Note: Opinions outlined here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
Last October, I was the only woman on a small trail crew comprised of backcountry campsite caretakers, our rover, and our field coordinator. I literally thought nothing of it; zero part of me felt a need to acknowledge this in any way, shape, or form. We each equally wielded rock bars, shovels, pick mattocks, axes, etc. At one point while we were moving large rocks, a slightly older couple came upon us on the trail.
“Look!” cried the woman, “a girl! A girl, doing trail work!” She whipped out her phone and started snapping photos as though she’d spied some exotic animal on safari. I could not make this up.
Another day this summer, I was hiking into the campsite I worked at, the handle of my axe protruding from my backpack. I walked by a man and we greeted each other mindlessly with the standard, “How are you, have a great hike, beautiful day for it,” etc. etc. I saw his eyes flit about as he did a double-take and I knew what he was about to ask before he asked it:
“Is that an axe?”
“What in the world do you need an axe for?” He practically barked, his tone startlingly accusatory.
“I’m the Liberty Springs caretaker.”
“Well,” he said, “isn’t that just special.”
It is NOT special. It is not special that I am a woman, working in the backcountry, carrying an axe that I happen to know how to use. I insist that this ceases to be a novelty to men and women, now. Right now.
Backcountry campsite caretaking has provided me with a unique opportunity to become an intimate observer of human interactions, unbridled from the restraints and pressures that are present in daily, ordinary life in the front-country. The backcountry has a curious way of magnifying a person’s beliefs and perceptions. Despite the artificial pretense that sexism is becoming an antiquated occurrence and that women have supposedly become liberated from patriarchal entanglements in this modern age, gender bias is still highly prevalent, and noticeable, in the backcountry.
As a female caretaker, I am often the focal point of these interactions that highlight gender bias, whether in blatant or more subtle ways. In fact, there are times when male hikers have aggressively made me acutely and uncomfortably aware of the fact that historically, wilderness has been the realm of men, not women. Fostering “primitive” survival skills has long been reified as a hyper-masculine pursuit, often regarded as a coming-of-age ritual for young boys (i.e, Boy Scouts, an organization which was arguably formed to combat societal tensions that arose as women began entering the workforce, thus threatening the at-the-time perception of masculinity.) Once, doubly inspired by the cool snow fort shelters that my Boy Scout brothers and friends were building, I decided to check out a local Girl Scout group, eager to tie knots, build shelters, and go hiking. We had a dance class and baked cookies. I never went back.
I’ve had countless interactions with male hikers who, as their reaction to a young woman daring to loom over them as a backcountry authority, have resorted to insults, offensive comments and uncooperative behaviors, as if I posed some sort of threat to their perhaps teetering senses of man-selves. I have been accused of not knowing what I am “talking about.” I have been aggressively yelled at and insulted, passive aggressively belittled, and I have been accused of being insufficiently domestic. One woman recently behaved personally offended by the fact that I was shirking my familial duties as a woman to go “hang out in the woods.” She was very assertive about clarifying that she liked her family too much do a job like this, she had too many responsibilities for something so frivolous, and she warned me that it was going to be “pretty hard” for me to meet a future husband of my own with a job like this one, the ultimate travesty of all, apparently. Evidently my non-hegemonic behavior caused some form of inner turmoil for her, and I am sure she had no idea just how much her words betrayed her own anxieties regarding her role in our world. She would not have made these comments if I had been sporting a beard or a phallus.
Many people may not be aware that certain language presents itself for analysis as well; our words and behaviors, perhaps seemingly casual and insignificant, are encoded with meaning, and upon dissection, reveal a great deal about our presumptions and biases. Questions such as “How do they get your food up here? What do they want us to do with all our trash? What do they do with those bins behind the outhouse? Do they give you any free time up here?” The subtle replacement of “you” with “they” is not inconsequential; it indicates a dismissal of the possibility that I, a female, operate with any sort of autonomy or independence in the backcountry and that obviously there must be an external, presumably male, “They” that governs my every move (I pack in my own food—yes, all 10 days’ worth at a time; I would like you to pack out your own trash, thank you; I use those bins for composting human waste – yes, me. I do that. My schedule is self-directed, according to my own judgement.)
There are infinite anecdotes and observations I could share that would further demonstrate my point—it’d take a novel. Ultimately, by the way, I am not sharing these observations as complaints; in fact, these experiences are incredible openings to develop a keener awareness of the intricacies of the male vs. female dichotomy as it plays out in the wilderness—an awareness that can help me, personally, work to improve the backcountry experience for everyone (including myself) It would be very easy, for example, to feel offended by a hiker’s incredulousness upon learning of my occupation that involves living in the woods alone for 10 days at a time as a woman, and even more so when he or she expresses doubt about my abilities, the implication being that I am a fragile little flower requiring paternal supervision and care. However, I have learned to take these experiences as lessons in meeting people where they’re at. It’s important for me to understand that hikers from varying generations or varying cultures have worldviews that have been sculpted, molded and formulated differently from my own views regarding gender. Likewise, hikers have a diverse range of backcountry abilities, and here, too I must learn to meet people where they’re at. Sometimes the most environmentally-destructive visitors are simply novices, unaware of their impact. Having said that, I refuse to accept an unwillingness to improve one’s self-awareness. Social and environmental justice are deeply tied with sexist oppression.
I might add that in no way do these experience reflect the majority of my interactions with visitors at my backcountry campsites. I have met countless amazing, interesting, kind, and generous people of all ages and genders who have helped make backcountry campsite caretaking a joyous, rewarding job—one the best I’ve ever had. Nonetheless, the sometimes hurtful experiences targeting my gender provide invaluable lessons for men and women to continue expanding their notions of masculinity and femininity as an avenue for creating a more pleasant outdoor experience for all humans partaking in outdoor recreation. Regardless of the presence of certain reproductive organs, both established- and budding-outdoor enthusiasts should have the right to enter the backcountry as an empowering, positive and rewarding experience, unhampered by gender-based expectations that could potentially diminish the experience and deter people from the pursuit altogether. I am no longer tolerant of men making comments such as “your boyfriend/husband/dad lets you do this? I would NEVER let MY girlfriend/wife/daughter do this job.” I can accept the occurrence of differing views, of course, for the world is full of diverse Ways of Seeing— but I will not smile, bat my eyelashes, and giggle at the unamusing, sexist remarks of men simply for the sake of avoiding hurting their feelings. This is something I no longer do, and I will argue that this does not make me a cold, untactful person—it is a behavior that fosters self-respect, and I encourage it in all women, regardless of whether you are working in the wilderness or the not-wilderness. We are not here to serve as the amusements/novelties/ego-boosters/accomplices of men. We are here to work. We are here to stay.
In the end, helping to create an enjoyable, fulfilling adventure in nature for women will only serve the environment. Wilderness is a sacred space. By developing a broader awareness of our own implicit biases and by keeping ourselves in check, we can increase accessibility to these sacred, pure, places, without this sense that those who don’t embody the stereotypical white male explorer don’t belong. We can then, ultimately, impassion more and more visitors to the White Mountains to incorporate environmental stewardship and love for the earth into their lives. Everyone wins. Yay!