And so, despite the complex web of paths, waterfalls, cliffs, as a hiker wanders downhill, drainages merge, faint, abstract paths coalesce, thicken, until there is one path – the one, natural, trodden way.
I saw now that bad men existed who would take advantage of any weakness and insecurity they found when violating a victim. I saw it was not my fault; I did not choose to be raped or kidnapped. But now I was learning how to protect myself from the predators, to trust my No and my instinct and my strength. I was learning I was not to blame, I couldn't prevent men from trying to hurt me, but I could definitely fight back. And sometimes fighting back worked.
For all my life, I had been passive when faced with dangers. I was stunned as I swam to find that I had, for the first time in my history, asserted myself and been truly heard—respected. It felt monumental, I was buzzing with adrenaline. It was as if I’d become someone else entirely.I had escaped a kidnapper. It finally felt real. My body unclenched tension in the balmy pool.I was proud of the strength I’d found. I was the one who asserted he take me back; I caused him to listen. I was no longer a passive Doll Girl, trapped. This was me learning I could trust my voice—I’d used it, and it finally worked! I was triumphant. This escape showed me: I had grown, and grown vividly.
I had feared this end, wondered where I would go from it, from the moment I first stepped on this footpath in the desert. But I found I was not afraid of reaching it now. I was happy. I hadn't found every answer for where I was going, but I now had all I needed to take these next steps. I knew I would do what I needed to become a writer now.
It finally had to.I understood that it wouldn’t be easy, it would be very hard; I’d need to resist the habit I had developed long ago – with conviction. I’d have to be impolite, an inconvenience, and sometimes awkward. But if I could commit, all that discomfort would add up to zap predatory threats like a Taser gun. I’d stun them. They’d bow to me. I’d let my no echo against the mountains.
In the aftermath of destruction, a silence settles – the stillness of fresh loss. People’s cheerful chatter is fainter, the blue color of sky dimmer; now that horror is undeniable and feels inescapable, the value of life seems lessened.
Squatting on my bed–after twelve years of trying and missing, in about two minutes total–I put my own contacts in for the first time. Second try on the right eye, first try on the left. I blinked in the contact, my apartment where I now lived alone and my story coming into focus.
I hoped my solitude would help me reclaim my innocence, remember who I’d been, to find who I wanted to be. To become her. To love her, Deborah, Debby, Doll Girl, Wild Child, me, despite the irreversible truth that I’d been raped. I was learning again that I could trust myself and, also, I was seeing, other people. I was brave enough now to go out alone towards what I wanted, to trust that I was strong enough for it, to know that help would come when I needed it. It always came.
I didn’t know what I would do. There was no way I could survive. I stared at my damp tent ceiling, feeling the frigid air against me, the frozen ground against my bottom, so cold my bare skin burned. I needed to get to the next trail-town, Mammoth Lakes. There was no one here to save me now.
He hadn’t treated me with the love and compassion I wanted, but I was worthy of that love, and someday some boy would have it for me. I hadn’t found it yet, but I would find it soon.
My path, beyond doubt or denial. I just hadn’t looked toward it. I wasn’t lost. I’d always known the way. If I’d only allowed myself to look. I had never been lost, only scared.
death is not a pretty flower that had almost pricked me. It was not a small annoyance I could simply bypass and quickly disregard. It was really The End.
The entire time, he’d only ever looked at my body, never at my face, his empty eyes hungry, never seeing me at all. I wasn’t the presence of a person, but a body. I could have said anything, he wouldn’t have heard me. He’d never responded, not by stopping, not with his words.
I’d begun at the soundless place where California touches Mexico with five Gatorade bottles full of water and eleven pounds of gear and lots of candy. My backpack was tiny, no bigger than a schoolgirl’s knapsack. Everything I carried was everything I had.
I felt like I belonged to an ancient tradition of all young people given this same task of finding their own ways through to the futures they wanted for themselves.
I wrote through darkness, vividly seeing: my passivity was not a crime; my desire to trust was not a flaw.
From that unremarkable gap in dense northern forest, I could finally see clearly that if I hadn’t walked away from school, through devastating beauty alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, met rattlesnakes and bears, fording frigid and remote rivers as deep as I am tall—feeling terror and the gratitude that followed the realization that I’d survived rape—I’d have remained lost, maybe for my whole life. The trail had shown me how to change.This is the story of how my recklessness became my salvation.I wrote it.
But I couldn’t say any of this yet. No one answer felt it could contain anything close to the truth about her. My thoughts of my mother were wild chaos, I didn’t know how to tell him we’d been enmeshed for as long as I could remember.
I wanted him to declare in shock how overlooked and underestimated I had been ever since I was a child. How lucky he felt to be the one to have discovered me, to have me. I wanted him to look at me like maybe I was magic.
I wanted both things: strength in my independence and also this new desire. This felt like the beginning of a new kind of love.
I don’t remember having one conversation with my dad in the three days I was home, but looking back at my journal, I see I wrote about him. I scrawled about how I heard him telling my mom that I needed to go back. I was unhappy; he thought the hiking was better for me.I wonder why he told these things to my mother, nothing to me.I wonder if overhearing his approval encouraged me to finally fly back to the trail. Maybe. Maybe my father’s faith in my walk—in me—made me feel strong enough to leave. His actual words, as I wrote them in my notebook, were, “She’s an adult now, she can do what she wants. It doesn’t mean she’s not selfish.” He almost understood.
It felt amazing to make visible my boundaries.The rumors dissipated, then changed. Eventually I turned down enough men that I became the girl who turned down men.
I was going to mean what I said, to be direct and firm.I found my moleskin notebook and on the page behind the pages addressed to Never-Never and my family—two unsent letters—I wrote: I am the director of my life.
Already, this little-walked gigantic trail through my country’s Western wilderness held in my mind the promise of escape from myself, the liberation only a huge transformation could grant me. This walk would be my salvation. It had to be.
It took me almost two thousand miles in the woods to see I had to do some hard work that wasn’t simply walking—that I needed to begin respecting my own body’s boundaries. I had to draw clear lines. Ones that were sound in my mind and therefore impermeable, and would always, no matter where I walked, protect me. Moving forward, I wanted rules.First—when I felt unsafe I’d leave, immediately. The first time, not the tenth time. Not after a hundred red flags smacked in wind violently, clear as trail signs pointing the way to SNAKES. Not after I’d been bitten—the violation. If I wasn’t interested, I would reject the man blatantly.
She taught me only how to need to be taken care of. I was here because I needed to learn to take responsibility for making my own decisions — to earn my own trust.
I reached into my pack and held something small in the fist I made. “It’s a pocketknife,” I said, enunciating each letter. I was asserting myself, I’d snapped out of something; he visibly snapped out of something too. I saw it acutely in his dropping posture: doubt in his movement. I said, “The truck works.” And so it did.
Second—I’d take much better care of myself.There were simple things I could do. I could start with my poor feet. These little two feet carried me each day for miles and miles, steady and flexed, tired and aching from constant daily pounding, bruised scratched and sometimes rubbed red-raw, my weight pressing and pressing them. I decided now that each night in my tent I’d massage them. I would knead them with lotion because they always ached, and at the end of thirty-mile days they burned—and it would be luxurious—something I could have done the entire way because I had been carrying sun lotion but had never taken the ten sacred minutes to do for myself.
Rest fixed most things. Sleep was my sweet reward. I treated bedtime as both incentive and sacrament.
And the idea of light unexplainably produced out of nothing was haunting, it shook me. A flat drab mountain could produce its own light, no one in this whole world knows why, and if that was possible then of course there must be other things that seemed impossible that weren’t, and so anything—great and terrible—felt possible to me now.
I doubted I could survive in the woods without these very basic things to help me. It seemed like a tremendous leap of faith to forsake the tools I’d always been told I needed. And yet leaving college to walk was such a massive leap of faith already, and nothing I’d ever trusted and believed in seemed true any longer.