Written by: Katherine "Ringleader" Imp
In 2002 I met a woman that changed my life.
She wasn't particularly attractive. Her teeth were crooked, her hair was a mess, and for the 2 weeks I knew her, she never once changed her clothes. She didn't have much of an academic education, nor did she plan to seek one out. She was a wanderer, one of those 'hippie folk' who defy societal norms not out of hate but rather out of a strong love for life.
The second I met her I was hooked. I wanted to know everything about her. I was inspired, I was intrigued -- I wanted her to be my mentor forever.
For 2 weeks Claire shared her story with me. She told me about her time as a white water rafting guide. She told me about Outward Bound and her time as a wilderness instructor. She told me about her dreams. She was 23.
I've come a long way since meeting Claire. I grew up. I threw myself into a hole of debt bigger than the Grand Canyon. I got a full-time job. But I never forgot her adventurous spirit. And I never forgot the most important thing she taught me: one voice can make a difference.
Many people have asked me what it's like to be a woman on the Appalachian Trail, and while I cannot speak for everyone, I can share my story from the perspective of an urban lawyer fresh out of law school.
So here is my take:
There are VERY FEW women on the Appalachian Trail. Emily and I have been told over and over again that there are plenty of women that hike the AT; however, the fact still stands that we've been out here for over 2 months and have seen hundreds of men but only a handful of women.
For someone like me, who is used to spending her time with loud, independent, female lawyers (hello Champaign crew!) . . . the lack of women on the trail is infuriating. Where are all the women? Are there stereotypes about the Appalachian Trail that prevent women from coming out here? Or is the gender imbalance due to the fact that the story of the Appalachian Trail is generally told from the white male perspective?
There is one book by Beverly 'Maine Rose' Hugo that provides practical advice to female thru-hikers. [http://www.aldha.org/hugo.htm]
From the white female perspective, I think the following stereotypes can be debunked:
1. The trail is not safe for women.
False. The real world is far more dangerous for women than the Appalachian Trail. In the real world, women have to protect their drinks at the bar, watch their back when walking home at night, and continually defend themselves from men that show disrespect. If anything, the women are more safe on the trail than the men because when there are so few, many of the male thru-hikers become protective. Should I ever want a big brother, I've probably got about 30 that would come to my rescue.
2. A thru-hike requires you to get 'dirty', and most women hate that.
False on so many levels. First off, I know a lot of men that would prefer to eat rotten eggs than ever set foot in the woods. Second, the Appalachian Trail is not the Himalayas -- you hit town every few days and most people stop for a bed and shower (both men and women). Third, just because you're in the woods, doesn't mean you have to throw your looks and personal hygiene out the window. Our wardrobes may be smaller, but that doesn't mean you can't wear fun clothes (from Prana!) and brush your teeth.
3. Women's bodies aren't made to endure a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Ridiculous. Men play football, women have babies. Only one of those activities is broadcasted on television, but both clearly indicate the human body's ability to endure hardship. On the AT, men tend to lose their upper body strength and finish the trail looking scrawny and malnourished. The women just look fit and fabulous.
Know your body's weaknesses before coming out here; I've had shin stress fractures in the past, so I ice and stretch them as much as I can. I also take an extra calcium pill (outside of my daily vitamin), but even that is really more for 'peace of mind' than anything else.
4. The AT is a frat house where women are made to feel like outsiders.
Rarely. There have been a few occasions where Emily and I have felt like outsiders, but I'm going to chalk it up to 'group mentality' rather than disrespectful men. If you have 10 men sitting at a table, it's doubtful that any of them will open up and tell you their story. That wouldn't happen in real life, so I don't expect it to happen out here. But most nights you are only with a few thru-hikers and those are the nights that I cherish. People open up, tell you their story, and remind you how amazing the Appalachian Trail community can be.
I met Claire through an organization called Landmark Volunteers. She was my Team Leader for a trail maintenance trip I did in Acadia National Park. In 2007 I was hired by Landmark to lead the very trip that had changed my life 5 years prior. I was 'Claire', and I saw the full circle take effect.
No matter how crazy my professional life has been or will become, I'll never forget those words from Claire. One voice can make a difference. People have a variety of reasons for following our blog, and I respect that. But for those women out there that want to hike the Appalachian Trail, but whose fears have prevented them from doing so, I hope my story finds its way to you...