Daniel Mrgan

When Men Take Off Their Pants

When I cycled south from Alaska, I worried a lot about bears, but I didn’t worry much about men. There seemed to be more bears than men, anyway. I was afraid of a thousand things — grizzlies, the dark, failure, aliens, my uncharted subconscious — but I don’t remember being particularly scared of males. 

Many of my experiences with men on that trip were very similar to my experiences with bears: we saw each other and then wandered away in separate directions. But other times, unlike bears, men also talked to me, helped me out, gave me snacks, and took me home with them. In Tok, an elderly man with several half-eaten muffins on his dashboard gave me a ride to the store. In Fairbanks, a man in overalls cut down a dead tree with a hand saw and built me a bonfire. And I’ll never forget the fisherman in British Columbia who sliced open the belly of a trout so I could look inside its stomach — packed solid with thousands of gnats.

Men in cars rolled down their windows and handed me cookies. They yelled encouragement as I pedaled up hills. Families took me home, fed me, and gave me a place to sleep. One guy cooked me a steak. Another guy took me to see a play. My experience as a solo female cyclist was one of persistent kindness. All sorts of people helped me and made me feel safe and welcome.

For women, though, there are nuances to feelings of safety and welcomeness. I’ve learned that male kindness can have its complexities. I always have to ask myself — is he handing me cookies because he wants to give me some sugar? Or is he handing me cookies because he wants to get some sugar? We live in a world where women are often portrayed as sexual objects first and as people second. Even though I didn’t feel afraid of men on that trip, I still had to navigate my relationships with them very carefully. I was never unaware of this dynamic. 

At times in my life, this awareness has felt like a great weight. Sometimes I’ve desperately wanted to simply be human and not have to deal with what it means to be female. Sometimes navigating the world as a female body is exhausting even when everything goes well. The constant awareness and active management of gender dynamics take energy. In the background of every interaction lingers a whole host of phantom possibilities about what men could want or could do. For women of color, these possibilities are even more weighted

But sometimes — for me in the context of my own life — the awareness of gender dynamics and the work it takes to navigate them also feel very, very funny. Sometimes men act so strangely toward me that I just have to laugh. What could they possibly be thinking?! There are days when it feels like we’re all just stuck in a huge cosmic joke of thwarted affections. I’ve found that laughing at the absurdity of these experiences helps to lighten the load.

After I cycled out of Alaska, I crossed into the Yukon and continued south to British Columbia. It was beautiful, but after a couple of thousand miles, I started to get really tired. I was living off of donuts, peanut butter, and pickled eggs. My sleeping mat had a valve leak, so each morning I woke up on top of a deflated mattress. And yeah, my butt hurt. 

One afternoon I pulled off the road at a waterfall. I stood in front of the falling water and tried to remember when I had last taken a shower. Maybe a few weeks ago? A guy in a pickup truck pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and handed me a Styrofoam cup. It was full of orange caviar. I poured some into my hand and ate them one by one. They were delightful. 

The guy struck up a conversation. He had a faint accent, and I want to say he was Lebanese, but I really don’t remember. He was middle-aged and worked on a forestry crew. He told me he had a cabin nearby and invited me to spend the night. 

I hesitated. I mean, I liked his caviar and he was nice enough. But something about him made me feel wary. I usually don’t get into cars with strangers who make me feel wary. But in this case, I really wanted a shower. I put my bike in the back of the truck and got in the passenger side. That’s when I noticed that the guy’s right hand was bandaged. I asked him about it, and he said something about winning a fight. It was not a great sign.

We drove for a while, longer than I had expected. At one point we stopped in someone’s yard and the guy jumped out to pick a large mushroom. He was elated about this mushroom, and he told me we would put it in a soup. That sounded great to me. Definitely better than peanut butter.

We took a dirt road into the forest and finally arrived at his cabin. When I saw it, my heart sank. It was not a cabin at all but an old, dilapidated camper. We got out of the truck, walked up to the camper door, and opened it. The smell of dead animals hit me in the face. I waited outside while the guy picked up the dead mice and opened up the windows. There was no electricity or running water. I would not get my shower after all. 

I sat on the ground and took stock of the situation. A man in a parking lot had lured me into his car with fish eggs and then taken me to an abandoned camper in the middle of the forest. Now he was tossing dead mice out the door and we were about to make a soup out of unidentified lawn mushrooms. I didn’t feel particularly threatened, but it also didn’t seem like an ideal situation. Like if my mom had made me a list of “Things to Do” and “Things to Not Do,” this would fall into the latter category.

I considered my options for self-defense. The guy was fairly skinny, and he had that busted hand. I had bear spray and thighs of steel. I decided I would just keep the spray handy and always be prepared to kick. 

After the guy finished airing out the camper, we set about making a soup. We tossed a bunch of things in a pot, including the random mushroom and an herb that the guy called lovage. The lovage was green and leafy and smelled like a beguiling version of celery. 

I don’t remember when the guy started hitting on me. Maybe it was earlier, in the truck, or maybe it was after we got to the camper. I have a history of simply ignoring men’s advances. If I ignore men long enough, sometimes they give up on their own. Unfortunately, this strategy can backfire, as men try harder and harder to make me understand what they’re after. This guy gave it his all. I don’t remember very much of what he said, but I do remember that it was very annoying.

We ate the soup and got ready for bed. The guy kept saying that I should sleep next to him, and I kept telling him I was going to sleep by myself on the other side of the camper. I got into my pajamas and we turned off the lights. I stuck my bear spray by my pillow and positioned my legs so I could kick hard if I needed to. I don’t remember feeling afraid but rather just really, really irritated. 

Even in the dark, the guy didn’t stop pestering me. Finally, he called out, “I’M TAKING OFF MY PANTS NOW!”

I immediately yelled back in my most menacing voice, “I DON’T CARE!” 

There was a moment of silence, and then he started to titter. And then I started to titter. And we both lay on opposite ends of the camper in the dark, laughing. 

In the morning we woke up and ate breakfast. He shook his head and looked at me. “Maybe if I was younger, and you were older,” he sighed.

I just ignored him. 

I packed up my things, got on my bike, and waved goodbye. 

To this day whenever I cook with lovage, I think of that strange soup, that friendly but annoying man, and the complexities of human kindness. 

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Comments

LAURA KILLINGBECK November 3, 2020, 8:13 AM

Hey Steven,

Thank you! That's great to hear. I will think more about "fear and fascinating bits." :) Happy trails!

Nate Maier October 29, 2020, 9:28 AM

Hi Laura, What a great article about fear and the female perspective. I found I could easily imagine the desire to simply be human and not always a female. I am trying to face my fears in my life and my wife is kind enough to remind me that as a white male I am at the top of the human heap.

LAURA KILLINGBECK November 3, 2020, 7:44 AM

Thanks so much Nate! Great to hear from you, and I appreciate your comment. Cheers and happy trails!

Steven Malikowski October 22, 2020, 8:57 AM

You're welcome. I agree with how fascinating humans are, and as many have said, bike-touring brings out that part of people. But unlike many stories, yours bring us along the winding path of discovering people's fascinating bits. You mentioned you were slightly nervous about how this essay would go over. You got this. If anything, I hope you take more risks with your writing.

You've chosen topics well, so I'm sure you have good ideas about where to take risks, but if I could offer one, it'd be to go a bit further with your own fears during difficult moments. I tried to do that gracefully in my own story about touring with my little health problem. My reviewers said they liked that most, possibly because I put that part after some exciting & funny stuff. I think they like reading about our fears because, to casual cyclists, we seem strong by cycling long distances and facing uncertainty, but we still struggle with our own fears, just like our readers. If you're ever looking for another reviewer for your writing, I'd enjoy helping out.

Steven Malikowski October 14, 2020, 5:58 PM

I enjoyed reading another one of your posts, Laura. And as before, I'm still hoping you write a book. Your posts always have something striking, complex, and unique. This time, the beginning made me think you were going to show how fears of men are overstated, like so many fears. But then, your post surprised and impressed me with the guy who was good and bad. I can't help but wonder if or how often you've had to use bear spray when you weren't aiming at bears, but maybe that'll be in another post--or even better in your book. :-)

Laura Killingbeck October 20, 2020, 5:29 AM

Hi Steven, thanks so much for reading, and for your beautiful comment! I admit I was slightly nervous about how this essay would go over. Humans are a fascinating species(!), and there are so many complications to how we relate to one another. The man in the story was not malicious. He was really nice! But his affections and expectations were certainly problematic. I am happy to report that I have never used my bear spray, ever, hehe! Thank you again for your encouragement--it motivates me to keep telling these strange stories. :)

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