Lexington, Virginia, is a quaint town. A mechanic with dark, greasy hands worked on a go-kart in his shop that used to be an old gas station. Flower boxes hung from the entryways of small coffee shops. Locals stopped their walks down the brick sidewalks to have long conversations with one another.
But behind iron gates an ornate, stiff building loomed from its perch on a wide, grassy field — the Virginia Military Institute. With the clash between downtown’s sweetness and the institute’s uniformity, I found it fitting that this town was where my parents met.
Surrounded by the Virginia mountains, I had the urge to take a picture and send it to my parents, but they had no idea I was there. I had neglected to tell them that I was on a week-long road trip, traveling solo and camping out in a tiny blue child’s tent I bought for less than $20 at Walmart and in my tiny green VW Beetle.
I went to Lexington on a whim, and as I walked on the manicured lawn of VMI’s campus, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. I was still getting used to the concept of having no schedule and no expectations. I asked myself if the military students wondered why this liberal arts girl was walking around on the grounds where they march in formation with rifles.
My father went to VMI, and my mother was a student at Southern Seminary University — now called Southern Virginia University — a neighboring school. Mom grew up on the Jersey shore, and when one of her friends decided to enroll at Southern Seminary, Mom decided to follow.
“One of the reasons why I went to Southern Sem is because I had never been to Virginia,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ve been in New Jersey all of my life,’ and I wanted to see other areas of the country.”
Like my mother all those years ago, I was guided here by a need to get out and explore —that unspecified feeling that in any other circumstance I would have ignored, but on this road trip I was driven by it. I had the time and the freedom to explore it. Maybe it was a pull to stand where my father once stood in uniform and where my mother waited for him outside the gates.
“I never thought I would get married right after college,” my mother told me almost a year after I stood on the VMI grounds.
She and my father were sitting in the living room of their new beach home. They were thinking about calling it “The Sea of Love” after their first dance at their wedding.
They got married on a rainy Sunday during Thanksgiving weekend in 1988. They had three months to plan for the wedding because Dad was about to go on cruise in the South China Sea to fly jets off a Navy aircraft carrier.
My parents had never lived in one place for more than nine years. After graduating from VMI, Dad went straight into the Navy to fly airplanes. Mom followed him across the country to Whidbey Island, Washington, where he was stationed.
“When we got to Washington state, we went hiking in the mountains and (would) have picnics,” she said. “We would take the ferry on the Puget Sound and explore all the little towns. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do all that on my own, but because it was the two of us, it was a lot of fun. We really got to bond because we didn’t have anybody else.”
Nearly thirty years after my mother left the world she knew to travel across the country with my father, I am facing a similar urge to explore the world, but as a single woman.
I tend to be a people pleaser, and I often feel guilty for suggesting things that I want to do among other people. I was raised to be a good host — someone who worries about others’ needs before my own and lets others make the decisions while I play the supporting role. It is a mold that many women are involuntarily shaped into from a young age, and a mold I felt comfortable in, but unhappy.
I also come from a place where feminism is a dirty word. I remember being on a co-ed softball team, and when one woman noticed the rules to be skewed toward our male teammates, she prefaced her complaint with, “I’m not a feminist or anything, but…”
Until recently I have been reluctant to call myself a feminist because of the stigma behind the word and how uncomfortable it made people in my small, conservative hometown feel. But I slowly realized that their comfort was not as valuable as my need for equality as a woman.
No one ever told me I couldn’t go out into the world on my own, but I got the vibe from my family members that my behavior wasn’t necessary — that I would enjoy myself better among other people.
Before last year, I never traveled anywhere on my own. Traveling was reserved for family vacations to the beach. I would sit in the La-Z-Boy leather chair in my bathing suit, watching the Travel Channel and Destination America and wishing I could go to all of the places they showed on TV instead.
I dreamed of going West on a journey I had only thought existed in John Steinbeck novels. I decided last summer that I would give traveling solo a try, and rolled out of my stuffy apartment in Chapel Hill for the mountains.
I started my journey at Grandfather Mountain. I had hiked there before during day trips, but I wanted to see if I could camp out on top of the mountain for the night on my own. My pack was heavy on my shoulders, and I struggled with my footing on the large rocks. I brought Robyn Davidson’s “Tracks” with me on the trail, a travel memoir about a woman who crossed the Australian desert on her own with a few camels.
I was feeling inspired and powerful as a solo woman on the trail until I came across an older couple going down the mountain.
“Staying the night?” the man asked.
“That’s the plan,” I said cheerfully, though tired from climbing.
“Are you meeting someone up there?” he asked.
Men often ask me this question while I’m hiking, and their responses to my polite “no” range from shock disguised as admiration to disdain.
The man’s face grew smug, and I worried that he was going to “mansplain” camping to me. Though I had never camped before, I was confident that I would be able to figure it out on my own.
The man said nothing, maybe because his wife was already passing him on the trail to continue the trek down the mountain, but he had to have the last word.
“There’s a shelter up there if you get into trouble,” he said.
Hannah Jones, a senior English major at UNC-Chapel Hill often faces the same issue. She is planning to live nomadically out of her 2007 Toyota Tacoma after graduation.
“Usually a guy will ask me for ten minutes straight about how I intend to keep myself safe,” she said. “I’ll tell them at the end of the day if someone wanted to cause me harm, they can easily cause me harm. They’re very shocked and uncomfortable by that conclusion that I just have to be okay with. I think that’s because they’re shocked and uncomfortable at the reality of being a woman is that your safety and security is something you gave up around 12 years old.”
Jones has traveled cross country before, camping for free on public lands last summer. She said she never felt unsafe during her travels until she got into a car wreck in New Mexico, rolling her car one and a half times while turning off the highway at 80 miles per hour. Jones emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but her trip was over.
“Choosing to drive for hundreds of miles is drastically increasing my risk of getting in a car wreck, but it is not something anyone mentions when they bring up my safety,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,700 people died in car crashes in 2014 alone. I also found it odd that the possibility of being attacked by a man was the main danger people focused on when I went to travel on my own. According to the Violence Policy Center, 94 percent of female homicide victims were murdered by a male they knew.
Even though I was purposefully driving away from men I knew, the threat still lingered in the back of my mind every time I got out of the car.
“There’s always going to be a risk of violence,” Sarah Muzzillo, co-chair of Feminist Students United, said. “If you’re looking at the issue from a sociological standpoint, it’s unsafe for women to be anywhere in public spaces because we live in a patriarchal society that teaches everyone that women’s bodies are public property.”
Perhaps it is because of the perceived risk of traveling alone as a woman that I did not tell my parents that I went on a road trip until nearly nine months later. I was more afraid that they would tell me not to go than of the risks themselves.
“You really shouldn’t take certain risks,” my mom said. “I’m all for travelling, but I don’t see the need to stay overnight on a mountaintop by myself. There are some things that’s not worth it. You can see the mountain during the day.”
I thought of my father who, when he was my age, flew jets in the middle of the South China Sea. He told me on my 21st birthday he should have died there from the amount of times he nearly missed the runway when trying to land on the carrier. So why was his risk more acceptable than mine?
Muzzillo said men partaking in risky activities is more accepted in our society because men are more associated with risk than women.
“We’re all taught that women are fragile creatures and need protection and we can’t take care of ourselves, but it’s no one’s place to tell a woman what to do with her life,” she said. “It’s not our fault the world is this way.”
I asked my mom if this reality for women could ever change. Her answer was brief:
“That’s life. Carry some Mace with you.”
I did carry Mace with me, and I clipped it to the side of my pack in reach of my right hand, but I never used it. I went about my trip with no incident, interacting with almost no one and finding peace within my own mind as I drove on mountainous backroads.
I ended up in Shenandoah National Park after my excursion to Lexington. My mom and her friends used to bike along Skyline Drive, perhaps in the same spot where I parked at sunrise. I sat on the hood of my Bug and watched the bright orange sky light up the blue mountains. I thought of how many miles I had traveled and how many more I would go.
I relished in the fact that I went there because I wanted to, and that for once I could indulge in my impulses.
“When you’re traveling alone, it’s the only time you can be 100 percent focused on your own desires, and I think for women that’s a particular struggle because even when we’re surrounded by our female friends, we’re so naturally compromising all the time,” Jones said. “You learn a lot about what makes you happy, and that’s the base ‘step one’ of female empowerment.”