Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, by Suzanne Roberts
Day one and hiker Suzanne Roberts was already lying in her journal. Sign me up.
I am very drawn to true stories about women who take on multi-day through-hikes, be it as a solo adventure or with other females in tow. Perhaps this started with the discovery of Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Since then, I have read more books like this. The obvious assumption would be that perhaps this is something I need to do as a lone female or with other lone females. I have done some incredible multi-day small group hikes in the Alps (Mont Blanc), Nepal (the Himalaya) and Laos (a somewhat unpleasant leech and bee-infested hike in the jungle which you do not want the link for) and there are a few more of these trips coming my way in the very near future. However, there is something about these American through-hikes that speaks to me – the Pacific Crest Trail, the Wonderland Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and now the John Muir Trail in California. If you are unfamiliar, a through-hike is end-to-end hiking from one end of the trail to the other. Distances are long and it often takes weeks, if not months to complete.
I recently read Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, by Suzanne Roberts. I loved it. In 1993, after graduating from college, Suzanne and her two girlfriends decided to hike the 211 mile John Muir Trail, tackling nine passes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. One of her girlfriends was an experienced and confident hiker while the other was a complete newbie. She also had bulimia which added a very different element to their journey.
Suzanne is a very honest writer, and is funny and self-deprecating, all qualities I admire. There was something different about her story compared to similarly themed books from other female adventurers. While some merely dip their toe into the water in terms of the differences men and women face in the wild, Suzanne tackles it head on. She discussed how many of the hiking books she had read were narrated through a very male lens. She was actually re-reading John Muir’s book, My First Summer in the Sierra while on this hike, taking in the very same mountains, views and terrain that he had. Her frustration grew when she felt like she wasn’t capturing the same experience he had written about until she realized that, try as she might, she could not relate to his perspective of being in nature because she was a woman.
“During the long hours of hiking, I debated with the ghosts of John Muir, trying to see the Sierra the way he did, as a vast range of light. But I couldn’t adopt his vision, at least not wholly. I needed to find my own vision, my own language for the landscape.” (Suzanne Roberts, Almost Somewhere).
While her description of the hike (the good, the bad and the ugly) fed my adventurous self, I was most drawn to this exploration of the female experience. A relationship to the mountains and to nature is inevitable on a multi-day trek and is a glorious part of the journey. It becomes an environment where you can go in and out of feeling empowered, liberated, humbled, safe, unsafe, courageous, confident and vulnerable at any time. We are nothing compared to the forces of nature. However, there are even more factors at play for women. Feeling alive and being at one with nature can suddenly turn to anxiety and fear when an unwelcome male hiker (or hikers) appears out of nowhere, and ends up tagging along for an hour, a day, a week. This can create some mental gymnastics for women, determining how best to navigate this situation in addition to general survival out in the wild. When you are finally able to go your separate ways, you still know they are out there somewhere on the trail. Not to say that all male hikers are of this persuasion, but let’s be honest, there are a few not-so-lovelies out there from time to time. An environment that felt both empowering and liberating can immediately feel the complete opposite. Sorry to alienate male readers, but to throw in another variable that can alter your glorious nature connection, having your period on a hiking trip also creates different needs, discomforts, concerns, and even day-to-day routines that of course, impact women only and their relationship to these surroundings.
Perhaps what was most interesting was Suzanne’s discovery about being out there with two other women at a time when the outdoors was truly seen as a male space. We have been socialized to believe that women are safer with a man on a trip like this (and let’s face it, on lots of different kinds of trips) and to often defer to their decisions in what is deemed a male environment. Although Suzanne and her friends did have a male companion with them at the beginning of their hike, they realized that once he left and they adjusted to it being just the three of them (and to stop the innate competition women have with one another), they were actually more in tune with themselves, each other and nature, making this the best outcome for safety, survival and even happiness.
“We had to learn how to deal with each other. The need to prove ourselves in the back country, a largely male world at the time, put us into competition with each other, resulting in arguments over how much food to eat or how many miles to hike each day. But as we hiked, we found that what we needed was community, not competition and that being in nature didn’t have to be about conquer, it could be about connection.” (Suzanne Roberts, Almost Somewhere)
Maybe my point here, and certainly Suzanne’s, is that early books about adventure have often been written by men, and let’s be honest, white men. This creates a narrative that not everyone can relate to, and one may find that their experience differs from that of the very author that led them there. What I loved about this story was Suzanne’s unbridled honesty about this very topic. She so badly wanted to feel the same way John Muir did about the Sierra Nevada mountains, about the landscape and about her connection to nature. I loved her realization that her experience couldn’t be his. Part of this is due to the fact that, well, she is not him, we are all unique and see things in our own way. The other part is that this male narrative cannot be compared to the female experience. Maybe there is hesitation for women to be so honest about this, but I applaud it. We are in fact, different. It gives people of all walks of life the power to acknowledge that their own individual experiences are valid and don’t need to replicate the collective. More than ever these days, adventure is and must be for everyone. Adventure needs to be built on more than one story.
“I finally realized that the going and getting there were never the point. That when we’re always almost somewhere, we can’t be happy where we are.” (Suzanne Roberts, Almost Somewhere)