Three Young Women on the John Muir Trail
As a college graduation gift to themselves, the author, Suzanne Roberts, and her friend Erika decide to hike the John Muir Trail. They cover the 211 miles from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite, a 28-day trip for the women. Roberts is struggling with her feelings about her alcoholic father and what her post-college future will bring. While thoughts on resolving these issues may have helped launch the month-long backpacking trip, I think one of the most important lessons here is Roberts’ evolving understanding of the male gaze and how powerful it is for young women to be able to move outside of it.
Before Erika and Suzanne leave for their trip, Suzanne invites a third friend, Dionne, along. She knows that Dionne suffers with bulimia but believes the trip will help her. She doesn’t tell Erika about the issue, thinking Erika will not want Dionne (a weak link) on the trip.
The Male Gaze
While Erika is a strong, experienced hiker, Suzanne is middling—and carrying a far too heavy backpack—while Dionne is new to the experience. The three move at varying speeds. They pack a minimum of food, not accounting for possible obstacles to their daily mileage goals, such as rain. After hiking with two men—one known and one stranger—and sharing their food with the two, the women’s rations quickly diminish. Having placed others’ needs before their own, they are completely out of food in the last days before they arrive at their food drop off. Thankfully, kind strangers give them a few meals.
The stranger among them feels a bit scary to the author and the reader will likely find him so as he plays a game of twenty questions asking Roberts, “How would you like to die?” when they are separated from the group. She tries to think of an answer that is in no way related to ‘falling off a mountain.’
Friendship and Connection
The three personalities of the young women clash, and they sometimes bicker. Erika is focused and always looking to chalk up the completion of her goals. Suzanne lives more in the moment. She often writes and draws in her journal and likes to relate her experiences to those of John Muir and how he saw this wilderness. She often quotes him. Dionne is constantly contending with her bulimia and finds it easier to be on the trail, where there is no extra food, than in civilization with its temptations.
A month of backpacking is a long time. Besides issues with food rations, the women have a few run-ins with bears, some terrible weather, and injuries ranging from foot blisters to bad knees. But they are most alive to their experiences when they manage to shuck off the males and go it alone. This is particularly important to the author who admits to always seeking male attention. (She tells some funny lies on the trail to get male approval.)
“I felt grateful that Jesse left when he did and that we didn’t end up hiking the rest of the trail with him or even Mark. Without them we have come to rely on each other and on ourselves. Luck and circumstance provided the chance to find our ‘girl power.’ We found our connection to each other or place within the wilderness.”
The Female Gaze
Alone, the women have intimate conversations and tell each other their truths. By the time they have been on the trail for four weeks, the author no longer worries about her appearance or her thoughts in front of men. Dionne speaks openly of her eating disorder and finds it therapeutic. Erika comes to appreciate the company of the other two. All three see their experience and the wilderness itself through the female gaze. And that is the most powerful aspect of the journey.
“The end of our trip was in sight; the next day we would be back in the world of cars and freeways, buildings and beds. Before, I had counted the days until a shower or a chocolate shake. Now I was sad to see the end. I had proven to myself that I could do it, which meant that I would always be able to look back on this trip whenever faced with a difficult thing, no matter what it was. I would remember that if I did it yesterday, I could do it today.”
The book is organized in a chapter for each day on the trail. Each begins with a quote from John Muir. The reader can see what Muir found in the wilderness and then what Roberts found. Near the end of the memoir, Roberts realizes, in Yosemite, that “love for this place” connects her to her father, who has been mapping each day of her trip. She has a new appreciation for what is good in him.
A Good Book for High School Age Girls
HIgh school housekeeping: when I was a teen, I did a lot of backpacking, including on some of the same trails Roberts discusses in Almost Somewhere. Mostly, I was with Girl Scouts, so other than a male leader, who was sometimes with us, I was beyond the male gaze. These were among the most formative experiences of my teen years. I wish every girl had such an opportunity. The physical exertion, the beauty of the natural world, the long days without meeting other people, and the ‘I-Thou’ sense of a creator and creation were all important. Roberts captures all of these beautifully in Almost Somewhere. It’s a good memoir for teen girls, those who are seeking examples of empowerment. (Side note: I have had a complaint that I recommend books for teens that are not suitable for eleven year olds. Honestly, eleven year olds are not teens. However, I will mention here that I don’t think this is a book for children because the hikers do a couple of typically adult things on the trail that speak to more mature readers. But generally they backpack, admire nature, and become strong.)
Almost Somewhere is a good book for teen girls, a chance to see how important relying on themselves can be. A chance to see an example of young women re-forming themselves.
Note: I’ve been working on reviewing books which school librarians would not typically see in review journals, but are good choices for teens.