This winter it rained for forty days and forty nights. We had more rain in the last two months than we had in the four years between 1989 and 1993. The county is soaked through. Every hill bears landslide scars, and tens of thousands of trees, some huge and ancient, have simply fallen over, the soil beneath them turned to mush. I have been stir-crazy, waiting to get out and walk. Now it is the first clear weekend day of the year, and I am out hiking in spite of a cool wet breeze, grey skies, and thick gooey mud on the trails.
I chose the Collier Trail from my map, but it turns out to be more difficult than I had expected. It is steep and little used, cutting up through a steep valley from Bon Tempe Lake to Collier Spring, high on the northern slopes of Mt. Tam. The trail is badly overgrown and frequently washed out, the footing treacherous. So many trees have come down that the trail is in many places completely obscured. Often one large tree has brought down two or three of its neighbors, forming dense tangles of branches. Again and again I pick my way over around and through fallen trees. Soon I am scratched and panting with the exertion.
Higher up the trail just fades away and I strike off up a steep muddy hillside through thick brush in what I take to be the right direction. I rather enjoy bush-whacking off the trail. I can feel the topology of the mountain, the swell of its massive breast before me, the vast emptiness of the airy canyons incising its slopes. The canyon forks, then forks again. I judge from the map that the spring should be in the rightmost canyon and struggle upward. Occasionally I come to clearings where I can look out over the valley below. The land is steaming, like a saucer of water on a hot burner. Every twig and branch has steam rising from it. Although the sun has now broken through the clouds, the air is so thick with moisture that I can not see the floor of the valley I just left. Beams of light shine through trees on the ridge line above, sending beams like searchlights down through the mist. Eventually I strike the trail again and follow it to Collier Spring.
It is a quiet, shady little glen, but someone has used a chain saw to cut a rough seat out of a huge fallen log. As I sit there catching my breath, a pretty young woman comes into the clearing. Her eyes meet mine, and I know she is startled to find me there. I smile reassuringly, trying not to look threatening. I wish her good morning, and she gives me a polite smile and passes through the clearing and continues along the main trail.
I watch her walk away. She is quite attractive, with a trim athletic figure and nice legs between her L.L. Bean shorts and her well-worn hiking boots. Her appearance derails my train of thought. My fancy, as the saying goes, turns to love.
For me there is something about meeting a lone woman in the woods that is immediately erotic. To speak more generally, I suppose I would have to admit that there is something erotic about meeting a woman anywhere. But there are several factors that increase the effect in the woods. First, some of my more pleasant sexual adventures have taken place out of doors, so that solitude and the sun warm on my back seem conducive to erotic pleasures. Second, I tend to like women that enjoy hiking and the pleasure of being alone in the woods - I feel that we might have other interests in common, things to talk about. Third, a chance encounter with a hiker is an excuse to exchange a greeting, perhaps comment on the trail or the day. It is easier and more natural than trying to think up an pick-up line in a bar, for example. And finally, if by some chance she were interested, we are alone together in a perfect place for acting immediately on our mutual attraction.
But she is out of sight before I can complete these thoughts, and I heave a mental sigh. At my age, lovely young girls do not slip out of their clothes and drag me into the bushes. To be frank, damn few did when I was in my prime. Still, there's a pleasant little shot of lustful adrenalin to show I'm not completely atrophied. I feel like thanking her for brightening my day with her beauty.
I wonder if she sensed my desire? She hadn't seemed particularly frightened, but there was a wary appraisal in that quick glance she cast at me. Only to be expected, of course. She doesn't know I'm not a rapist. Having lustful thoughts toward her does not imply I wish her any harm. I want her to be filled with desire for me and throw herself in my arms, not fear me. The thought of forcing her against her will is repulsive to me.
I wonder how it would feel to be a young woman hiking alone and to meet a lone man in a lonely spot like this. She must be wondering if I am going to attack her - how could the thought not enter her head? I think how much I enjoy hiking alone, how it purges the cares of work and family and chores from my mind, gives me time to think, to wax philosophic. Clearly many people share this same need, this desire to be out alone in the woods. What could be more natural?
And yet for a young attractive woman, indeed for any woman, how different the experience must be. Of course the danger is small and it is not that unusual to encounter lone women hikers. But the danger is real. Many women I'm sure would not consider it. Does this woman have friends who say, "You go out all by yourself? I wouldn't do that. Aren't you afraid something might happen?" Surely they do. So it takes a certain bravado to even venture out on such a hike these days. Obviously she feels the risk is acceptable.
But the sense of danger must be frequently aroused. Was that a deer in the brush, or is there somebody there? Was that flicker of movement in the corner of her eye a figure following her? Is that man sitting there on the stump a friendly fellow hiker, or another trailside strangler? After all, I'm probably eight inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than she. How many men would be able to enjoy a hike knowing that they're likely to encounter hostile creatures a head taller and half again as strong and heavy, with a biological propensity to attack them? It would be like venturing into a forest known to be infested with man-eating gorillas.
I remember hiking alone years ago in the Anza-Borrego desert in Southern California and meeting a man in camouflage fatigues and carrying a high-powered rifle. Just a hunter, I told myself, someone else enjoying the beauty and solitude of the desert. Or he could be a madman, some survivalist gun freak too wigged-out to live around people. Maybe he'd always wondered what it would feel like to shoot a man. What a perfect opportunity - he could blow me away, bury the body, and no one would ever know. I realized there was nothing at all to keep him from attacking me if he chose to. There was no one around for a dozen miles in any direction. I was unarmed except for a Swiss army knife folded in my backpack. What could I do? There was no place to hide, no place to run. He was in complete control. He could do anything to me and I was helpless to resist.
Of course nothing happened and we passed with a nod. But as I walked on by my back was twitching, waiting for a bullet between my shoulderblades. Even that evening as I made camp on top of a mountain, I thought about him out there in the dark. He could be watching my fire, stalking me, playing soldier or hunter. I knew my fears were foolish and paranoid, but they tainted that whole day, spoiling much of the enjoyment of being in such a beautiful place.
Is that what I did to this young woman at Collier Spring? Did she listen for footsteps behind her after leaving the spring, turn back to look a few times? I don't think I'm a very threatening-looking person, but I am a grown man and reasonably fit. If I wanted to, I could no doubt run her down. Unless she has a black belt in karate or is carrying a weapon, I could probably subdue her eventually. Both of us must be aware of that. Just by being a stranger - no, just by being male - I pose a threat to her.
I realize my pleasant lift of spirits at the sight of her has been replaced with a deep regret. For me the encounter was a subject of a few minute's musings, but for her it could have resulted in rape or murder. It makes me sad to realize that my mere presence on the mountain might have cast a shadow on her day, but there is nothing I can say or do to change it. How thoroughly unfair to us both.
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford