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Reflections on “Windswept” – Walking and Solitude

You’ve probably heard that walking is good for you, for many reasons. It’s a weight-bearing exercise, so it’s good for your bones. It improves your cardiovascular health… can help with joint pain… and reduce stress. Plus, it often clears your mind and inspires creativity.

But despite all these benefits, most well-known nature walkers are men. Henry David Thoreau, Werner Herzog, John Muir, William Wordsworth, etc.

What about the women?

That question was the impetus behind Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs. She sought to learn about women who walked, but not for exercise or out of necessity.

“These women walked in order to find minds of their own. They walked for emotional restitution. They walked to understand the capabilities of their own bodies. They walked to assert their independence. The walked to become.” (pp. xxiv-xxv)

I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s got me thinking more about walking and thinking about it differently.

Challenges for women walkers

One of the main underlying threads of the book is that women who want to walk face many challenges that don’t apply to men.

Physical differences are a big one. It’s not particularly fun to hike when you have your period, and it’s also more difficult to find a spot to pee, at least in part because women are usually more concerned about not being seen. Some men want privacy, too, but others don’t have any problems with people seeing them pee, as I recall from my time in the Galapagos when one guy peed off the side of the dinghy.

At least these days, it’s acceptable for women to wear pants and not squeeze themselves into corsets, but that wasn’t true of earlier women.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is fear, for two reasons. One is that a woman alone is pretty much guaranteed to experience harassment from men, and quite possibly worse. In earlier times, since no “respectable” woman would go out on her own like that, the assumption was that any woman walking wasn’trespectable, which opened the door to more abuse.

Even now, most women have experienced some problems when trying to go out on their own, though the reality is that this happens much more often in urban areas or close to home. In woods and nature settings, while this can happen, it’s not nearly as common.

And so Abbs reminds us: “Instead of letting fear restrain us, we must… press on, reclaiming the countryside and the wilderness for ourselves, for our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters.” (p. 94)

But even if you can get around that challenge, the other looming concern is injury. This can be a problem for anyone hiking or walking alone, although I think it’s raised as a concern more for women. Certainly, many people commented that I “shouldn’t” have been alone last summer when I fell and injured my ankle. But in reality, even if my friend had been with me, he couldn’t have done much except offer moral support.

Plus, telling women that they shouldn’t go out alone is distinctly unhelpful because being alone is the very reason many of these women wanted to walk.

Craving solitude

The desire for solitude has come up a few times in the book, even in the first third.

One of the women the author discussed, Clara Vyvyan, wanted to spend much of the time by herself, or at least in silence with a companion, but then have someone to discuss things with at the end of the day. That sounds like a good approach to me.

Another of the women, Gwen John, was more focused on solitude. As Abbs described it: “[Gwen’s] overriding need was not to make friends or cultivate family, but to make sense and order of her life…. For this she needed solitude.” (p. 72)

In retracing some of Gwen’s walk, Abbs began to think more about solitude as well. She started to notice how much pressure social media can cause, with the expectation that she’d “like” or comment on posts. Abbs also has four children, so the demands of motherhood made solitude both desirable and difficult to attain.

And she commented on how women alone are viewed with a certain distrust. Women after often expected to be partnered up, or seeking a partner, or being a mother, or caring for a family member, or some combination of the above. Those who want to be alone may be considered weird or worse.

And yet, solitude is important, particularly to creativity. Virginia Woold knew this when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. Men have often been allowed to be in solitude, and they have embraced it and the creativity that flourishes from it.

But it’s not only about creativity. Abbs notes: “[Time spent alone] gives us a greater sense of freedom. It deepens our relationship to the spiritual and the natural. It helps us understand who we are.” (p. 77)

In our hyper-connected world, it can sometimes be hard to allow yourself to be alone. I struggle with this, too, since I sometimes listen to podcasts while walking, so even though I’m physically alone, I’m not really in solitude.

But I’m going to try to change that, to resist the urge of having “background noise” or checking my phone for emails or texts or the weather or whatever else. So I can embrace the solitude and freedom, and help to normalize women walking in solitude.

Many reasons to walk

So, it’s clear that you can find many reasons to walk. You might want to get out for your health, for some time alone, to admire the natural world, or have time to order your thoughts. Or maybe all of those reasons, or something else.

But for whatever reason that you walk, I hope that at least a little solitude can be part of that. It may be a little uncomfortable at first, but once you get past that, it’s so rewarding.


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