I just got back from about ninety minutes on the trail. It’s a hike I do often and it has many elements of the perfect training hike. Not only that, it has a fabulous view that provides a nice reward to those who make it to the top.
It’s a very popular hike. In fact, since it was listed in a widely-read travel guide, it’s not unusual to see two or three dozen people going up or coming down. At sunrise, on the weekends, there could be even more.
Today, however, it was threatening rain, so there were far fewer. Among those few was a young woman (I would guess mid-twenties) hiking alone.
When I arrived at the top, she was already there. I said, “Hello,” and sat down (at least twenty feet from her) to enjoy the view. She stood off to the side and didn’t say a word; I assumed that she hadn’t heard me.
She left the “summit” about five minutes before I did and started to make her way back down. The trail, like most here in Hawaii, is not great, but I have hiked this particular stretch well over 100 times. I know the way down. Within a few minutes I began to catch up.
It quickly became obvious that I was making her more than a little nervous. She frequently looked behind, sometimes glancing over her shoulder, and sometimes sneaking a peek as she negotiated the various obstacles. (I couldn’t help but notice; she was walking in front of me.) She was quite a bit slower than I was, so I modulated my speed in order to reach her at a relatively flat area, where I could pass without her feeling crowded.
As we reached the flat area and I passed to her left—with more than ten feet separating us—I decided to speak to her. Maybe I’m showing my age, or where (or how) I was raised, but it just seemed rude to walk by her without saying something.
“Looks like the rain is going to hold off!” seemed an anodyne enough comment. Apparently it wasn’t. The look on her face was one of near panic. She managed to respond with a “Yeah,” but it came from a throat so constricted that it was barely audible. By the look on her face one would think I had slipped on a hockey mask and started waxing poetic on the virtues of liver, fava beans, and a fine Chianti.
Displaying my usual coolness in difficult circumstances, I considered assuring her that I was harmless, considered apologizing for frightening her, considered making a joke of the situation, and, rejecting all those considerations, turned and got the heck out of there. I have no idea what she did next, because I was determined not to turn around and look in that direction until I was out of sight.
I’ve hiked this trail for decades. While this was a bit unusual in its intensity, it is by no means atypical. It also seems to be a fairly recent phenomena—one that has gotten much worse in the last ten years.
It’s also interesting to note that the women who seem the most concerned are college-age to mid-forties; high school girls and women closer to my age often smile that smile that people share when experiencing the same challenge.
Is it me? I suppose it could be. I’m a big guy (6’ 3”). I also use trekking poles, which some people find suspicious—for reasons I’ve never quite understood. On the other hand, I’m clean, have no visible (or hidden!) tattoos, and always wear a collared hiking shirt and nice shorts on the trial. I’m also nearly sixty-years old. If I was a linebacker my twenty-three-year-old daughter, who weighs barely above 100 pounds, would run right over me on the way to a touchdown.
I’m not sure what the point of all this is, except to say that I never experience this on the John Muir Trial. I’ve passed dozens of solo women hikers and never once did I get the idea that they were at all worried about me. In 2013, the two hiking groups I ran into most frequently were two mother-daughter pairs who were always smiling and full of questions. Perhaps it’s because male John Muir Trail hikers have a deserved reputation for being sophisticated and urbane. (I’m particularly fond of that theory.)
More likely, women who decide to walk 211 miles by themselves, or in the company of another woman, probably have few self-confidence issues.
Regardless, I hope it never changes in the Sierra Nevada. It’s us against 50,000 feet of elevation gain, and I can use all the camaraderie and encouragement I can get.
Good hiking, Ray