This morning as I was hiking in fresh snow with my dog Rose—a black Staffordshire Bull Terrier who for a while was feared by strangers as possibly a pit bull (that hysteria seems to have passed)—I saw only one other hiker, a young woman in a pink shirt, running up the trail with her small dog. Our boot marks, and our dogs’ pad marks, were the only disruptions in the expanse of white.
Seeing this woman reminded me that most of the lone hikers I meet, often accompanied by one or two dogs, are women, young, old and in between.
I’ve always felt that there is something about the Southwest—its history, its climate—that draws women of exceptional independence, which may be expressed physically, intellectually, spiritually, or in various forms of entrepreneurship. This aspect of the Southwest, and particularly of New Mexico, is what drew me here twenty years ago.
History penetrates landscape and forms its effect, so that Mabel Dodge Luhan’s escape to Taos ninety years ago prevails, long after her death, not only in her wonderful house but in the atmosphere she created of daring, adventure, and enterprise. (D.H. Lawrence, one of her guests, did persuade her to put on an apron and scrub her floors once but she never repeated the experiment which, in his eyes, would have proved that she was a true woman.)
Our trails are well marked, and even in fresh snow, it’s unlikely that a lone hiker will get lost, although all the hiking books warn, severely, about going out alone. Yet there are always turns in the trail, side canyons shooting off, disappeared signs, sudden and even violent changes in the weather, that mean all of us who hike alone face the unpredictable (and carry packs with trail bars, emergency blankets, flashlights and so forth, for that reason). Some also carry cell phones but I never do. This is my time, my only time, of placing myself outside of human connection.
Women are often told to be afraid of the men they may meet out in the wilderness, but it seems unlikely to me that thieves, rapists or murderers lurk in the fastnesses of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The true dangers to women, we know from many studies, are usually found at home. And by this I don’t mean kitchen fires.