The snap of the twig bounced the trees, then filtered out in multiple directions. The silence felt louder somehow after that snap. I adjusted the straps of my daypack, pulling them closer to my body. Unconsciously readying myself to run.
I looked over my shoulder. At nothing. No one was there.
I gazed up at the light filtering through the trees. Weak winter sunlight, fading from daybreak. Waning. Melancholy. I shook my head. I had a couple hours before the sun started to set. Plenty of time to hike this trail and get back to camp. Where my people were waiting, bathed in warm firelight.
I never hike alone. The solitude of the woods draws out my deepest existential angst. The darkness tucked into the corners of my soul bleeds out in that endless loneliness. Until I’m frantic for an anchor, another human to reflect back my own humanity. To test my own existence against the darkness.
But this time, I’d intentionally set out on a solo hike. To beat back my fear into something manageable. A test of my will. And my family was just a half mile away. Snuggly entrenched in camp life, cozy and warm. I’d be fine.
The woods sucked away all the sounds of life, tucked them out of earshot. I could hear only the crunch of my boots against the straw and dirt strewn path. My eyes darted up ahead, looking for the next pale blue blaze. I’m prone to getting lost, my internal compass always slightly askew. Stopping at the fork in the path, I groped about for my bearings. The blazes alluded me, leaving me to trust my own instinct about which way to set off. I trembled as I peered up at the sun, descending behind the tips of the trees. The wrong path would take me deeper into the woods, into the silence.
A clatter shot through the forest.
Stark still, I quieted my breathing. Listening. Every pinecone fall artillery besieging my resolve. My heart raged in my ears. A twig popped closeby. I spun to find nothing but trees. And silence. And fear.
Inhaling the chilly air, I willed myself back toward some semblance of serenity. But the fear that someone was out here with me, someone stealthily hidden from view, mounted. I wanted out. I shuffled from one foot to the other, frozen with indecision, still staring at the fork in the path.
I pulled out my compass. I need to head east. Or I thought I did. How long ago had I come into the woods? How much daylight was left? The forest grew steadily enveloped in shadows, more deep corners where things played at the recesses of my vision. My heart, suddenly attune to my fear, thudded violently against my rib cage. I held my breath, sure that something was closing in on me. So close I could feel the energetic vibrations of its presence.
I spun around again.
I shot forward onto the path on the right, still unsure I’d chosen the right one. My boots made me clumsier than usual, weighed down from their bulk as I ran. A crack and then another ricocheted around me. I stopped looking down for roots clogging the path. I ran with the singular focus of the chased. The utterly alone. The terrified.
I could still feel the presence near me, convinced at any moment I’d feel a hand on my shoulder. Be pulled off the path. Find myself staring into the eyes of my own fear. I ran harder, my breath coming in jagged puffs, the cold burning my lungs. Every tree looked the same. Why wasn’t I out of the woods yet? How had the forest morphed into something so vast, endless, choked with fear?
I stumbled out on the path that led to the main road. Sunlight played along the edges of the trail and opened up into the dirt parking lot. The mundane noises of daily minutia filtered back into the world. My breath slowed. I leaned against the trailhead sign, feeling foolish and defeated by fear. Sabotaged. Eviscerated by my own self-doubt.
I took a step back toward the forest, daring myself to try again.
The chill came like a warning. The darkness closed in. And I knew, then, that I had not been alone at all.
Not for a second.
“Into the Woods” Kendra Gayle Lee, Oct. 20, 2021
The wilderness holds an unmistakable pull for me. Since I’ve scuttled my relationship with Christianity, I’ve turned more and more to the sacredness of nature. I experience pervasive peace and tiny jolts of wonder when I’m out-of-doors that don’t come to me anywhere else.
I am also horribly afraid of being snatched, followed, harassed, hurt, slaughtered in the very place where I feel most whole.
This fear isn’t mine alone. Women think about these things, out of necessity. But we all manage the cognitive dissonance differently. I’ve been followed and propositioned in my own neighborhood in broad daylight. So I’m hyper-conscious of being somewhere no one could hear me scream. Some women refuse to entertain the possibility of being harmed hiking, or running, or camping–because to acknowledge that fear would breathe life into it. And some women are just intent on giving a huge, defiant middle finger to people who tell us we should never do anything alone, for our own safety.
Sometimes it’s a wild mash-up of all those things.
When Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders flitted across my radar earlier this year, I was like a moth to a flame. I’m a little obsessed with true crime, which I contribute to growing up in Florida in the 1980s, where whispers about Ted Bundy were ubiquitous. Besides, a book about a murder in one of our national parks scratched the most morbid of itches for me.
I was completely unprepared for the emotional reckoning this book wrought.
Written by Kathryn Miles–who has a whole host of outsdoorsy/environmental credentials, in addition to copious articles to her name and several teaching positions in MFA programs on her CV–Trailed is a stellar example of what narrative nonfiction can be. At points, it’s got the cadence of a thriller. At others it’s slower and more introspective, with supporting research and references to studies and cases.
But where Miles really excelled was creating a(n) (imagined) kinship between the reader and the young women (Lollie Winans & Julie Williams) killed in the Shenandoah National Forest almost 30 years ago. Simply put: I cared about them because Miles cared so deeply and was so committed to her task as a writer. And Miles was able to tell their stories because so many people, including people who worked the case, friends and family of Lollie and Julie, and even witnesses who saw them in the park all those years ago, were still so deeply impacted and felt the loss of these young women. And Miles reflected that back in her writing.
I think sometimes that’s the best humanity has to offer–that thread of connection that keeps us alive, keeps our energy moving through the world and through those that knew us (and even those who didn’t) long after our corporeal bodies are gone.
Miles told Lollie & Julie’s story with great tenderness–especially when dealing with their journals that explored their fledgeling romantic relationship, including the trepidation they felt coming out as LGBTQ in 1996.
Recently, several folks have mentioned to me that they just don’t “get” identity politics.That they can’t understand why being queer, for instance, is relevant any more. But the ACLU reports that 120 bills restricting LGBTQ rights have been filed. In 2023.
If there’s that much vitriol and backlash in 2023, imagine for a minute the American zeitgeist in 1996 around LGBTQ issues. Coming out in the 1990s was an outright trauma-fest for a lot of folks. Coming out meant a schism, or more often a complete break, with almost every faith community. It meant the constant threat of discrimination in the workplace. The possibility of physical violence. It often meant the loss of a person’s family of origin.
It was scary as hell.
But it wasn’t scary when you were alone with your person. It was invigorating, like every nerve ending was electrified. It was absolutely enthralling, like new love tends to be. My girlfriend and I once took a middle-of-the-night drive from Tallahassee, Florida to Dothan, Alabama, for no good reason other than to be alone. Together. God, there were so very few places to do that, to escape the questions and the looks and just be. We chose a car ride to Dothan; Lollie and Julie chose Shenandoah National Park to revel in being alone together.
My girlfriend and I came home.
Lollie & Julie didn’t.
Trailed made me feel vindicated. Seen. It validated what I knew deep down, what I’ve always known: I am not safe. Not as a queer person. Not as a woman. But that does not mean I have to be afraid all the time.
This is a visceral tension for me.
I was raised in the 1980s on a healthy dose of fear that I could literally be snatched off the streets at any given moment. That I could disappear–from my driveway, from my walk home from school, from the mall–and never be seen again.
That kind of deep, lingering fear is a shitty way to live.
When I moved to intown Atlanta, I let go of that fear (mostly). I like living in the city. Folks are around at all hours, walking dogs, chatting with neighbors, just living their lives. In my neighborhood, there’s a connection, an expectation that we greet each other, acknowledge that we are doing this community thing together.
But I also like to take off into the woods, sometimes to run for long distances on trails. By myself. I like to hike, too. Sometimes I go with my family. But other times, it’s just part of the joy to be out there on my own.
I live in northern Georgia, where there is a profusion of places to hike, run, play outdoors. And there is only one of them–just one–that I feel comfortable romping through the woods alone. Just one place where I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder, not afraid when I hear twigs snap. Not constantly scanning the horizon for someone looking suspicious, sketchy, or otherwise threatening.
I found Trailed terrifying. Scarier than anything I’ve read in ages. I didn’t sleep well last night, because my mind kept flashing to Lollie & Julie’s last moments in their tent, a place they felt safe. It was haunting.
But this book also felt cleansing, like finally having someone level with you about the hard truth you knew was coming: the woods are not “safe.” In fact, for women and marginalized populations, safety may be largely an illusion. But that doesn’t mean I have to swallow their fear.
What Trailed did for me was tear it all down–all the pretty lies I’ve told myself about the ways I might be able to keep myself safe–and left only my love for the woods, for nature, and for the pure joy of being outside.
And that is something that’s worth fighting like hell for.
I’ll keep pushing back against misogyny and violence against women & marginalized folks so that maybe, one day, no one has to think twice before taking off on the trial by themselves. Before immersing themselves in something they love–or a person they live. I will fight until people can be exactly who they are and do whatever the hell they feel like doing any time they damn well please.
Everywhere, but especially, especially in the woods.