Women Traveling Alone

Reunion was this past weekend and with it, myriad thoughts and feelings about Sweet Briar, adulthood, and community. However, I have been meaning for the past several weeks to write about my trip to New Orleans, so I will start there and hopefully let my impressions from the weekend settle a bit. Maybe I’ll feel moved to write a couple extra posts this week.

Back in February when we began planning the trip in earnest, I started exploring alternative methods of transportation to New Orleans.

It’s not exactly that I hate flying, although I do find everything about the process extremely tedious. I would much rather take a train somewhere than a flight. As far as I’m concerned, really, flying is only absolutely necessary to go overseas. Domestically, it’s about convenience.

In the case of New Orleans, taking the train down created several logistical difficulties, partly because I would be meeting friends who were flying down. It became immediately clear that driving was my best bet.

My family rather disagreed with this point. A solo 2300-mile road trip through the deep South?

I would find friends to stay with, I explained. I made an itinerary with addresses, phone numbers, etc. Eventually, they relented in expressing their concerns.

It’s not that I didn’t understand why they were worried–I did, but I wanted to go anyway. Adventure is a necessary aspect of a happy adulthood. But it’s never an entirely comfortable prospect: traveling alone when you’re a woman.

It hits you at odd times. E.g., in Mississippi, I took the opportunity to stop at a state park which was part of the gulf coast watershed.

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It was a gorgeous place and I’m glad I stopped, but as I ventured onto a short trail off the main road, the isolation of it struck me. I couldn’t hear the road; I couldn’t hear the campers I’d passed; I couldn’t hear anything but the buzz of mosquitoes and the odd bird.

I wasn’t afraid so much as aware. It’s the same sort of feeling I had when a homeless man approached me at the train station in Miami around 5:30 in the morning. The station wouldn’t open for another ninety minutes; we were the only people around. Chances were, yes, he would be harmless, but I was still aware of the possibility he wasn’t.

It’s not exactly assuming the worst of people. It’s about being ready to run. Or yell for help.It’s having your keys out when you approach your car in a dark parking lot. It’s knowing where your drink is at all times or how to get the nearest exit. And usually, it’s a very unconscious thing–you just know. As I was walking the trail in Mississippi, it hit me a little harder than usual: I wasn’t really safe.

There are, of course, all sorts of in which none of us are safe when we go out into the world. Accidents happen. Anyone might be hurt at any time. But women are taught to think about or even expect it. It comes somehow with the territory. And it means people worry about you when you do things like drive halfway across the country and back over seven days.

I livetweeted my trip. For fun, absolutely, but also so it would be clear where I was–generally speaking–at any given time. It wasn’t a conscious precaution against any assumed threat. It was just another in the series of failsafes I think many women engage in on a day-to-day basis.

If we don’t, we may join the vast collection of women who just “didn’t make good choices” and should have dressed differently, walked differently, not gone down that alley, not talked to that man, not smiled, not made eye contact, not taken a cocktail from a stranger, not danced that way, not left the highway, not been on our phones, not opened the door, not blinked, not turned our backs, not worn those shoes, etc. We are somehow supposed to suspect all men and also give all of them the benefit of the doubt. We must be cautious but not paranoid. Agreeable but also not too inviting. We should not travel alone, but we should also not consider ourselves different or in need of safe spaces in any particular way.

It is a bizarre, impossible line to walk. And sometimes, if I’m not thinking much about it, I forget it exists. But it is inevitably there, whether you’re going on a impromptu hike or waiting for your train.

Happily, most days you come to the end of the trail, pleased with the pictures you took and the wildlife you saw (two gators, four turtles, a crane). The muttering man with his collection of plastic bags only asks you the time. The worst thing that happens at a rest stop is the locals eyeball your Maryland plates and obviously-not-from-around-here wardrobe. You reach the next safe haven. You drive into New Orleans feeling triumphant, after the many miles you’ve come, all on your own.

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5 thoughts on “Women Traveling Alone

  1. It’s interesting that you say you feel awareness, not fear. I feel like that sense of awareness follows me *all the time.* It’s a waiting feeling. I’m watching, waiting all the time for that one time our normal every day choices turn out to be the wrong ones.

    By the time I get to situations where another human is approaching me, we’ve moved from awareness to anxiety. If that human is male, we can skip right into actual fear. Sometimes it seems irrational, or like I’m assuming the worst about people, and then I remember how many humans are killed by other humans each year, and how many women disappear, and how #YesAllWomen is painfully accurate.

    I think the thing about Sweet Briar that makes it *home* to so many women is that it’s one of the only places I’ve ever been where that awareness and anxiety and fear can finally stop.

    • The awareness is a constant, but for me it’s mostly this low level thing, like I said, an almost unconscious process of trying to be safe. Like the feeling you have when the soundtrack starts up in a horror movie. When I get into a situation like in Miami, it’s very conscious, very present. (The killer is right there, to extend the metaphor.) So I’m never unaware but sometimes I’m hyperaware, if that makes sense.

      For me, I think I go right to flight or fight–so there is anxiety and fear and adrenaline involved, but it’s also about putting those earlier details into use–going for the exit, grabbing the nearest person, etc.

      I was thinking that about Sweet Briar. It’s the only place in the world where a woman can walk around at 2:30am and not worry. Because, again, women deserve safe spaces but we’re told we don’t actually need them.

      • To be fair, Mississippi probably represents an intermediary stage because there was no tangible threat, just an uneasy situation.

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