Essay by Jen A. Miller, author of “Running: A Love Story” Views expressed are the opinions of the author.
After hiking in a canyon at Ghost Ranch, a central New Mexico retreat that was both home to Georgia O’Keeffe and the filming location of “City Slickers”, I bought a cup of coffee and called my mom to update her on my trip. “Stay safe!” she said as a sign off.
Ah yes, “stay safe,” a warning that has been flung at me by everyone from a waitress in Taos, N.M., to a grocery store cashier in Grand Junction, Colo., to a family riding the shuttle in Zion National Park to an Uber driver in Flagstaff, Ariz., who, when I told him that I was spending the summer seeing the 18 states I hadn’t been to yet, tacked on “that’s quite an adventure, especially for a girl like you.”
Most mean well, but this phrase is often tied in a pink ribbon because I am a woman and I am doing this alone. Every “stay safe!” is another pass with the belt sander to remind me that I am putting myself at risk by doing this — as if I don’t know that. I live in the United States, where women have been groomed to live in a steady state of fear for having the audacity to do anything while female. Go to work? Sexual harassment! Go to a bar? Rape! Walk by yourself? Rape again! And forget the people doing the harassing and raping. It’s probably your fault because you wore something colorful. Or you didn’t take that self-defense class. Or didn’t go for a run with a gun stuffed into your sports bra.
But travel the country by myself? Well. Apparently, a hellscape has yawned opened before me, ready to swallow up me and my Jeep because I’m doing something other than locking myself in a house with a husband and a gun.
But here’s the thing: I’m no less safe camping in New Mexico or hiking in Colorado or sitting at a luau in Hawaii than I am at home. I was hit by a drunk driver in my hometown. My breasts and butt were grabbed while I was running a quarter-mile away from where I lived at the time. I was held up at gunpoint one block from my college campus. Four days before I was almost run off the road in Colorado by a truck driver who didn’t like my driving, 18 year-old Bianca Roberson was shot and killed for the same thing in West Goshen, Pa., a half-hour from where my dad lives.
Even if I did do what I’m “supposed” to do — get married so a man would protect me — that’s no guarantee for safety either. One in three women have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner. A gun won’t save me either. It wouldn’t have when I was mugged in college, and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation raises risk of homicide by 500 percent.
The solution to women being at risk for all of these awful things isn’t to hem in ambitious women by reminding them of what couldhappen. It’s to change our violent, misogynist culture, to both stop making women targets and blaming them for it, and to root out the cause for this country’s penchant for violence. I’m not holding my breath on the last one, not when I live in a country where a predator is president and where in some states I can buy an unlimited quantity of guns but not Sudafed.
After my mom told me to “stay safe!” that morning, I replied “What do you think I’m going to do, do a line of coke and base jump off the canyon rim?” My mom, since she’s my mom, gets a pass and a joke instead of the tight lips and flat stare I’ve developed as a response when strangers to say this to me, or, as was the case when a man asked me if I lost my husband while hiking up a mountain in Utah, the snap back of “I already pushed him off.”
After I said goodbye to mom, I drove to Bode’s, a general store, restaurant and gas station, to get a sandwich and wait for my Airbnb host. A few hours later, a security guard was shot and killed there while getting gas, a random victim of a shooting spree that took five lives, including that of the alleged shooter’s mother, stepfather and brother, over a dispute about a truck.
I’ve been on the road for six weeks. In that time, I’ve run up a 192-foot tall sand dunes in Indiana, swam at a topless pool in Las Vegas and a waterfall in Hawaii, and hiked more miles and trails and mountains than I can count.
I’ve got nine more weeks to go, and a big, wide country still to see. It’s not a perfect place — it’s often violent, especially to someone like me who was born with the audacity to have breasts and wanderlust. But I’m not going to let that stop me from seeing it, no matter how many warnings strangers and my mother throw at me along the way.