This evening I raced over to the Sacramento REI five minutes before closing to pick up a Therm-a-Rest for next week's backpacking trip to the canyon country of southeastern Utah. My current Therm-a-Rest finally gave up the ghost in Alaska last year, and I quickly realized that there are a great many more options in semi-inflatable sleeping pads these days. The biggest surprise was that there are now Therm-a-Rests made specifically for women and that they are, of all things, pink.
'I think the green one is better,' my feminist friend Lucy said. Lucy never goes camping and couldn't care less about Therm-a-Rests, but she had endured a harrowing race across town in my car, and I could tell that the pink embarrassed her.
'The green one is better,' I said. 'It is also almost a pound heavier, and when you've got a pack on your back for eight straight hours, that pound can make a big difference.'
'At first we resisted the pink,' I told the woman at the cash register. 'Then we decided to embrace it.'
A smile of recognition spread across her face. 'Good call,' she said.
She and I were about the same age, and I could tell that we had probably both spent a good portion of our lives running around the wilderness, trying to prove we were as tough as the boys.
'I have spent so many years trying to be a man out there,' I said. 'I think this decade I want to go out there as a woman.'
Including next week, I will have been on five weeklong expeditionary trips this year. What is true about all of these trips (and almost never true about trips I took a decade ago) is that everything about them went smoothly. We didn't run out of food, we didn't suffer from heat exhaustion or hypothermia, and we didn't lose any gear. There were no tidal waves, lightning strikes, or blizzards; no one got lost or cut off a thumb; no one fell into a crevasse; and no one came anywhere close to drowning. What is also true about these trips is that they were conceived, organized, and enjoyed almost entirely by women.
Coincidence, you say. Accident of timing. I couldn't agree with you more. Sometimes no matter how well you prepare, no matter how conservative your decision making, no matter how few Y chromosomes are along on your trip, you can still find yourself in a mud slide or a hurricane without a dry piece of clothing to your name. But those of us who have given our time and usually our hearts to outdoorsmen over the years know that, for many of them, it's not really a wilderness trip unless, MacGyver-like, they have to make a fire out of a pair of shorts, a glow stick, and a ketchup bottle; it's not really an adventure until someone gets airlifted out.
We were the girls who followed those guys down the class 5 rapids at high water, up the backcountry slope tetchy for an avalanche, and into the desert without a water bottle. We threw ourselves into the wilderness because we wanted our minds and our bodies to be challenged, and if we broke a few bones in the process, it was all in the name of personal growth. Sure, we wanted to prove to those boys that we could keep up with them, but we wanted to prove it to ourselves even more. We pushed ourselves to the limit because we needed to know what our limits felt like; and if sometimes we let the boys define the challenge, it was just a step on the way to learning how to define the challenge for ourselves.
Many of us have lived to be older and, I would like to think, wiser. The list of challenges I am willing to engage has been amended (bungee jumping, for instance, is gone), as has the way I think about the word challenge itself. If I were to make a list of challenges from 20 years ago, the first two might be ski 100 days this year and raft Cataract Canyon at high water. This year's items might read be grateful and breathe. It's not even that I spend much less time outside than I used to, but these days when I am out there I ask myself questions I never had the courage to ask before. Why am I here? Why am I scared? What can I do to feel better?
Tomorrow I will drive to Moab to meet a group of young women who want to go into the wilderness together and try their skills at writing. If I could turn back the clock and tell the girl I was 20 years ago one thing, it would be: Even though you don't know it yet, you get to decide what happens. Tomorrow I will tell the women: Learn to love your pink Therm-a-Rest. Learn to love the woman in yourself.
Reprinted from Women's Adventure (July/Aug. 2006). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from 709 Baseline Rd., Boulder, CO 80303.