I got to the campsite earlier than usual. I pulled my bike up to the check-in window. I didn’t see anyone inside the booth but the lights were on so I knocked on the window. Nothing happened, but I heard people talking. I walked around to the other side where I found two men wearing uniform green polos. One was young and thin perhaps college-aged. The other was middle-aged with a beard and a belly. They greeted me warmly. We walked back to the check-in window where I filled out some forms.
I hadn’t talked much that day and I was feeling particularly chatty. I asked if the campground usually booked up on the weekends. I asked if they saw many bike tourists. I suggested that they set aside a site for campers who are hiking or biking. The middle-aged man with a belly graciously accepted my feedback and gave me a form so I could send it on to the higher-ups. Then he gave me a map and showed me where my campsite was. “I put you over here by yourself. I hope that’s okay,” he said.
This seemed strange to me and it caught me off guard. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “that’s fine.” I wanted to appear cool.
I took the map and rode back to the campground. It was set up in four loops that made a clover shape. There was a bathroom in between each leaf. The first loop was mostly full of RVs and some tents. The second loop–my loop–was empty. My assigned site was as the tip of the leaf. I was separated from all of the other campers by several empty sites and lots of tall trees. I decided this site was too far away. I went back to the first loop. There were a few open sites there. I picked a small one. I parked my bike and started cooking dinner. Halfway through my meal the middle-aged man with a belly drove up on a golf cart. I smiled at him. I said, “The other site was a little too far away. Is this one okay?”
The man said, “Unfortunately no. This site is reserved. I’ve got some people arriving any minute.”
“Oh, okay,” I said.
“What about that site on the other side of the bathroom?” He asked.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Thank you.”
I moved my things in two trips. The new site was fine, just as I had said, but not quite ideal. I was in the second loop now, the empty loop. But I was at the first site in the loop. I was only separated from the first loop by the bathroom. But still I was separated. From my site I couldn’t see any other campers. My view was blocked by the bathroom. In any other situation this may not have been alarming to me, but this situation was getting stranger and stranger. I was even more suspicious when the campsite that I had left remained empty for the rest of the evening.
I lied in my tent wondering about this man’s interest in my personal belongings and his capacity for violence. In spite of this, I fell asleep easily. I woke up at about 2:30AM plagued by a pounding headache and fear. I was awake for hours. I checked my phone. I scrolled through Instagram. I watched the trees through the opening in my rain fly. I saw someone run down the paved camp road. It seemed strange but it was also reassuring that someone else was awake. I was awake until the sky started to light up. Then I fell back asleep. The end of this story is that nothing happened to me. I was totally fine. I never saw the middle-aged man with the belly again.
I got scared a lot on this trip. Maybe I was more susceptible because I spent most of the winter binge-watching Luther. But more likely it was because the route was one of the lesser traveled I’ve taken. On past trips I’d meet other cyclists almost every day. At night I squeezed into campsites in between two families with five children each. On this trip I met almost no other touring cyclists. Most campsites were quiet. One was completely empty. At most of them I never met any campground staff. I felt more alone. And more fearful.
When I tell people about my trips they often say, wow you’re so brave. And I smile and say thank you. But the truth is I get scared. And I don’t tell people about it because I think it makes me look weak. I don’t tell people about it because all of those men and women adventurers out there that I follow on Instagram–they never look scared. And I want to be like them.
But now that I’ve come out with it, I’m moving on to step two: managing it. I spent a lot of time on my trip questioning why I was scared, wondering if it was rational, trying to talk it down. It is the hardest thing about traveling alone. Not just the fear, but managing it.
I get frustrated because while I’m trying to manage this fear, there are some who tell me to perpetuate it. Near Livingston, New York I met a retired police officer at a gas station. He was very friendly and very kind and wished me all of the luck and signed off with a warning: you’re alone and you’re attractive: be careful.
It’s these kinds of statements that I am perpetually fighting in my head. I am told to fear strangers. I watch them with a suspicious eye. But the truth is most strangers are not out to get me. I’m much more likely to get hit by a car than I am to be murderer by a stranger in the middle of the night. In fact, the most dangerous part of my trip was probably biking down Myrtle with a fully loaded bike at 10PM on a Friday.
I don’t really know how to end this post concisely, since, on the one hand I’m saying that I meet some weirdos out there and sometimes the cars get a little close. And I get scared. But I’m also saying that I’m totally okay. Not a hitch, not a scratch, just a sunburn and some bug bites. Perhaps we can say of solo travel what we say of our work commutes or a visit to the theme park or a swim in the ocean: it goes totally fine except when it doesn’t. And once we see solo female travel as something that is normal rather than dangerous perhaps we can adjust our fear appropriately.