There are two questions I have been asked more than any others about my van travels, and I am sick of them.
“Are you scared to travel on your own?”
“What do your parents think?”
Here’s how I answer the first one, usually: “Not at all. I’ve been traveling on my own since I was 13.” But what I’m thinking is, “Do I look scared to you? If I were a man, would you ask me that?”
And here’s how I answer the second one, usually: “They think it’s great.” What I want to say is, “I’m an adult. Even if they didn’t like it, I would have done it anyway. They were far less scared about me traveling on my own than they were of the crippling depression I was experiencing at college.”
It reminds me a lot of my court appearance after being arrested for trespassing to blockade a gas storage facility in Upstate New York. After I plead guilty and refused to pay my fine, the elderly judge realized that this “girl” was ready to accept jail time. He leaned forward in his seat and looked down at me over the rims of his glasses and asked in a soft voice, “Do your parents know what you’re doing?” As if he had discovered a five-year-old on the playground smearing mud all over her face and clothes while her mother was distracted.
These questions are asked innocently, mostly by older folks, but occasionally by women my own age. I don’t get frustrated with the askers. But I do get boiling angry with the culture that supports the underlying assumptions of these questions: women should be scared to travel and be on their own, adventure is for men, and women need more parental protection.
Yes, women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted and preyed upon than men. However, the odds of being assaulted or killed by a stranger are quite low — remember: most sexual assaults on women happen at the hands of someone they know. The solution is not discouraging women to be on their own. The solution is to teach men to respect her and not prey upon her, while also equipping her to fight back against the culture that wants to shelter her.
And let’s be clear: I don’t need to go very far at all to be scared for my well-being. I was verbally accosted and inappropriately approached by more men, drunk and sober, on my college’s campus and around Ithaca, than anywhere else I have ever been. My mother bartends at a sports bar fifteen minutes away from my childhood home. I have left that establishment on a couple of occasions because of older men leering at me, even with my mother right there.
People aren’t used to women traveling on their own. Nearly all of the women travelers I follow on social media are accompanied by their male partners. When I enter the traveling section of a library or bookstore, I am always disappointed to find shelves full of male authors. The historic idea that men were the adventurers and discoverers has not left us.
So instead of being asked, “What was your inspiration for this trip? How did you set up your van? What advice do you have?” I am left with the underwhelming and derogatory question about whether or not my parents approve of what I’m doing.
I flew from New York to Arizona and back when I was 13. I spent three weeks in Europe when I was 14 without my parents. At age 19, I spent five months walking 1,800 miles from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. When I was a college sophomore and I wanted to cover an event in Alabama over spring break for the student newspaper, I was told my school could give no financial support — in fact, I couldn’t even be affiliated with the college because of liabilities. To this, I simply replied, “Give me a day or two.” I fundraised the money I needed to go in a little over 24 hours and went anyway. And then I did the same thing as a junior, except it was to go to California, and I saved money by sleeping in my tent out on a desert wash instead of paying for a hotel or a campsite.
Why on Earth, after all of that, would anyone think I’d be scared to fly solo, or that I’m not responsible or old enough to make these decisions for myself?
Instead of asking women about where they’re afraid to go, let’s ask them about where they want to go and where they have already been. Those questions will yield much more rewarding conversations, and maybe even teach you a thing or two about how to have a damn good adventure.
And while we’re at it, let’s rewrite the “happy ending” we have seen in every movie, where our female protagonist falls into the arms of her dreamy knight savior. Instead of a white horse and a man controlling the reins, I like to ride off into the sunset in my brown van, solo, and with my own two hands on the steering wheel.