“Aren’t you afraid to bike alone, as a woman?”
I probably get asked this question, in some form, every week. When I’m traveling alone, I sometimes get asked every day or multiple times a day. No matter where I go in the world, this is the one question I can never avoid.
It’s okay. When women, femmes, and folks from marginalized backgrounds ask me if I feel afraid to move through the world as I am, I assume it’s because they, too, want to move through the world as they are. So I respect the question. It feels hopeful, in fact.
There are other times, though, when men ask me the same question in ways that actually make me feel afraid. They stop me on the trail, or on the road, and press for details. Am I carrying a gun? Or at least a knife? They ask where I’m camping and where my boyfriend is. They comment on my body. When I finally dislodge myself from the conversation and bike away, I’m left wondering, wow, is that guy someone I actually need to worry about?
So the question itself always arrives to me in context, and my answers shift accordingly.
To the men who press for details, I try not to give them many. I smile, point at a cool bird, and bike away.
To everyone else, I try to give a range of perspectives. No, I don’t carry a weapon, and yes, sometimes I feel afraid. I trust and act on my intuition. I believe people are naturally kind but often socialized toward conflict. I have learned to expect sexual harassment. I have also learned to manage and process that harassment in ways that often — though not always — feel healthy and powerful. I practice nonviolent communication and look for empathy. I set boundaries. I love myself and I love other people, and this forms the core of my philosophy for moving freely in the world.
So far, this has worked for me. Over the last sixteen years, I've cycled or hiked thousands of miles across four continents, sometimes with other people but often alone. I usually feel very safe cycling and camping alone in the United States. I have never been assaulted on a biking or hiking trip, anywhere. Adventure cycling as a solo female has taught me to trust myself and to trust the world. Humans everywhere want to love, learn, and connect. These aren’t platitudes; it's what I live by.
And still, l grapple with how to answer the question of gender and safety. Feelings of safety are contextual, and "keeping oneself safe" is an active process. It's difficult to form a succinct response.
A couple days ago, I finished a 1,107-mile solo hike across Florida. On my last mile, I stopped for a snack. (One of the best parts of solo travel is unlimited, gratuitous snacks!) I gathered some twigs, crouched under the shade of a tree, and cooked a pot of noodles over my wood stove. I'd recently lost my spork, so I used a seashell to stir the pot.
Just when I started eating, a woman walked by with her young daughter. I waved to them and they stopped to chat. After a few minutes, the mom realized she had forgotten her water bottle in the car and went back to get it. She left her daughter to wait with me in the shade. The girl wore a baseball cap and eyeglasses. She might have been around seven. It was a fabulous opportunity.
I waved my seashell in the air and explained, with great drama, how I had found it on the beach and now it was a spoon. I told her about hiking a long way on my own and camping by myself in the forest. The girl stood with her arms at her sides and stared at me.
I paused for effect, raised my eyebrows, and smiled at her.
“Maybe when you’re older, you’ll go on a long journey and find your own seashell to eat with,” I said. The girl shuffled her feet, looked down, and then grinned ear to ear.
Soon the mom returned and the family continued down the trail. After they left, I ate my noodles in the shade and thought about the little girl. I realized that I had wanted to make an impression. I had wanted to tell her a story she wouldn’t forget. I imagined her growing up and going on her own adventures — alone if she wanted. It felt like a healthy hope to have for the next generation.
When I was twenty-one, I left on my first solo cycling trip around Iceland. That ride was difficult and beautiful. It changed the course of my life and helped me understand myself as a full human being. Women are often told that we’re only half of something; dependent on men for resources, safety, and self worth. We’re not. We’re whole people. We get to move independently in this world too.
I love biking and hiking long distances on my own. It’s fabulous. It deepens my relationship with nature, self, and humanity. It brings me joy. I want women and girls and folks across the gender spectrum to feel this same sense of joy. Joy is a positive force that's good for everyone. It’s important.
When women tell me they are afraid to bike alone and move freely in the world, I believe them. I understand these fears to be real. These fears are fueled by the statistical reality of male violence against women (disproportionately directed toward women from marginalized backgrounds), by women’s actual lived experiences of harassment and abuse, and by the omnipresent recommendation that we travel in packs or enlist a male guardian.
I am not immune to these realities and these fears. But I have learned to accept them and work with them because I love solo journeys. I love my independence and the joy it brings me. I love the process of trusting myself and trusting people. I love learning and growing my intuition. When people ask me if I feel afraid to bike alone as a woman, I still don’t have a perfect answer. But the truth is that I love being out here and it has always been worth it. Every answer I give rests on this truth.