The first time I walked alone, I went to school. Second grade. Invincible in my pink, metallic Snoopy bomber jacket with rainbow-striped cuffs and collar. Intelligent in my newly acquired glasses and scholarly blue backpack. Eager to learn about the planets, multiplication, and phonics.
I waved to my mother as I crossed the street and followed the pedestrian path to the hill of stairs to the playground. From across the Wyoming prairie-scape, I could still see Mom watching.
One snowy day, Matt chased me down on the way home and tried to kiss me. I ran, then slipped, and fell on the frozen creek. I screamed “no,” but he moved in anyway. My reading partner Billy ran to us and threatened to punch him. I sprinted away, heart pounding.
If anyone saw, they never said. I never told. They would say he liked me. They would call it sweet.
I kept walking alone to school.
Many years later, I would walk alone to each day through crowded Chicago sidewalks, en route to public transit, class and work to a catcall soundtrack. I would ignore. I would yell back. I would harden. I would yearn to be invisible.
“What can you do?” They would say. “You’re an attractive woman.” They would reason.
Sometimes the catcalls became following on foot or a stopped car. Would the following become more? Would the car door open next? I carried pepper spray in my fist at night. I hid my femininity under layers of fat and long, bulky coats. I cut my hair short. I wore a baseball cap. An effort to deflect.
“Your ass is amazing!” They would announce. “Smile!” They would command. “Bitch!” They would hiss.
But I never considered any of these day-to-day occurrences to be walking alone until this very moment in time at which I sat down intending to write a piece about hiking. And that is when my mind homed in on a small but important memory of that attempted kissing and began to follow the progression toward street harassment.
None of this is to call myself a victim. It is only to say that for the first time I recognized the shift, the moment at which I stopped walking as a child and started walking as a female.
The first time I believed myself to be walking alone was seven years ago when I stopped in the mountains to hike during a cross-country road trip. Only then, in vast isolation, did I recognize fear. Danger lurking, unseen. Each cracking branch and rustling leaf a signal. My heart thumped all the way to the summit and all the way back down. I scrambled, not taking in the scenery. I feared man and beast.
“Weren’t you afraid?” They would ask. “No.” I lied with such bravado that even I believed it.
It would take me six more years before I would finally re-learn how to truly walk alone. My training would involve leaving and reflecting, daring and growing. Finally, I felt ready.
I would take an airplane to England and a train to the Lake District and a bus to the trail near Ambleside where I would walk until sunset. Well-prepared in my black, waterproof hiking pants and old, windproof fleece. Adventurous with my camera strapped around my neck and my black Marmot backpack holding water, trail mix and additional layers. Thrilled to be in this beautiful countryside exploring, on the trip I’d long dreamed of taking.
I walked through the tourist-filled village, past Wordsworth’s grave, and through a gated pasture. With each step, I wondered if I remained on the correct path. A pause to look around, then through a cobblestone alley and a cattle gate until finally, the path led up, up, up, up. Green-quilted hills neatly patch-worked together by ancient stone walls emerged from the mist. I pulled off my stocking cap and listened. All I could hear was my pounding heart and my own awe-filled gasp through panting breaths.
Occasionally, I would encounter a herd of aloof sheep or the rare human. We would exchange blank stares and smiles, respectively.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” They would greet me. “Enjoy your walk.” They would pass.
My heart would flutter as the path crested and disappeared into a rocky crag. A little beyond, it would turn into mud with no clear direction forward—ahead of me stretched only the vast, outstretched hilltop encompassed in a vacuum of silence and vacant land in all directions. My throat would later tighten as I found myself walking over a bed of rocks near a valley creek.
Perhaps we should turn back, my mind would suggest. Instead, I kept taking steps and breathing and listening and pausing to appreciate the beauty around me. You are safe. You are capable. Keep going. I let the damp air fill my nostrils and held it as it filled my chest.
Soon, I learned that if I just went a little further, I would discover I wasn’t lost, that I could trust my own judgment. I would rediscover a sense of delight, embodiment and wonder that had long escaped me.
I picked up a large, grey rock and left it atop a giant cairn at the summit. I said goodbye out loud to something, to someone.
When I returned to the inn with ruddy cheeks and muddy clothes, they asked me how it was. Brilliant. I said, filled with pride and joy and confidence.
I suppose it is then I learned to walk as a woman.