"It Ain't the Right Kind of a Life for a Woman"
As I finished the last bit of a long climb a group of three men came into view.
"Don't make it look so easy!" one of them called out.
"I've had four months of practice!" I shouted back.
He then commented awkwardly to Laura, "You look like you've lost some weight."
"What the hell is this guy talking about?" I thought to myself.
Laura looked understandably perplexed.
The man explained, "Most male thru-hikers shed pounds, but female thru-hikers all seem to stay roughly at the same weight they started at. In fact, most of them are typically bigger to begin with, but not you!"
"Uh, ok. I'm not a thru-hiker ..." she replied, sparing the man a caustic response, and we quickly departed.
It certainly wasn't the first time I'd encountered a cringe-worthy remark about female thru-hikers. In an early edition of the Wilderness Press guide The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 2: Oregon & Washington the authors include an implausible anecdote about a female hiker who, in return for food, supposedly slept with every ranger she met along the trail: "The only time people told Schifrin they had brought too much food was when they thought they had brought too much of a certain item. One attractive young lady carried only soybeans and powdered milk. She made it - but only after she'd stopped at each ranger station along the route for a few days, and made it with the ranger in exchange for palatable food." Needless to say this paragraph wasn't included in further editions of the guidebook.
There were other examples from my own thru-hike. In Southern California I had met two male hikers. One of them was short and stocky and hiked along with a hunched posture, his arms hanging limply at his sides. The other stared at me with an odd intensity as we spoke, an unsettling glimmer in his eyes. They began to disparage another female hiker well-known in the thru-hiking community. They encountered her at a PCT event and apparently she was cold to them and had committed the unforgivable atrocity of cutting them off in the pancake line.
"Why is she such a cunt?" one of them asked.
"She probably hasn't been laid in years," the other replied.
Then they spoke of how much they hated Cheryl Strayed's Wild, a bestselling memoir about the author's section hike of the PCT. Many male hikers seemed to speak with disdain about her and felt threatened by the fact that she spoke of her own sexuality in her book. If a woman is sexual, she is seen as promiscuous. And when a woman is unfriendly or aloof, then she is labeled as frigid.
Grams and Blue Skies too had denigrated Wild.
"What is it you dislike about her so much?" I asked them.
"I don't know," Grams conceded.
"She didn't even hike the entire trail," Blue Skies added, ignoring the fact that she never claimed to be a thru-hiker in the first place.
Female hikers also have to be wary in ways that men do not, a fact I was reminded of in Lone Pine. I had stopped by the youth hostel to see if I could stay for the night and inside was Periwinkle, apparently in the midst of being kicked out. He protested much as he had when scolded back at the Saufley's in Agua Dulce. The woman at the front desk, however, had clearly made up her mind; she asked him to gather up his things and leave. The hostel had been fully booked by a large group and there was nowhere for him to stay, she explained.
Overhearing this I left, not realizing the reality of the situation. The woman was actually trying to remove Periwinkle from the premises as diplomatically as possible. The hostel, in fact, had not been rented out, she was simply trying to avoid an altercation. As I later found out, Periwinkle, a man I assumed to be in his fifties, had made unwelcome advances towards a young female hiker. Once a seemingly harmless eccentric, he had taken on a more malicious identity. I learned yet another unsettling detail about him further along the trail: he had supposedly cornered a hiker to rant about his disdain for miscegenation. In addition, he claimed to appreciate David Duke's ideas, though he conceded they were perhaps "a little extreme."
A few days later, back in the Sierras, I had met the only black hiker I ever encountered over the course of the entire trail. Diversity, for the most part, is not a defining characteristic of the thru-hiking community. She asked if we had seen her friends and listed off several names, all of which I did not recognize. We seemed to have pushed further and further ahead into groups of hikers who left Campo long before we did. I wondered what it would be like to hike the trail as a woman or a minority and how different the journey might be. There was no way I could have any real understanding of her experience. As a white male I could hike along without the wariness a woman must possess and I could freely wander the streets of a small town where a minority might not feel quite so at ease.
Even in reading Steinbeck, I find that he too did not always possess the most evolved views of women. In Cannery Row, for example, he seems to rate marriage, and especially marriage to a professional woman, as very low on the hierarchy of values. Robert S. Hughes, Jr. notes that in the novel "the preferred role for woman is a prostitute, or second best, a housewife, though "wife" is generally a pejorative term in the book." And Benson observes that "Steinbeck, like Twain, concentrates on a masculine society. Neither deals much with romantic love, except to satirize it, and ideal love is most often achieved between men." Along Cannery Row, sexuality is the exclusive domain of the brothel. Mack and the boys live within a single-sex community, free of the emotional commitments involved in a meaningful relationship with a woman. And Doc, the hero of the book whose laboratory receives a steady stream of female visitors, seems to find any real connection with a woman to be an elusive prospect. Steinbeck writes, "Even in the dear close contact with a girl Mack felt that Doc would be lonely."
There are, however, exceptions. In his short story The Chrysanthemums, considered to be one of his best, Steinbeck takes a nuanced and empathetic look at the life of the main character, Elisa Allen, and her stifled position within a male-dominated world. At the age of thirty-five she has lost touch with her femininity and Steinbeck describes her in masculine tones: "Her face was lean and strong ... Her figure looked blocked and heavy." She wears a man's hat and her appearance is described as "handsome." In the story Elisa encounters an itinerant tinker and he describes to her his way of life (a transient life sounding not unlike that of a thru-hiker): "I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather." To this she replies, "That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live." She continues, imagining such a life and eroticizing the idea of communing with nature: "I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark - why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and - lovely." Elisa seems to have connected once again with her youth and with her sexuality. The conversation continues:
"You sleep right in the wagon?" Elisa asked.
"Right in the wagon, ma'am. Rain or shine I'm dry as a cow in there."
"It must be nice," she said. "It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things."
"It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman."
Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. "How do you know? How can you tell?" she said.
"I don't know, ma'am," he protested. "Of course I don't know ... It would be a lonely life for a woman, ma'am, and a scary life, too, with animals creeping under the wagon all night."
Steinbeck portrays the character of Elisa as overtly sexual and unsatisfied with the life society has placed her in - her intelligence, ambition and talents all wasted. He does not judge her for her sexuality and he is genuinely sympathetic to her plight. For a male writer in the 1930s, it is a feminist view far ahead of its time. A modern day Elisa, enthralled by the idea of a transient life amidst nature, sleeping out under the stars, could easily enact her dreams on the PCT. I have heard the long-distance hiking trail described as a "great equalizer." Out on the trail, regardless of one's financial status, race or gender, everyone is on even footing - suffering the same difficulties and reaping the same rewards. The tinker, of course, had been completely wrong. Any female thru-hiker is proof that a woman is just as capable as a man and no more lonely or scared. Thru-hiking can be "the right kind of a life" for man and woman alike. The epitome of this, perhaps, is Heather Anderson, current holder of the unsupported speed records for both the PCT and Appalachian Trail.She completed the PCT in sixty days and the AT in only fifty-four, both four days faster than the previous male record holders. She is the first hiker to hold both records simultaneously.