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In November 2012, I moved back home to Scotland after spending nearly all my savings backpacking. I stayed at my friend’s flat near the base of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and began looking for writing jobs. With no end to the recession in sight, it turned out that there were none. I began temping and applying for editing-marketing-anything jobs. Went to an interview in a smart office in New Town. Realized the advertised “graduate marketing position” actually involved stopping strangers in an outdoor shopping center in Leith and trying to sell them phone contracts on commission. Cried.
On a morning when the temping agency hadn’t called, I took the train north to see my mum and dad. Over dinner, Dad asked how the job hunt was going. I looked down at my shepherd’s pie and said it was going okay. He said things would be fine — I just needed to apply myself.
I started looking beyond Edinburgh for writing-editing-anything jobs — and eventually moved to Berlin for a content editor internship. There, I was charged with sending out weekly newsletters to subscribers. One week, I was asked if I could theme an email around history’s adventurers. I didn’t really know which women to include, apart from that pilot Amelia Earhart. So I started Googling and soon came across stories of solitude-seeking, mountain-climbing, jungle-running women adventurers I’d never heard of.
There was no room for Lawrence of Arabia in that week’s email. There isn’t in this reading list, either.
I Walk Therefore I Am (Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian, August 2008)
From Berlin, I emailed my mum and asked if she’d heard of Nan Shepherd. After all, she was born in northeast Scotland just 20 miles from my home, although admittedly a century before me. She worked as a quiet English teacher on weekdays. Then, on weekends, she’d morph into a “swirling ziggurat of tawny cardigans, scarves and skirts,” striding over the moors, sleeping on rocks, watching coils of golden eagles overhead, and feeling in every inch “how grand it is to get leave to live.”
Mum replied that she knew of Shepherd. Loved her, really. Said there was a wood engraving by the artist Paul L. Kershaw in the bathroom showing a black-and-white picture of the Cairngorms and a bite of Shepherd’s words. Hadn’t I ever noticed? I’d never noticed. Since then, Shepherd’s memoir, The Living Mountain, has become one of Canongate’s bestselling backlist books.
This influential essay from Robert Macfarlane begins as a mini-biography of Shepherd, then explodes into a compelling thesis of Shepherd’s belief in what he calls “bodily thinking.”
We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world — its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits — as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. We are, literally, losing touch. Shepherd saw this loss beginning more than 60 years ago, and her book both mourns it and warns against it: “This is the innocence we have lost,” she observes, “living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” Her book is a wry, beautiful hymn to “living all the way through.”
This is her book’s most radical proposition. Radical, because Shepherd was a woman writing out of a Highland Scottish culture in which the cherishing of the body was not easily discussed. And radical because, as philosophy, it was cutting-edge. In the same years that Shepherd composed The Living Mountain, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed his influential theory of the body subject. For Merleau-Ponty, post-Cartesian philosophy had fallaciously divided body and mind. His work, particularly The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), was dedicated to enriching the idea of the body, such that it could be said both to perceive and to think. Merleau-Ponty described this embodied experience as “knowledge in the hands”, a phrase that could have come straight from Shepherd. “The body is not . . . negligible,” she wrote, “but paramount”.”
Feminize Your Canon: Isabelle Eberhardt (Emma Garman, The Paris Review, February 2019)
Whether the women in this list are alive today or were 100 years ago, I can imagine them coming across Sylvia Plath’s journals and underlining the following in a fury of black ink:
Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars — to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.
Isabelle Eberhardt did all those things. Around the turn of the 20th century, she was dressing as a man and burning across the Sahara on trains, on horseback, and on whatever money she had. She was buying skinned hares from Bedouins, couch-surfing with sheiks, or throwing the last of her cash from town windows because who needs material things? For this Swiss Russian writer, the thrill of sensation came in tasting cigarettes, anisette, and other bodies. It lay in the intoxication of running from the French police in anti-colonial protests turned violent.
It’d be easy to focus solely on these salacious details of Eberhardt’s life, and Emma Garman is very good at finding delicious vignettes (“on her travels she’d carried a gun, but not a toothbrush” and was known as a child for dancing “about like a little wild animal along the garden paths”), yet what I love most about this essay is the ultimate focus on Eberhardt’s writing.
These writings, which foreground the lives and experiences of North Africans, have established Eberhardt as a vital early critic of imperial rule. Her perspective, according to the Tunisian scholar Hédi A. Jaouad, “may have inaugurated the theme of decolonization in the Maghreb, for it expounded a theory of sociology and oppression whose theorists and critics would later include, among Francophone writers, the Martinican Frantz Fanon and the Tunisian Albert Memmi.”
Despite the compulsions — sex, drugs, alcohol, travel — that occupied her waking hours, her writing was of central importance, and she was eager for publication. She was driven to maintain, she wrote, “two lives, one that is full of adventure and belongs to the Desert, and one, calm and restful, devoted to thought and far from all that might interfere with it.”
Alexandra David-Néel (David Guy, Tricycle, Fall 1995)
In Eberhardt, in all these women, I adore their ability to thread words around the elementals — sun, wind, water — until they feel, in the words of Berlin revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, “at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” But you don’t need to go on a big trip to feel that. You can walk under twilight trees. Or open a window. Or listen to the rain. Maybe. Sometimes I think I’d like to just go off for years, travel, return, go, and return. Alexandra David-Néel did just that. She was a Belgian-French opera singer who practiced Buddhism in Asia through her 20s, then married a railroad engineer named Philippe Néel in Tunis in 1904.
Once she had everything her childhood in Paris had taught her to want — a rich husband, a villa, days filled with luncheons — David-Néel unraveled into a world of headaches, nausea, and exhaustion. What she actually wanted was contemplation and adventure. Attempting to satiate her desires, she’d go off and meditate in “perfect detachment” for an hour each day. But she wanted more of that. More and more and more.
While her husband was away healing in Vichy’s thermal baths, she left for Asia to further her Buddhist studies. She studied with the Gomchen of Lachen, an esteemed hermit sorcerer. She meditated in a mountain cave for two winters. With a young monk whom she’d later adopt, she disguised herself as a Tibetan and set off through the Himalayas to the forbidden city of Lhasa. What a life! But I’m not sure David-Néel would like how contemporary writers tend to stake stories like hers onto narratives about how “free” a woman can be. The yak butter and rock shelters and people who sheltered her were intertwined with her. She knew that. Independence? No, no. We’re all as connected as can be.
David Guy doesn’t do this. In this straightforward biography for Shambhala — where he elegantly recounts her life from birth to death — he takes care to focus instead on her religious beliefs. Guy also reminds us that there are many ways of seeing a story. It’s easy now to attribute a kind of colonial arrogance to David-Néel’s flouting of international borders, as she sidesteps into a kingdom that had purposefully closed itself off to foreigners. But Guy reads her actions differently: “To the Tibetans, it seemed perfectly logical for Alexandra David-Néel to have traveled to Lhasa: she was returning to the site of a previous incarnation.”
David-Néel was famous as an adventuress, but that description doesn’t seem adequate to her real accomplishments. She left behind voluminous writings, many of which have not been translated into English, and these are authentic not just because of her scholarship, but because of her lifelong practice. A woman who spent years in a mountain hermitage, who sat in meditation halls with thousands of lamas, who studied languages and scoured libraries for original teachings, who traveled for many years and for thousands of miles to immerse herself in a culture which few people had ever even heard of, writes with far more insight than someone who has only read about such experiences. It is her devotion to Buddhism and her willingness to trace it to its source that are finally most impressive about her life.
Adventurer Elise Wortley Recreates the Journeys of Famous Female Explorers (Claire Turrell, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2023)
London’s Elise Wortley, aka Woman With Altitude, recently retraced Alexandra David-Néel’s footsteps through the Himalayas without modern-day equipment. She carried her things in a homemade “chairpack.” She wore yak wool clothes instead of Gore-Tex. Having interviewed Wortley about her experience for Outside, I can confidently say she was having the time of her life. (She also spent a summer in the Cairngorms — dressed like Nan Shepherd in a bandana, some tweed, some wartime boots.)
I like that in this piece about Wortley, Claire Turrell also includes details from an interview with British fashion historian Kate Strasdin, who says that some early women hikers would have cords “sewn into the inside of their skirts, so they could raise them a bit like a Roman blind when they were climbing,” adding, “[o]ne explorer, after climbing snowy slopes, used to tuck her skirts underneath her and use it like a toboggan.”
I was also very excited to see Wortley reveal some of her future plans in this interview. I’d watch a series about this on BBC Sunday primetime over another Bear Grylls show, any day.
Wortley’s wanderlust has only grown. The 33-year-old now has a wish list of 150 expeditions she’d like to take, all reliving the exploits of past adventurers.
“Some are more possible to do than others,” says Wortley. “There is Bessie Coleman who was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn her pilot’s licence in the U.S., who was famous for doing loop-the-loops. One thing I’d like to do is get a vintage plane and someone to teach me how to do loop-the-loops.”
But for now, the modern adventurer plans to bike across Sri Lanka to celebrate the journey of Annie Londonderry, who circumnavigated the globe by bicycle, leaving Massachusetts State House in Boston in June 1894, with a pearl-handled pistol in her pocket (though that’s one addition Wortley is sure to leave out of her suitcase). “I’m trying to get a bike from the 1800s,” Wortley says. “I might have to get it made.”
Wortley is also planning to sail across the Irish Sea in the wake of 16th-century pirate Grace O’Malley, who journeyed from Ireland to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for the release of her son in September 1593.
“First, I would love to dress like a 16th-century pirate,” laughs Wortley. “But I would love to bring together a group of women and an old gully boat and row from west Ireland to Greenwich.”
A Six-Day Walk Through the Alps, Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir (Emily Witt, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, October 2016)
Witt writes like a dream on just about anything (Björk, mescaline, orgasmic meditation). And I’m glad that, in this piece, she’s entwining her thoughts on existential philosophy and solitude, personal freedom, and life’s reality for refugees. I suppose it’d be very easy to instead fawn over simple beauty — the French Alps’ wildflower meadows and llamas and lilacs. Surely readers of a travel essay for T Magazine would lap up details like those. But Emily Witt does not fawn. Not over flowers. Not even over Simone de Beauvoir. Instead, she examines. She observes. I can trust a writer like that.
On the last day I had a daylong descent overlooking the Mediterranean, my knees on the verge of giving out as I picked through rocks and along switchbacks to sea level. The landscape had changed from a stark moonscape to humid deciduous brush to bleached rocks and semi-arid plants. Discarded jeans and plastic water bottles began to litter the underbrush, and then I was walking behind gated villas with manicured topiaries, swimming pools, an aviary of tropical birds. I emerged suddenly at a marina with a flat view of the sea. I had done it. I changed out of my hiking boots on a park bench as motorbikes whizzed along the promenade, then hobbled to the station to take a train to Nice. It was the first station after the border with Italy, and as I approached I saw a group of men of African and Middle Eastern descent being led into a police van, also carrying their backpacks.
It is a delusion to think that life has no wills but your own, or that you can thrive without the care and concern of others. But sometimes you can engineer a temporary condition, and produce a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance that uplifts you. For six days it was enough, as Beauvoir put it, to think of nothing but “flowers and beasts and stony tracks and wide horizons, the pleasurable sensation of possessing legs and lungs and a stomach.”
Skiing and Nothingness (Rachel Kushner, Harper’s, April 2022)
I’d never wish for a mum and dad other than the ones who raised me. But if I’d had Rachel Kushner’s beatnik-ski bum parents leaving me on bunny runs from a young age, I’d be a much better skier than I am today.
I reread this piece on my phone in Whistler this January, as a way of soothing myself during a disastrous trip where I couldn’t keep up with the people I was on the slopes with. By the time they found me, crouched over my phone in a shallow bank of trees, Kushner’s smart and charming writing had me smiling again. And she’s athletic! As she weaves in the stories of skiing philosophers with her own snow-based experiences (in this essay, Simone de Beauvoir is gliding down French pistes with Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger is wearing his ski suit to teach in Freiburg), she makes skiing sound really fun — at least if you’re good, and you have artists like Benjamin Weissman and Peter Doig in your gondola to talk with.
At a certain point in my twenties… I could no longer tolerate ski culture. So much time with the [Berkeley Dirt Bag] ski team had burned me out. That realm was bro talk, gear talk, and it excluded too much of the world, and too much of interiority. It still is like that. It reaches new heights in Teton Gravity Research movies, which feature incredible skiers pondering, idiotically, the meanings of “stoke” and “dude.” I’m not threatened by that now. What bothered me, long ago, was the way this dumbing down drew my attention to an internal conflict between mind and body, between thought, the desire to do something creative with my life, and skiing, which came naturally, but excluded art and literature. I could hang with the ski bums, but they were a mirror of what I didn’t want to be. This conflict resolved itself on a life-changing trip with Ben [Benjamin Weissman, the artist and writer] and the artist Peter Doig, who, like Ben, is a fast and strong skier. We were a team, tearing around the mountain, but bantering in the gondola about, say, the pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, or being quiet, tending to our inner selves. (Some of Doig’s paintings, I came to later understand, are like scenes through snowy goggles.) Skiing, I decided on that trip, could be strange and various, hilarious, with no compromise in speed or steeps.
Going It Alone (Rahawa Haile, Outside, April 2017)
The Appalachian Trail is one of the most demanding hikes on Earth. Over 2,200 miles, hikers can expect blisters to bubble up and toenails to blacken and fall off. Joints to swell. T-shirts to disintegrate with sweat. For Eritrean-American writer Rahawa Haile, hiking the AT alone during the political upheaval of summer 2016, it wasn’t just these physical demands she had to face — it was also racism.
In her essay for Outside, Haile says that although her fellow thru-hikers and trail angels were some of the kindest people she ever encountered, by the time she made it through Maryland, “it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.” As she walked from Georgia to Maine, Confederate flags flew from hiker hostels to the RVs that swarmed the campgrounds.
There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy. I belong here, I told the trail. It rewarded me in lasting ways. The weight I carried as a black woman paled in comparison with the joy I felt daily among my peers in that wilderness. They shaped my heart into what it will be for the rest of my life.
She Wants to be Alone (Rhian Sasseen, Aeon, February 2015)
If you need any encouragement with your manifest desires to be truly alone, I also highly recommend Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond and Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence.
I have a strong desire to quote this whole essay, but I’m going to restrain myself and just say I love this piece for asking in its dek, “When even a simple stroll down the sidewalk is an exercise in self-loathing, why don’t more women run away to the woods?” Rhian Sasseen goes on to ask, what does it even look like to be a hermit if you’re a woman? Perhaps it looks like the life of ecologist and author Anne LaBastille, who built a cabin alone on the shores of a remote lake in the Adirondacks in the 1960s. Perhaps it’s in the visionary experiences of Orgyen Chökyi, the 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist nun. Or in the trials of Mary of Egypt when she fled for the desert in the fourth century. An essay to make you think.
To be alone, you need to know who exactly you are.
There is a reason why humans prefer groups of two or more: it’s easier. It’s easier to delegate tasks, to point to one person and say: You will find our food; to tell another: You will lead us along the way. In fairy tales, kings and hermits are always finding each other. An Italian fairy tale features a holy hermit (male, of course) who, after helping a youth win both a princess and a kingdom’s worth of gold, demands half of everything, princess included. When the youth draws his sword, moving to cut the princess apart, the hermit relents, happy to see that the young man ‘held his honour dearer than his wife’.
The princess is the prize. But Mary of Egypt was no princess. Alone, only one person makes the decisions. Food, shelter, water – they’re all one person’s responsibility. This is what true freedom looks like: if you fuck up, you’re dead. If you don’t, you survive. If you survive, congratulations: no one owns you.
The Inuit Woman Who Survived Alone on an Arctic Island After a Disastrous Expedition (Kieran Mulvaney, History, November 2021)
Ada Blackjack was 23, living in Nome, and desperate for work when four explorers came to town and hired her as a seamstress for their expedition to Wrangel Island. For the next year, it was agreed that Blackjack would come along to sew winter gear out of animal hides for them.
Wrangel sits 100 miles north of Siberia. It’s a 2,900-square-mile sweep of fog and ice, polar bears and snow geese. When the group arrived on the uninhabited island in 1921, it seems they were in good spirits. They ate stews and bear blubber. They played with Vic, the housecat they’d brought with them. They ate their supplies of hard candy and tins of bread. They slept in canvas tents and seemingly weren’t too worried about rationing. After all, come summer, a fresh crew was going to replace them.
The crew never came. That summer, the island remained surrounded by thick pack ice. They were stuck. No candy. No bread. Just the abyss of another winter, rushing in to meet them. Three of the four men attempted to cross the ocean ice to find help in Siberia. They were never seen again. Now it was just Blackjack, Vic the cat, and one remaining abusive crewmember — Lorne Knight — who was bedridden with scurvy and eventually died.
Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman, had little experience hunting or living off the land — she’d spent her childhood at a Methodist mission school. But she looked after herself anyway. She barricaded the tent with boxes to protect Knight’s corpse from wild animals. She figured out how to trap white foxes and shoot seals for food. She picked roots and built a high platform so she could spot polar bears from far away. Then, after two long years on the island, a ship finally came her way.
I wish I could tell you Ada Blackjack spent the rest of her days in comfort and peace, being fêted from a comfortable distance. That’s not her path. Still, she’s a survivor.
Kevin Mulvaney brings her story to life in this detailed account of the terrible expedition to Wrangel.
On August 20, she woke from her slumber believing she had heard a noise. She heard it again. And again. She grabbed her field glasses and rushed outside. The perpetual fog enshrouded the island, but for a brief moment it lifted and through her glasses, she saw a ship. She raced down to the beach and splashed into the water just as a boat reached the shore.
She expected Crawford, Maurer, and Galle to be on board; the man who stepped out of the boat, Stefansson accomplice Harold Noice, expected them to be ashore. With the first words they exchanged, they both realized the full gravity of the situation. Ada Blackjack, the Iñupiat seamstress who had been a reluctant afterthought on the expedition, who had been belittled and berated and tied up, who had had to teach herself to hunt and trap and live in the Arctic, was the last survivor. She was alive, and she was going home to her son. And with that, she collapsed into Noice’s arms and cried.
Ailsa Ross writes about people, place, and art for The Guardian, Outside, The BBC, and many others. Her first book is The Girl Who Rode a Shark: And Other Stories of Daring Women.
Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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