seeking the imminent beauty, the impending adventure. I wouldn’t have seen all that I’ve seen, would not have connected so fully with the environment around me in my new home, would not have gotten to know myself in the same way if I’d let the fact that I was a woman alone stop me from going out into the wild.
Because the reality is that there are too many heart-stopping, soul-filling corners out there waiting to be explored that women shouldn’t have to wait for anyone else to get after. And maybe it’s even more than that—maybe this solitude should be intentionally sought, should be treated as an opportunity to recharge and connect with yourself and your universe in a way that can only be achieved when it’s just you and the mountains and the trees and the sky.