Friday, September 18, 2009

Women on the road

by Emily Sullivan

Months ago I wrote a piece about hitchhiking for women. I mentioned that it is not as scary as everyone thinks, and that female hitchers have some pretty great advantages. This summer I put my money where my mouth is, and any expectations I had were overwhelmingly exceeded.

I rode my bike from Seattle to Los Angeles, clocking 1600 miles in just over a month. From Seattle to San Francisco I traveled with my friend Melissa, and the rest I rode alone. We were definitely a rarity—a vast majority of fellow bike travelers were men, and all the women we met on the road were traveling with a guy.

Trading stories with other bike tourists made it obvious to me that my adventure was quite different. Stealth camping on the side of the highway—while an essential part of the trip to achieve any degree of street cred—was a huge part of the adventure for most. My adventure was in the many ways I was able to minimize the amount of camping I had to do. Pastors, college students, cowboys, chefs, marijuana horticulturalists, writers, bike mechanics, and nuclear physicists are among the many incredible strangers who welcomed me into their homes. People who had never picked up hitchers before gave me a ride. Old people really enjoyed giving me their extra food. I barged into people’s lives unexpectedly and--with any luck--broke down the walls of fear that shelter people away from one another. I was able to do this in large part because of my gender.

I’m 5’6”, 130 lbs, and built pretty strong. A fellow camper noted one night that I had the burliest leg muscles he’d ever seen. I’m white and had reddish hair cut into a mohawk and usually hidden behind a bandana. Melissa, on the other hand, is itty bitty. She is also white with short bleach blonde hair. I give you our descriptions to demonstrate that we are not an intimidating pair by any means. That said, I was stronger than many of the guys touring, and generally felt just as well equipped to defend myself as anyone else on the road.

It is fair to say that even though I am just as equipped to handle a dangerous situation, I am also a more likely target to be fucked around with. This is true. But people who are looking to fuck with college-aged females are much more likely to be on college campuses than on some random part of Highway 1. Put it this way: if I want to go fishing, I’ll go where there are fish. The road can be a dangerous place, but so can our campuses and neighborhoods. The world is so much safer than we are conditioned to believe, and we can rely on each other.

There is a short list of the worst things that could possibly happen while bike touring. One thing is taking a spill and needing to go to the hospital. Check. Another is having a mechanical issue that I couldn’t repair on the road. Check. The incredible goodwill of strangers made it possible to overcome these setbacks, and learning to trust, rely, and depend on people is among the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned.

Check out the experience of another female solo traveler, as chronicled by The New York Times.

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