For five minutes late on a Friday afternoon, I was completely lost somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. I could not see or hear my friend Ruth, who should have been just behind me on the other side of the ridge. Or the ridge before that. I had crossed a lot of such ridges, thinking I would catch sight of the lake just over the next one.
Classic rookie mistake.
Alone and up to my hips in the middle of a silent green wilderness, I could picture our photos splashed across the newspaper, a cautionary tale of the dangers faced by women who decide to go it alone in the woods. Ruth and I had teased each other about the possibility that we’d need to get rescued during our three-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’d never really been worried about dying. The whole point of the trip was to help keep me alive.
When men go into the woods, they often seem intent on proving something about their inner courage and strength. Bill Bryson wrote in A Walk in the Woods about his quest to earn the “granite gaze” of a true mountain man. There are people who long for a survival experience, and although they are not all men, they do seem to be seeking out the kind of masculine narrative constructed by stories like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival. Society and pop culture suggest that diving into the wilderness will help you to get in touch with a fundamental, grizzly inner masculinity that thrives on solitude and barebones living.
Women make up just 30% of hikers, according to most self-reported surveys. A 2015 survey in Backpacker magazine found that they often get into overnight trips because of a man. When women do go into the woods, either alone or with each other, they do it for different reasons. As Cheryl Strayed shows in her best-selling memoir Wild, many women go into the woods not to prove their toughness in the face of the elements, but to begin the process of healing.
For my own part, I’d brought a broken heart and clinical depression on my first overnight backpacking trip—along with minimal orienteering skills. I was hoping some time on the trail might replace my emotional pain with physical exhaustion, if only temporarily.
On that first day when I lost sight of Ruth, we had an ambitious goal of hiking 11 miles from the small town of Cle Elem, Washington into Lake Spectacle. When Ruth and I found each other again, we stopped to eat a snack. Then, as the more experienced hiker, she brought it up: “So, one of the things we probably should have discussed is never losing eyesight with a landmark or your partner.”
I nodded vigorously. I knew that I never should have lost sight of my friend. Ruth and I were sharing a goal and a burden—both literally and metaphorically. She had the stove; I had the tent. There was no question of leaving the trail without her. If not for her, I wouldn’t have even been on it.
That night, we didn’t reach our goal. When we got within sight of the lake, we lost the trail again trying to descend down to the shore. We gave up and set up our tent, as much out of the wind as we could be on the side of a mountain. That night, I slept without waking for the first time in months.
But I didn’t feel some deep sense of accomplishment, either that night or the next morning. My bones were cold even when I put on every item of clothing in my pack. I made instant coffee and Ruth scrambled eggs over the open flame of her camp stove. She took a photo of me crouching, semi-feral, on the ground with a fork after I’d dropped our eggs in the dirt. They were still delicious.
That afternoon, fully aware that we were feeding a stereotype by reading self-help books on a quest for empowerment, we took turns reading advice columns from Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things to each other on the cold, rocky shore of Lake Spectacle. After that first, scary day, the rest of the trip seemed smooth by comparison. We went skinny-dipping, built a fire, and ate s’mores. We tried primal screaming and didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about. We waved off skeptical (male) hikers who tried to “help” us.
And we talked—about our careers and families, her desire for her boyfriend to propose, my efforts to get over my ex, other goals and aspirations. When we ran out of things to talk about, we were silent together. I’ve never quite felt the kind of peace that I did spending time with one of my best friends in the middle of the forest.
And I’ve also never felt quite so close to my friend as I did side by side with her, tackling physical demands and unpredictable situations. So much of the way that female friends tend to interact focuses on intimate chats over drinks or coffee. But on the PCT, I understood how hiking and backpacking can cement a bond in the way civilized get-togethers sometimes can’t.
Former first lady Laura Bush gets it. She hikes in a national park with her girlfriends every year.
“One of the nice things about being all women is that we turn everything—pouring rain, wild horses—into a funny story and there are no tense moments like there might be if George was the one trying to put up the tent,” Bush told People Magazine last year. When women are brave enough to face a survival experience together, the result is not only self-confidence but what you might call friendship-confidence: The ability to believe your friends will be there for you when you need them.
Backpacker’s survey also reported that 43% of all female backpackers cry during a trip. I didn’t cry until we were on our way back to Seattle. Ruth texted her boyfriend, and I tried to think of anyone who needed to know that I’d made it safely back to civilization. But I was in the midst of a lonely time; I hadn’t found it necessary to tell anyone I was going out of town for a week, much less going off the grid for three days. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost in the woods because I was already lost in life.
When I got home, my life was still a mess. But the time on the PCT had helped me do some sorting through my essentials. Those of us who struggle with depression often pack our baggage a little differently than everyone else. It doesn’t get easier to carry all at once. But you can learn how to pare it down.
I live in Colorado, where mountains are a status symbol. “How many fourteeners have you done?” is a routine question—a reference to Colorado’s 53 14,000-foot mountains. Climbing them does represent achievement to me. But the achievement isn’t conquering them. It’s that I keep putting one foot in front of the other.
These days, I’ve invested enough in the wilderness experience to own a backpack that fits, hiking poles, waterproof sandals, and my own tent. Last summer, I reached the summit of three 14,000 foot mountains and hiked the Continental Divide—and I did it all with other women, sharing the challenge and the accomplishment in an experience that was more about bonding than survival. I was in Ruth’s wedding in June, and we are planning another trip to the PCT soon.
Meanwhile, I’m in therapy. And I know now that there are people who will care, and try to help, if I get lost again in the woods.