(Deaf) Woman Alone on the Trail (Guest post)

My fitness activities of choice are hiking, trail running, and just plain running. I don’t mind gym workouts – long before I became a philosopher I earned my living as a personal trainer and group exercise and dance instructor – but as a philosopher on the tenure track, I want my fitness activity to do double duty, which means mental rejuvenation is just as important as physical. This means I need a fair amount of solitary activity to offset my urban lifestyle.

Image description: left side of photograph is dominated by tall, striking, red rock cliffs. There is a small deciduous tree with bright green leaves in the lower left foreground. The dirt trail begins at the right lower corner and curves to the left, with a rocky rise on the right of the trail, and a few shrubs to the left of the trail, which is lower ground.

I just returned from a (car) camping and hiking vacation at Capitol Reef National Park in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. I kicked off each day with a baby hike (4-10 miles) of moderate elevation gain (800-2000 feet). This is not so different from my usual summer routine, where I hike several times a week, mostly in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, which is home when I’m not in Washington, DC.

Whether I am hiking in the Sandias or at Capitol Reef National Park, invariably I get this question: are you hiking alone?

Usually I don’t hear the question the first time, since I’m lost in a reverie of philosophical thought, so I point to my ears, mention that I’m deaf, and ask them to repeat. The deafness reveal often freaks them out even more – that a deaf woman hikes alone is beyond their ken, I suppose.

Mind you, I’m pretty sensible about my hiking routine.

I always carry a daypack with the Ten Essentials and then some. This includes a first aid kit, cell phone, extra clothing, survival blanket, rope and small lightweight tarp for emergency shelter, signaling mirror, food, water and water purification tablets, compass, waterproof matches, lighter, newspaper squares, whistle, knife, flashlight, work gloves, toilet paper, USGS topo maps (since GPS isn’t always reliable and batteries die but paper doesn’t), sunscreen, bug repellent, collapsible trekking poles, philosophy reading material, pens, and paper to write on. Okay, so maybe I should have called this the 25+ Essentials!

I never hike without telling at least one person what trail I’ll be on, and I leave information about the trail, my time of departure and my ETA guesstimate on my car seat. I also pick hiking trails based on traffic. I hike less traveled trails on the weekends and major trails (the hiking equivalent of interstate highways) during the week.

I’ve spent a fair chunk of my adult life living on or near national forests or other public lands. I’ve taught first aid and CPR to Forest Service trail crews. I’ve logged scores of hours doing fieldwork of various kinds, am decent at identifying animal scat (especially bear, coyote, and mountain lion scat), tracking patterns, and I’m blessed with an extremely keen nose – I often smell large mammals before I see them. Weird, I know!

I’m as comfortable in the backcountry as I am in a library.

So why the incredulity about a disabled woman solo hiking?

Perhaps the identity of who inquires is a tip-off.

I’m usually questioned by women in small groups or male-female couples. Their first response is concern for my safety. Mind you, these aren’t what I’d call serious hikers – they’re usually hiking the first mile or two of the trail with nothing more than a bottle of water and a cell phone. (I like to think of this as the trail version of the Dunning-Kruger effect –- that is, the cognitive bias of those with little competence and lots of confidence, who lack the skill to see that they are incompetent, and thus overestimate their competence.)

I’ve yet to be questioned by a solo hiker. That said, in my experience the ratio of male to female solo hikers is about what you’d see at an APA division meeting, with the number of solo middle-aged seemingly non-disabled women hikers roughly equivalent to the proportion of tenured M & E women philosophers at an APA – in other words, pretty small!

Image description – shaded trail bisects photograph. Tall pine trees in background, lush green shrubbery on both sides of the trail, with dappled sunlight in the right corner and on the pine trees in the background.

Part of the problem here is that my take on safety probably differs from that of the concerned hikers. They are worried about (I think) rapes and muggings and bear attacks. I am not so worried about these things on the trail. In DC, well, that’s another matter… I am more worried about weather than wild animal attacks; I’m more worried about trail-inflicted injury than human-caused harm. Even these worries don’t dominate my thinking, but I do take care to notice signs of possible weather changes and to think through navigating tricky spots on the trail before I venture forth.

I’m well aware of the ethical issues related to solo hiking, and I’ve considered that disability adds a twist. (As I hike the trail this summer, I’ve been composing a paper in my head about this…)

In my case, the worry is about how sound impacts my safety. I mostly hike in rattlesnake country, and even though I am aware of the impact of elevation on rattlesnake habitat and how cold-blooded creatures respond to weather changes, I am still extra vigilant about scanning the trail and the surrounding brush for snakes. I step on logs, not over them. I hike when it is too hot for rattlers to venture out. In fact, scanning the ground for snakes is such a habit that I even do it while walking or running in Washington, DC, even though the chances of getting bit by a rattlesnake in this city are pretty slim. (Tempting as it may be, I refuse to impugn snakes by comparing them to another locally abundant population: politicians…)

Another worry is missing the environmental noises giving warning of danger – the sounds of a tree limb about to snap or a massive boulder tumbling down the hillside are sounds I will not hear. The chances of these happening are pretty small (I’ve been hiking all my life and have yet to experience either of these, though I do know Aron Ralston’s story). A more likely danger is human-related – mountain bike related, to be precise.

There’s a reason I don’t solo hike trails that permit mountain bike traffic.  Mountain bikers have the right of way, and riders usually assume that hikers can hear them. In fact, the last time I was hiking with a companion on a trail shared with mountain bikers, my friend pushed me off the trail as he leapt to the opposite side of the trail in order to avoid a biker careening down the hillside. I think this would have been a mad scramble even if I had been hearing, but that I do not hear bikers calling out warning means that I have to pick my trails carefully.

I suppose yet another concern for deaf hikers is the use of sound to locate lost or injured hikers. I’m adamant about staying on the trail and have pretty sound trail craft skills, but I’m well aware that in unfamiliar territory, a missed blaze or cairn can lead one astray. This is why I carry trail marking tape (biodegradable) and a compass, and why I often miss verbal enquiries lobbed my way by other hikers as they pass me on the trail – I am looking for trail indicators and tracks (humans and non-human animals). I’m extremely diligent about making sure I’m on the trail – which means I probably do much more unnecessary backtracking than most. (And for the local trails I hike all of the time, this isn’t an issue, of course!) I also know the first rule of what one should do if one IS lost: stay put.

The cost of human and economic resources expended on search and rescue missions can be extremely high. Locating a deaf person who cannot hear searchers calling out makes a rescue more difficult. But most search and rescue efforts deal with unprepared and inexperienced (hearing) hikers. I think that my prudence, caution, and experience significantly cuts down my chances of being the focus of a search and rescue effort.

I could tell many stories about the clueless hikers I encounter!

Here’s a sampling from last week: on Sunday I encountered two teenagers on the trail (about 3 miles in) at noon, they carried only one water bottle to share between them, and then asked me (in a slot canyon under deep tree cover) why their cell phones didn’t work. The next day I ran into a mother-daughter duo half a mile in from the trailhead, who told me they planned to hike to the crest (nine miles roundtrip with 2500 feet elevation gain). The mid-50s mother was wearing flip flops and carrying a water bottle, her twenty-something daughter was slightly more prepared with a Camelback and sneakers. Later in the week I chatted with two young men planning to day hike a 26 mile loop trail that included traversing over the mountain crest in mid-afternoon — this during a flashflood warning. They had scant water, no rain gear (they looked at me with incredulity when I asked) and no emergency supplies…

There are those who claim that hiking alone is always irresponsible.

I’m not sure I buy this; for one, hiking alone on a frequently traveled trail seems to be in a different category than hiking alone in true wilderness. And there are those who argue that women should hike in pairs or groups for safety. Safety here seems to mean mostly human-related danger, I think. Hiking alone can be done responsibly, just as hiking in groups can be incredibly irresponsible.

The default (should that be deafault?) assumption that a deaf woman hiking alone is taking a foolish risk is worth questioning. It says more about the questioner’s fears and biases about what women with disabilities can and should do than the evidence of the reality of risk on the trail.

On this twenty-third anniversary of the (U.S.) Americans with Disabilities Act, it is easy to think about the removal of barriers to access that are physical, structural, and institutional. But there are attitudinal barriers as well, and after a lifetime of people telling me I cannot or should not do things because of my hearing loss (starting with my high school vocational rehabilitation counselor’s suggestion that I forego college for cosmetology school), I’ve become quite deliberate about questioning their assumptions.

Why assume that the risks of solo hiking are significantly greater for a deaf female hiker than for an able-bodied hearing dude? Shouldn’t the assessment be of the particular hiker’s capabilities — of which being able to hear is only one capability?