For Shooter Literary Magazine’s summer 2017 ‘Bad Girls’ issue, a creative non-fiction piece on the feminist meaning of walking alone as a woman.
On New Year’s Day in 1953, a forty-four-year-old woman pulled on a pair of dark blue trousers and a matching tunic, laced up her trainers, and then set out walking from Pasadena, California. Mildred Ryder would continue walking for the next twenty-eight years. During that time, she would cover more than twenty-five thousand miles, her hair would turn from grey-streaked brunette to bright white and, most importantly, she would fulfil her mission to spread a message of peace. This was no small aim, with the USA fighting in the Korean War and McCarthyism sowing seeds of fear throughout the country. Ryder stood against this violence and division, emblazoning her tunic with the words “Peace Pilgrim”, a moniker by which she soon came to be known. She carried only four possessions: a toothbrush, a pen, a comb, and a map, all stowed in the pockets of her tunic. She never asked for assistance, taking food or shelter only when it was freely offered by those she encountered. For a period of time in the US, Peace Pilgrim became something of a sensation, and not just because of her incongruously grandmotherly appearance or the sheer physical feat of her three-decade walk. It was also because she was a woman; a woman walking alone by choice.
Walking alone as a woman is a subversive act on several levels. First, it makes her identity harder to pin down. Society frequently resorts to stereotype when deciding who a woman is. All too easily, she is defined in relation to others: mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter… But what else besides that? Walking alone, women are harder to pigeonhole. There is no one beside us to give us our context; we are individual human beings. It also challenges societal fears about female safety. It is not meant to be safe to walk alone as a woman, whether crossing continents or going home after dark. Our mainstream media is obsessed with stories about abduction, rape and murder. From a young age, every schoolgirl has her endangered status hammered home with cautionary talks about keeping to brightly lit areas, remaining aware of surroundings, crossing the road back and forth like a crazed insect should an unknown man be following. As a female, it is all too easy to feel that the outside world is a place of continuous potential danger, one which we would do well to avoid unless under specific, well-lit, accompanied circumstances. The “Take Back the Night” and “Reclaim the Night” movements, which began in the 1970s, pushed back against this by bringing women together to walk in the darkness, asserting their right to move freely without fear of assault. Whilst this movement has slowed, the placards have never been fully discarded. Periodically, new protests rise up, such as in Ipswich in 2006 when hundreds of women walked together in response to the murders of five prostitutes (a type of woman that, perhaps, exemplifies walking alone).
In this context, every mile Peace Pilgrim covered was an act of assertion: of her right to the terrain of the globe as much as any man, and of her faith in humankind not to harm her. In her refusal to carry any protective weapons she was much like another fearless heroine, the investigative journalist Nellie Bly. In 1890, Bly circumnavigated the world in order to turn the fictional journey of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days into a reality. It was utterly shocking for a woman to undertake such a journey in that era, let alone a woman doing it without a male chaperone. Bly was strongly encouraged to carry a revolver with her for protection. She declined, saying that she believed in “the world’s greeting me as I greet it.” One imagines Bly and Ryder would have found a great deal in common had their lifetimes overlapped, not least in their disregard for the world’s scaremongering about women’s safety.
When I first came across Ryder a few years ago, I was immediately inspired by her feat. The idea of her walking for years by herself in her simple tunic was hugely compelling, suggesting an incredible level of determination and inner strength. Until then, the women I had considered my heroines were of a different sort. They included Vali Myers, the Australian-born artist, dancer and all-round bohemian who gained cult status during the mid-twentieth century. Once you’ve seen Myers’ image, she is unforgettable: dressed in sumptuous jewel-coloured layers that frequently included leggings made of clerical brocade, with great gobbets of rings on her fingers, hair so red it could scald you and deep black kohl ringing her pale blue eyes; she is myth made flesh. Her appearance became even more striking – and offensive to conventional ideals of feminine beauty – when she tattooed her face with a Daliesque moustache, curlicues and dotted lines.
This defiant act would have tickled another heroine of my youth, the equally eccentric Luisa Casati. An Italian marchioness, she became renowned throughout Europe in the early twentieth century for her wild ways, including throwing infamously extravagant parties, keeping pet cheetahs and wearing live snakes in place of jewellery. Both women had many lovers, with writer Gabriel Pommerand likening Myers’ company to how “one might enjoy being accompanied by a cheetah on a leash.” These were bold women, unafraid of flouting societal conventions, proud to offend the sensibilities that would keep them chained to notions of the female as the weaker, sweeter sex. But while they were convention-defying in some ways, in others they were not so dissimilar from more traditional female icons. Marilyn Monroe’s idealised pin-up style might have been deeply contrary to Myers’ moustache or Casati’s hissing necklaces, but they shared a crucial characteristic: all presented themselves as objects to be looked upon.
After years of admiring women like this, coming across Ryder was epiphanic. While Casati and Myers constructed their appearances to court attention, hers was altogether unassuming. And of course, walking alone for many years means Ryder was frequently, in practical terms, unseen. While women should, of course, be free to design their own appearance entirely as they see fit and free from judgement, there is something hugely refreshing about an attitude that does not court society’s gaze. The writer John Berger, who died earlier this year, said that “men act and women appear.” We make our bodies objects for admiration, while men get to make theirs tools with which to do bold things. Ryder pushed against this, making her appearance entirely irrelevant and using her body, instead, to act.
From Peace Pilgrim, I discovered other women who walked alone. The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd spent many years traversing the Cairngorms mountain range, covering thousands of miles and coming to know the mountains as “a friend”. Her slim book about this landscape, The Living Mountain, remained unpublished in a drawer for more than thirty years, finally seeing the light of day in 1977, four years before she died. The book is a stunning prose meditation, riven through with her “lust for ice-cold peaks” and a sensuality and depth born of many years spent walking and sleeping alone in those mountains.
Sarah Marquis is a Swiss explorer with an incredible track record of solo walking expeditions, including trekking twelve thousand miles from Siberia to Australia over three years. Photos and video shorts of her on her trips show her wild-haired and beady-eyed, as if she was becoming one of the very birds she watched. There’s the “lady with the camels”, Robyn Davidson, who walked one thousand and seven hundred miles across Australian deserts with four such animals in the mid-1970s. Closer to home and with somewhat less glamorous animal companionship, Hannah Engelkamp spent six months trekking one thousand miles around Wales in 2013 with a donkey named Chico in tow.
Perhaps one of the best-known women who’ve walked alone is Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was adapted into a biopic in 2014. The film does its best to Hollywood-ize Strayed’s walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, including ditsy moments from actress Reese Witherspoon and many scenes from Strayed’s past pulling our focus to her relationships with men, but this treatment shouldn’t detract from Strayed’s achievement. She walked the one thousand, one hundred miles of the challenging trail alone, from California’s Mojave Desert to the Bridge of Gods in Washington, and her resultant memoir became an inspiring bestseller.
These are just a handful of the women, known and less well known, who have had the courage to walk alone. But still, these women are outliers. Most of the media coverage we see of adventurers, explorers, call them what you will, are of men doing these things. When a woman does the same, there must be something wrong with her. Robyn Davidson described her frustration with the way people have sought out negative motivations for her trek, observing within their interrogations “the hidden message... that for a woman to do anything extraordinary, she has to be disturbed in some way”. Sarah Marquis echoes the sentiment; “You tell people what you’re doing and they say, ‘You’re crazy’. It’s never, ‘Cool project Sarah! Go for it.’” There is an underlying fear in these reactions which stems from the fact that, without a partner or children to tether her, a woman might become dangerously empowered. When Marquis decided to walk eight thousand and seven hundred miles around Australia, she described it as tapping into “this wild call from inside me”. And what is society more afraid of than a woman in touch with her animal nature? A woman who believes her body is precisely that – her body – both belonging to her and for her to use as a tool. A woman who is not a damsel in distress, but a damsel who dares.
These women are true heroines. Purely by the movement of placing one foot in front of the other, they claim their right to themselves and to the world. It is a thoroughly seductive idea. This February, in my own small homage to their journeys, I set out myself. Having always lived in London, I found myself aged thirty and never having walked by myself in the countryside. The idea of being alone in unfamiliar territories was invigorating in the way that only something terrifying can be. I thought of Peace Pilgrim and these other damsels who dare as I pulled on waterproof trousers and heavy walking boots. It was mid-February, and as hail pelted me in the blue London dawn, I felt the weight of my provisions on my back, the bulk of my maps in my pockets and, most of all, a great sense of becoming in my heart. I had decided to walk out of my city and not to stop until I reached the sea. It is a minor achievement in comparison with the women I have described and many others but still, I felt something kindred with them as I walked. The four-day hike took me through bogs, fields, bull pens and snow. I saw beautiful old villages and ugly industrial farms, became friends with bright yellow gorse flowers and a whisperer to the bouncing deer of the Ashdown Forest. I was chased by heifers and barked at by dogs, and by the time I got my first glimpse of the sea over the shingle at Cuckmere, the tears in my eyes were no longer from the rub of my blisters but from the sheer joy at having achieved the thing I set out to do: to have walked alone.
It is not a solely pleasant experience, as no doubt Ryder, Marquis and others have discovered on a far more profound scale than me. Without a companion’s talk, or even the sound of their feet beside you, there is nothing to keep you company except your own mind. Its chatter may not always be kind; there are probably few activities better for discovering your inner self. Nor is there anyone with whom to find solidarity, whether in moments of concern about navigation or dusk drawing in, or in moments of joy at having spied a beautiful doe or having reached a peak after a long climb. In essence, you have to become enough for yourself. In a society obsessed with telling women they are not enough as they are – that they must have a ring on their finger to prove they’re loveable, that they must alter their appearance to be more acceptable, that they must wrestle with career-versus-motherhood and never get it right – this feels like no small thing. My tiny pilgrimage is something I wish I’d done much younger and now, having had my first taste of walking alone, I have pledged to myself that it was just that: a first taste, with many more, and longer, adventures to come. I still hold Vali Myers, Luisa Casati and other decadent women as personal heroines. There are few things as delightful as a woman willing to flick two fingers at societal conventions of the feminine and create her own fearless image instead. But I think my own path will follow in Ryder’s footsteps more than any others, choosing to go unseen in order to act: choosing to be a woman bold enough to walk alone.
*This essay was published under the pseudonym Emily Wildash.