I imagine myself to be an adventurous, brave, badass woman. I have gone backpacking for months, hiked off-trail in remote places, dropped over thirty southern Utah slot canyons, skied over 25 days last season while finishing graduate school and working part time, and I’m not a strong climber but I have climbed countless pitches. I’m not a one sport athlete. I’m the kind of person who can decently participate in a handful of activities. I like it that way. Sure, it means I’m not doing anything super extreme at a high level, but it means my year is filled with adventure regardless of the season, and we certainly never get bored.
Something I’ve struggled with since moving back to southern Utah is loneliness. For the purposes of this post, the kind of loneliness I’m talking about is wanting to go hiking, or climbing, or backpacking, or just explore a new area and not having anyone to accompany me. The reasons vary, but most of my friends work an 8 on/6 off schedule. So every other week I find myself spending most of my time alone. Sometimes I find trips or places I want to go, but because people are in the field or their schedules don’t match with mine, I end up flying solo. I’ve been working hard not to let that solitude stop me from doing things I enjoy.
So this weekend, I had a reason to be in the Northern part of the state to visit a friend passing through, and felt like I should make a weekend out of it since I was devoting eight hours of driving round trip. I did some internet research and decided a late Fall overnight backpacking trip in the Wasatch was piquing my interest! I dabble in lots of outdoor activities, but backpacking is my favorite for many reasons. I’ve always preferred backpacking with companions, but I continued to make the argument to myself that I shouldn’t stop myself from checking out a beautiful new place just because I would be on my own.
The first time I embarked on a solo backpacking trip was in 2012, which is a story for another time. Moral of the story, I did not enjoy it. I was in a very familiar and loved place, and still I was so anxious and scared of something going wrong that it ruined the joy that I usually experience from getting a few days into the backcountry. I was aware of that going into this weekend, but I figured keeping it to one night would ease some of those anxieties. Saturday morning rolled around, and I wasn’t feeling it. My alarm went off, we drove to the trailhead in the dark, and I begrudgingly packed my things. I figured I would pack for two days and make a decision once I was out there. I didn’t have to stay overnight, but at least with everything in my pack I’d have the option.
It was a crisp, cool morning. A cold front had blown in on Friday and there was frost and a dusting of snow on the last golden leaves of fall clinging to the trees. I hit the trail, my trusty canine companion thrilled to be outside and wandering together. The air was crisp and the sun was lighting up the tops of the mountains as it crested the horizon. It was a beautiful start to the day. I was feeling anxious but pushed through it, I was in a truly beautiful place, I didn’t need to worry.
An hour-and-a-half in, and about two miles into the trail, I rounded a steep switchback, looked up, and practically ran into a mother moose with two adolescent calves. It took a moment to process, but as soon as it did my body went into fight or flight mode. I have seen grizzly bears in the backcountry before, but moose are way scarier to me. I made sure to keep Brindley right beside me and quickly backed away. Once out of sight I ran down the trail, adrenaline getting the best of me. I stopped when I felt I was in the clear, caught my breath, and took a moment to think. At this point in the trail, there’s no option other than the trail itself. There were three LARGE moose on the trail, not going anywhere anytime soon. My options were limited. My adrenaline was still high, and my fears about spending a night in the woods alone had returned full force. I realized I wasn’t having fun. Had I had a friend along with me, we could have laughed about the scenario and brainstormed a solution. But once I realized I wasn’t having fun, I gave myself permission to bail.
On my hike back to the car, I encountered a number of hikers and warned them of the trail obstacle ahead so they wouldn’t be caught off guard as I was. I noticed I was feeling a great deal of shame. I’m this adventurous wilderness woman, I should enjoy solo backpacking trips, I shouldn’t be deterred by some moose, right?! But who says? I can be a wild, exciting, adventurous outdoorswoman and also not enjoy solo backpacking. That’s allowed.
I made it back to the car, still processing my feelings about my self-image in the outdoors. As I unpacked my backpack and repacked the truck, I made plans for the morning, and one of the men I passed on the trail returned to the lot as well only to tell me that he made the same decision. There was nowhere to go but backwards, and he wasn’t about to confront a mother moose. I felt incredibly validated in that moment, I wasn’t wimping out because of my own anxieties.
If there’s a moral to this story it’s to be gentle with yourselves. There are so many images of extremely badass, impressive people doing things outside on social media, it can be easy to compare myself. But not enjoying solo backpacking doesn’t damage the legitimacy of my wild woman self-perception. I don’t have to force myself to do things to prove to myself or anyone else that I am a wild-eyed wanderer, a wild woman at heart. From now on, I’ll only do it if it’s fun. My free time is way too precious.