Recently, bloggers, writers, activists, and women around the internet have entered a national dialogue, considering the unfair perils they often face, simply because they are female. Following the murder of Mollie Tibbets, women have taken to various social media platforms to share their experiences of harassment while running, hoping to strengthen the conversation on keeping women safe in all situations.
The devastation of Mollie’s murder definitely hit home for me, not only because I am a woman and a runner, but because I went to college in Poweshiek County, the same county where Mollie lived. Everyday, I ran on country roads not far from the ones where Mollie ran on the evening she was killed. Sadly, we are often more emotionally affected by a tragedy when it connects to our own lives. I won’t go further into Mollie’s story, as I didn’t know Mollie or her family, and I think the media and politicians have exploited her story enough, even twisting it to advance egregious political goals. However, Mollie’s death, and the national attention it has received, have led me to consider the countless situations in which I have felt unsafe, or have had to take extra precautions, simply because I am female.
While traveling alone, I have grown increasingly furious over the extent and frequency with which I must take these measures. As I traveled from Oregon to California, a few unfortunate events caused me to reflect further on the unfair safety measures I must take as a woman traveling alone. So here is a reflection on my experiences so far, traveling while female:
When you’re traveling while female a slight change in plans can never be met with a slight change in planning.
When you’re traveling while female, planning becomes your life vest, your broken vessel a California wildfire, blocking Interstate-5 as you travel from Northern Oregon to Central California.
If you’re traveling while female you cash in every last-minute you never had, a piggy-bank of camping blogs, Airbnb profiles, searching
For somewhere to stay on that circuitous snake of Route-139
It hisses and taunts you for having to think so hard about where you’ll stop to sleep, just because you’re traveling while female.
You rule out car camping
Reviews of Modoc Forest campsites tell you “you might be the only one there!”–written by men and only men.
You think how peaceful, how blissful, how everything you need, how unsafe when traveling while female.
You choose Airbnb, a cabin in an RV park, the only place left, a half hour down another serpentine road. This one doesn’t hiss, but swirls and sings you a lullaby, brushing misty lake air through your hair–more free than you ever felt, traveling while female.
At the RV park you find a cobweb screen door, no key, no lock, cracks in the window
Outside your front door lie six tents of all-male construction workers
You watch the construction workers grill burgers, and open a 12-pack of beer
As the sky grows darker, their voices crackle louder, the rock in your stomach sinks deeper, you think you can hear it singing to you too, not lullabies this time, but taunts: traveling while female.
You drag your rolled-up sleeping bag into the cabin. Are they talking about you?
You wonder if you’re paranoid, you must be paranoid, you’re female, traveling while female.
“You need anything? A burger?” one of them ask you. The others laugh, and your stomach rock spins, rolls into an avalanche, picking up weight as it spirals down.
You call yourself paranoid, you call yourself classist, you call yourself female.
But then the sky turns pewter, their voices turn thunder
More beers, more laughter, the girl, you think you hear
Paranoid, classist, female
Female, you remind yourself, you’re traveling while female
Pewter sky turns to charcoal, you throw your sleeping bag into the car, key in the ignition, foot on the gas
One of the construction workers jumps in front of your car, beer splashing from his can
Your foot stomps on the gas, detached from your body, it tells you to swerve around him.
The sign at the RV park says 5mph, your foot says 40
You imagine what would have happened if you hit the man, charged with manslaughter, your only alibi in court: traveling while female
You don’t leave a bad review on Airbnb, or ask for your money back.
You just explain that you felt unsafe, brush your writing in coral and lavender, doodles of swirls and flowers in the margins. You’re taught to paint your words in watercolors when you’re traveling while female.
You never met your Airbnb host, but you fear he’ll leave you a bad review, 2 stars for being female.
You think when you were born, the doctor must have reached his hand up into the sky and pulled down 2 stars, just for you
2 stars that grew into x-chromosomes
You hate yourself for imaging that doctor as a man.
The nearest town is 50 miles down that winding forest road. It hisses again, and you realize the singing was just a disguise.
Brights on, turning and drifting, a podcast to distract you from the nausea
To distract you from the fact that you are alone and female–the only other vehicles you see on that road are construction trucks.
You wonder if the drivers are men, wonder if they know the men from the RV park
You hope they’re women, women workers who left their campsites, they too, traveling while female
“Vacancy” says the cheapest motel in Susanville, CA, you finally breathe
Choked by air again when you find, the only person in the check-in room is a man
You wonder if you suddenly hate all men,
if that’s what happens when you’re traveling while female.
You pay $70 for the motel room, remind yourself that any man could have stayed in that cabin.
Another dent in the money you saved from a paycheck that was probably less than his
Another dent from traveling while female.
As you fall asleep you remember the barista at the coffee shop in Eastern Oregon
The man who saw the stickers on your laptop, used to work in agricultural policy, knew everyone you might want to work for one day
You listen to him explain to you about immigrant women farmers
He is neither an immigrant nor a woman nor a farmer but you nod, you thank him
You’re taught that you must nod and thank men when you’re traveling while female
You must nod and thank and sweeten the coffee he serves you with sugar. No, not sugar, but something artificial
Something sweet, but just for taste.
He says he’ll write down the emails of his friends in DC, scribbles his phone number instead
When he asks if you have somewhere to sleep that night, you don’t flip him off like you should
You think of all of the women who sleep with their bosses. They were once alone, in need of something, and traveling, while female.
You tell him you’re staying with friends
A polite girl like you has friends in cities she has never visited, right?
You don’t think too hard about this, you can’t afford to think when you’re traveling while female.
In the morning you run on a nearby trail, turn around when it gets too isolated because you’re running, while traveling, while female
Hope you see someone else on the trail, but only if they’re female
You see only men out running that morning, all the women are scared of running, of traveling, while female
And you think about how your mom told you girls can do anything boys can do,
but she also told you not to run too far down that trail in your town woods, the one behind the local prep-school.
You never listened to her back then.
Back when you believed you really could do anything,
That all trails were meant for running, all roads for traveling.
It took a few years, but one day you learned
that yes, the roads were meant for traveling,
Just not for traveling while female.