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Finding true self-reliance in the wilderness

After an 11 mile steep uphill hike, I crawled into my tent, shimmied down into my sleeping bag, Kindle in hand, and got cozy for the night. And then I heard a noise.

It was early November and the foliage was at its peak on the Ouachita Trail in southwest Arkansas, but that also meant that the leaves were dry and crunchy on the ground.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I began to breath heavily. Wasn’t I camped near Big Bear Shelter?

This was my first solo backpacking trip, and the proudness I felt at the beginning of the hike was slowly slipping away. I had one bar of cell service and there were two people I could call – my ex-boyfriend or the outdoor writer at the newspaper where I worked. Being that it was 9 p.m. on a Sunday, I opted not to call and bother my coworker.

My food was hung far away and I had nothing with a smell in the tent, so I was probably OK, I told myself.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Hey!” I yelled as loud as I could, and the crunching came to a sudden stop. I began to talk to my dog to make noise, and after a little while, I heard crunch, crunch, crunch again. I was hoping for a quickened and fading crunch, but whatever was out there was unfazed by my presence.

“Please God, don’t let it be a bear. What do you do if a bear comes to your tent? I don’t know,” I conversed with myself.

So I called my ex-boyfriend. So much for being brave. So much for being independent. So much for not needing anyone and living life on my own.

Only I didn’t get my ex-boyfriend. I had called his work cell phone number instead of his personal number by mistake, and a strange man answered the phone because he had a new job now. When I realized my mistake, and that I had called the person who had replaced my ex when he left his job, I said, “Hey, are you a forester? What do you do if you are camping alone and there might be a bear outside your tent!?” I didn’t give him time to hang up on me or brush me off.

I’m pretty sure I gave him a good laugh, because what I was terrified of was probably an armadillo. Even so, after getting off the phone with my helpful stranger, I put my audio book on speaker phone and listed to it until I fell asleep. You know, incase there was a bear nearby, at least there would be noise coming from my tent.

But you see this trip was not just about being brave against unruly armadillos, it was to prove something to myself, as well as my family, friends and the world. Backpacking solo for a woman is safe when done correctly. But even more importantly living your life solo doesn’t hold up to society stereo types either. It doesn’t mean you are sad and lonely.

I am 37 years old, and even though I’ve had a serious relationship I have never been married. If you listen to society, I am by definition a spinster.

Unfortunately, I did believe what society told me when I was younger. I honestly believed that when I got married, all my problems would simply go away. That was the key to happiness. Finding that one person that “completes you.”

But I failed to see the flaw in this ideology. If you are waiting for someone to complete you, then that implies that you are not a complete person.

Looking back on my first trip out west, I thought it was my then-boyfriend that made it so special. I now realize it was the majestic mountains and sense of place I fell in love with.

I moped around my 20s searching for Mr. Right and waiting on my life to start. But again, I failed to see that I had the power to take action. Instead of waiting for my life to start, I could easily start it myself.

And that is what I was doing alone with the armadillo that autumn night in the backcountry. I was choosing to complete myself and start my own life.

I technically camped alone one other time before that night, but that trip wasn’t a planned solo backpacking trip. My hiking partner and then-recent ex-boyfriend left just as the sun set. And I was fairly close to a developed campground. So I don’t really count that trip, because it wasn’t completely independent.

If I was devoted to being complete and not needing someone else to fulfill me, I had to be independent. I had to be able to do things on my own instead of sitting around the house waiting on someone to go with.

And my most loved activities are hiking, camping and backpacking.

I was a little nervous at first. What happens if I fall and break an ankle? Who will I talk to? Will I get as much joy out of the sunset if I don’t have anyone to share it with?

But then I found the more I day hiked by myself, the more I enjoyed it. I found I hiked faster and saw more wildlife because I wasn’t talking as much. I found that I noticed small beautiful things in nature more because I wasn’t distracted by other people. And I found I loved the solitude and time to myself.

Girls are taught from a young age in our culture that their worth comes from how much they can attract and keep a man. But women are so much more than that. We are smart, we are strong and we are independent.

I was terribly lonely in my 20s. I wanted to hike, camp and backpack, but I was single. If I wanted to do those things, I needed a man to go with me, right? Even on my “girls only” camping trips with friends, we caught flak. “I can’t believe you two girls are going off on your own,” people would say.

But then I met someone. He was a forester and super outdoorsy. I had never been backpacking before and it was something I had always wanted to do. I grew up reading “Backpacker Magazine,” and “Outdoor Photographer,” and now I had someone who would take me.

“My person that would ‘complete me,’” I thought. He – not me – would finally make me into the person I wanted to be. And now that I finally had a boyfriend, there was proof to the world that I was worth something.

But then the years went by and we didn’t actually ever go backpacking.

But I was in love. I started thinking about my life being married to him. We both talked about where we would live and what we would do if we got married.

And I really did want to be married to him, have children with him, and start a business with him: Trees and Bees, a tree farm and apiary. His business idea. His passion. Not mine. I do believe if we had gotten married, I would have been happy.

But I’m more happy with where my life took me – living as a spinster. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything wrong with getting married and having children. It’s just not for everyone. And I might get married someday.

I’m way more happy to have been published in “Backpacker Magazine” than to be running a business that wasn’t my passion

In my life, I dealt with loneliness. I thought if I just had a husband, I would never be lonely. But in the four years I was spent with my ex-boyfriend, I was still lonely.

My problems could not be solved with another person, because ultimately they were with me.

We broke up a month before I turned 31. I had already been bombarded with information about how a woman’s fertility greatly diminishes, apparently right on her 30th birthday. I worried I wouldn’t find anyone else before I turned into a spinster. I mean, it took me 27 years to find this one, and then four years to discover it wasn’t going to work out. How much longer was I going to have to wait?

But in all seriousness, the growth to independence had already begun while I was with my ex-boyfriend. I just hoped now that it was tested, I wouldn’t slip back into my old ways. However, one thing I learned in my relationship was that I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to complete myself and not rely on another person to carry me.

But a lifetime of believing I had to have another person to validate me and complete me, wasn’t going to change overnight. I was going to have to work for it and practice it.

And that was what I was doing on my first solo backpacking trip. I was forcing myself out of my comfort zone. Even though I was terrified of an armadillo, I proved to myself that I could survive on my own. And more importantly, I proved to myself that I would not die of loneliness.

The more I chose to rely on myself to make me happy instead of a relationship, the more confident I became.

I began to do things for myself and myself only. I began running, not so that I would lose weight and become more physically attractive to men, but so that I could become stronger and use my body to take me to new heights – literally.

Running gave me more stamina, which in turn made me a better hiker. So now what was making me happy was the ability to hike two days to see a glacier, hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon … and back out, and summit the highest mountain in the Rockies.

I took my first cross country road trip solo, sleeping in my car along the way, and loved it. I loved it so much, I did it again the next year and the year after.

The more time I spent focusing what I could accomplish as a single person, the less I need validating from another person.

And then I found that the freedom was what I really wanted. I dated few guys after my ex-boyfriend and I broke up. But nothing serious and nothing longterm.

After a while I realized I didn’t care if I ever got married, and in fact I didn’t even want to date. I was focusing on building myself up, that I honestly didn’t have time for it. Dating and relationships take up a great deal of time.

And even though I thought I was strong and independent before when I didn’t have a relationship, I really wasn’t. What I was doing was waiting around on another person to fulfill me, to validate me and to complete me.

What I should have been doing all along was discovering who I was, what makes me strong and what makes me happy.

It was when I got that relationship that I realized, another person was not what was going to make me tick. What was going to make me tick, was my ability to rely completely on myself.

And sometimes relying completely on yourself is also knowing when to call and ask for advice of others. However, I probably could have stood my ground to the armadillo by myself. But that is part of the journey, the learning process.

I know I technically am a spinster. Merriam-Webster defines spinster as a woman who is unmarried and past the prime age for marriage. Growing up and living in the South, I am way past the prime age for marriage.

But eh, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t see myself as an unfortunate woman that never found her true calling of matrimony and motherhood. I see myself as independent, as a woman who can sleep in the backcountry alone – and despite the one armadillo incident is pretty brave. I see myself as a woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone, who scales mountains and runs half marathons.

I don’t believe marriage is the key to happiness. I don’t believe you have to be loved by another person to be worth something or to prove to the world that you have value.

Your value comes from within. It comes from your strengths, and the more you discover what those are and rely on your own abilities, the happier you will be.

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