I'm working on a new project, which is walking around by myself in unfamiliar places without being scared. This is not to say that I am a horrible scaredy-cat-- I walk around by myself all the time. However, all of those readers who are not men probably know how, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, we non-men select our walking-around locations with some caution. Our own residential neighborhood, or one that looks kind of like it someplace else? Fine. Our local parks and neighborhood trails-- generally okay, as long as we haven't been given specific reason for alarm there-- but the danger antennae are still kinda up, ready for anything. City neighborhood that is different from ours? Discomfort grows a little. Out in the woods somewhere new, alone? Pack me a pocketknife.
Maybe it's just me.
I am 44 years old. I would like to be brave the way I was when I was 8 or 9, and went wandering the woods alone on many occasions, before (apparently) my mother noticed and decided to belatedly deliver the stranger-danger lecture. After that I was not brave. I still went up the hill to pick blueberries, but more often than not would spook and come flying back home at a run, blueberries bouncing out of my bowl as I went. I still went to the old disused cemetery covered with a carpet of flowering thyme-- not accessible by car-- to write poems in my journal, but after that one time a guy dressed in camo materialized silently behind me, I didn't go as often, and didn't sit in abstraction anymore, but looked nervously over my shoulder.
I would like to declare myself tired of this. Don't I-- don't we all-- have a right to be in the world, here and there, where we please, without fearing violence? ...A loaded question on July 15, 2016, when yesterday a truck loaded with weaponry plowed into a mass of French people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, and killed them, men, women and babies. When the U.S. has finally become aware of how many young black men are shot by cops, and others, for no good reason. When cops in turn were mowed down in Dallas while policing a peaceful protest. When a homophobic young man with a history of aggression and abuse recently decided to massacre about 50 young clubgoers, mostly Latinx, at a gay club in Orlando.
Violence is everywhere. All of the people I have mentioned were killed in public spaces, where they would have had no special reason to feel afraid. No place is safe, per se. The last time I ran from a man, I was just trying to go to a morning dental appointment in a familiar, normally well-populated neighborhood; a snowstorm the night before had kept most people off the streets (damn my northern hardiness), and the area proved unexpectedly isolated that day.
Ergo: if no place is safe, isn't that a good reason to treat every place as safe? As a podcast I was listening to with my kid said, ultimately everything is fatal. Before something, someday fatally gets me (and it will), I would like to do some stuff. Hence my new project. My mother won't like it, I think.
I started with Adams Morgan (an unknown that turned out fairly un-risky, unless you count heatstroke); the next week, I practiced a little desensitization therapy in Rock Creek Park. (Yes, I know, that's where Chandra Levy was killed, and I think of it every damn time. Apparently, I should also be concerned about owl attacks.) As far as actual trail-following goes, my Rock Creek Park expedition did not go well. My aim was to walk on part of the Rapids Bridge Trail, which makes a loop from the Horse Center. However, I could not find the trailhead to save my life, even after asking a passing horseback riding teacher. When I reviewed my materials later, I realized I'd made a mistake in trying to work from the map, when in fact there were excellent written instructions, underneath the map, which would have helped me a great deal if I had read them.
What actually happened is that I followed some random trail(s) for a little while. It was another extremely hot and humid day, and I was glad that this time I'd remembered to bring a hat. I don't know where I was going, but the blazes weren't orange. I did, however, find some rock cairns placed by hikers, and I added my stone, symbolic of the beginning of a project, if not just now the beginning of a real hike:
Two weeks later, having read the directions this time, I went back again to find the Rapids Bridge Trail. This time I had no trouble. The trailhead was right behind the horse paddock. The other horse paddock. My plan, in the spirit of baby steps, was to walk about a half a mile down the trail to Ross Drive and Rock Creek, then turn around and come back. I'd forgotten my camera-- a mistake I haven't made in a while. The weather was very humid, but not too hot yet, at 9:30 am.
The trail was wide, and dotted with mouldering piles of horse dung; the woods open, without much underbrush, and carpeted with brown leaves. I only saw two other people the whole way; a young bearded guy, walking a beagle, and a tall, thin, fit man running very, very fast. The young bearded guy said "good morning" in a wholly non-threatening fashion. The very fast runner did not appear to notice me.
If I'd had my camera, images I might have shown you would include: young girls having their riding lessons near the trailhead; crinkly white fungi on fallen trees; the unremarkable sun-lit brown of the path through the open woods; a broken old bench by a rocky creek. I only saw the most ordinary of animals: squirrels, a chipmunk, robins, cardinals. I liked the chipmunk, though.
And how did I feel, out "in the woods" by myself? A little wary; less aware of the modest beauty of my surroundings than I might have been; but basically okay. It was slightly odd to be there alone, but not scary. And afterwards, I also felt-- not really victorious, or anything else dramatic-- but just okay. It was okay.
A bunch of time passed before I got out to Rock Creek Park again. The weather was no longer hot, and the many, many squirrels appeared to be busy with the acorns I could hear falling from the trees. The day was overcast, sweater-temperature.
I parked near the police station on Ross Drive, ready to walk a bit more of the Rapids Bridge Trail. Within about 90 seconds of leaving my car, I'd met three different men: one who was sitting quietly in the car next to mine, who nodded when I emerged, a millenial-bro type on a bicycle who wanted directions to an obscure picnic spot, and a strapping young runner on the trail. Of the three, I only felt uncomfortable about the cyclist, who'd initiated an interaction and then prolonged it more than seemed absolutely necessary. Despite this, I still felt he was simply lost, perhaps supposed to meet someone at Picnic Area 24. There was also an aging jogger that I met out in the middle of the woods, and one woman!-- the woman, however, had a large dog with her. I would feel better if I saw more women out alone, dogless.
So, it was a busy morning over near Ross Drive at Rock Creek Park. And I walked along Rock Creek, discovering that it did not get that name for nothing: the stream is full of quite stunning boulders, forming picturesque pools and eddies. I remembered my camera and took lots of redundant photos, many of which failed to capture the loveliness of the creek. I was not out there for long-- about 25 minutes-- and did not get very far, due to stopping so often for photography, but just that short time out in the cool woods with the squirrels and the woodpeckers and the river gave me a little burst of well-being. I need to do this more often.
I made it as far as Rapids Bridge and took in the views from the center of the creek. All boulders and small eddies, yellowing leaves, and silver sky.
It is May now. I have been distracted, an understatement. It took me more than 6 months to finish walking the Rapids Bridge Trail (length: approximately 2 miles), longer than it takes some people to hike the Appalachian. But, one Saturday in May, accompanied this time by my husband, I decided it was time to go outside.
Due to road closures, I could not park where I wanted to, so we ended up in the same spot as usual (by the old broken-down bench), walked along the river again, looked for a moment or two at the view off Rapids Bridge, and then made the turn uphill to continue towards the horse barns. This was the part of the trail that was new to me. Because I was with my husband, I did not notice all the individual people we met in the way that I do when alone, but it was a lovely spring weekend afternoon, and there were a lot of them, including large groups surprisingly carrying backpacks and maps. The uphill slope was fairly steep, and the forest again open, with a red-brown carpet of needles. Errant dogs ran about sniffing and pouncing in ecstasy, and most of the wild things hid quietly from them and all of the people. My husband, a smoker, got winded going up the ridge. Because, once we got to the horse barn, the shortest route back was forward, we ended up walking the entire Rapids Bridge loop together. The way felt shorter with another person, but I noticed less and worried more: about my husband maybe feeling tired or out-of-breath or annoyed, about getting home in time to go to work at the restaurant, which I'd agreed to do at the last minute.
An anti-climax, complicated by all the complications that populate 2017; but I will go to Rock Creek Park again.