Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is bravery?

I keep coming back to this question, because for some reason, people keep telling me that I am brave because I spent six months on the Appalachian Trail.  Whenever I’m confronted with someone making this statement, I respond with the following question: Why?  The answers I receive are, I think, very insightful about the fears held by the people who are applauding me for bravery, and say very little about me.  They tell me it’s because I’m a woman alone, or it’s because of bears, or it’s because the woods are a very scary place to be, regardless of gender.  In Pearisburg, Virginia, a woman I was chatting with called me brave, and then proceeded to tell me it was because there was a serial killer in those parts who preyed on thru-hikers, a topic which Bill Bryson was surprisingly remiss to cover in “A Walk in the Woods”( probably because it isn’t true).  I usually respond to these reasons by pointing out the following: being a woman in the woods isn’t any scarier than being a woman in a city (and furthermore, you’re only alone on the AT when you really want to be), that bears are less scary than the ticks (Lyme disease felled or harmed a number of people I knew on the trail), and finally, that, for me, the woods are not a scary place to be (unlike, for example, a bar full of pretentiously dressed young masters of the universe on the prowl for fresh meat) (That's a Bonfire of the Vanities, reference, and not a He-Man one).  No, I would always, respond, I’m not brave for those reasons.  

In fact, the bravest things I did in the past year was off trail; on January 2nd, I walked into my supervisor’s office and asked for a leave of absence.  I didn’t know what to expect when I told him that I wanted to spend the majority of the spring, summer, and half of the fall living in the woods, but suspected that this was the right path for me, at the time.  The past two years were incredibly hard ones, involving habitual lack of sleep, over committing myself to volunteering, coping with a seriously ill parent, and some questionable decision making that resulted from all of the above.  Spending six months on the AT, I figured, would help me sort that jumbled mess of awfulness into order, and would give me the time to process and recover.  Also, I knew I’d be catching up on the sleep I’d missed.  When I walked into my supervisor’s office, I knew I was committed to this path, and that I would be hiking the AT, regardless of his answer, despite my reluctance to leave a good job with an excellent company.  With the economy suffering as much as it is, that’s fucking bravery. 

(My supervisor granted me a leave of absence.  I return to work on Monday, October 31st, and I'm so very thankful for this.)


  1. Congratulations on getting the job back.

    The whole bravery thing is weird. It's a comment women probably get more than men, but I got it too.

    I chalk it up to the fact that most people have no idea what happens in the woods. Even people that go "camping," don't have a sense of what living in the woods for 4-6 months is OR is not. The 100 mile wilderness might as well be on Mars.

    So, after a while I just nodded my head, "yup, I'm a brave dude."

  2. I think the thing I thought was brave was the leaving the work world part, not the going into the woods part.