Friends learn about themselves, others on Muir Trail

Elizabeth Dodd

By A Contributor

Elizabeth Dodd
Contributing writer

When three young women, just finished with college, set out to hike 240 miles of California’s John Muir Trail in 1993, they travel in a wilderness with very few other women backpackers.  Instead, author Suzanne Roberts and her friends Dionne and Erika meet a variety of men: creepy characters who must surely be crazed killers; handsome athletes who turn out, depressingly, to have girlfriends already; rangers who offer advice but don’t bail them out when they run short on food. Far more importantly, though, during the month-long trek they get to know one another and themselves.

Before that happy hindsight of female-bonding is realized, though, the trip’s challenges leave each one feeling isolated even though this is not a “solo” trip. Dionne, a dancer, turns out to have no backcountry experience at all; she joins Erika and Suzanne at the urging of her boyfriend, who hopes the trip may help her break free from bulimia that’s controlled her life for years.  Early in the trip, she looks learns to identify the constellation Cassiopeia: the Wild, Wacky, Woman, Suzanne tells her, pointing to the W in the night sky, and Dionne adopts that identity for her trail name.  Both a tri-athlete and a member of the college logging team (“her specialty was the axe-throw”), Erika is the gonzo-hiker of the group. Roberts reflects, “Erika had the ability to look forward to her future self and see what that self would have wanted to accomplish. … Delaying gratification became a gift from her present self to her future self.”

Suzanne adopts the trail name Zsa Zsa.  She carries the most awkward pack, which she names Big Heiny, because of its big heinous weight; she is spending the summer avoiding both future (what to do with her biology degree) and the present (she has just told her father she won’t see him again until he quits drinking).

The trio squabble over leadership (axe-queen Erika measures out tablespoons of oatmeal and is called “The Commander” behind her back).

They vie with one another for the attention of the less-creepy males they encounter.  Limping along, they hoard Advil and Vicodin (the latter offered by friendly trail-acquaintances); choose to hike in men’s underwear — whitey tighties for Cassiopeia and a pair of flowered boxer shorts for Zsa Zsa — when their soaked clothing chafes; and eat cold food until The Commander figures out how to repair the stove.

This memoir is a coming-of-age story that navigates the troubled topography of gender. But they have few models for their girl-power trekking adventure.

The solitary transcendentalist writers of the 19th century (Muir and Thoreau are the two whom Roberts points to) are important figures for the young women, but these men are father figures, men of another age.

Despite the fact that Suzanne and Erika were sorority sisters, no one has mothered them into being “wild wacky women” on the earth beneath the sky.  Once, they meet a woman in middle age, a floppy hat, and gray braids who hikes only off-trail. Patting her compass and her map she disappears so quickly that Suzanne considers her “a ghost of the trail” — a tragic footnote to history written on the landscape by mountain men.  Later, they meet an elderly pair of women backpackers who declare the girls are “an inspiration.” 

And so they are.  Roberts’s voice is never self-aggrandizing. She and Big Heiny lurch and trudge through her own narration with self-deprecating humor while the celestial pixie and the axe-queen draw from one another’s power and vulnerability until all three have crossed high passes in the mountains that are just as figurative as they are literal. Partway along, the women literally lose the map (it tumbles from an unzipped pocket on Big Heiny when Suzanne drops the pack) and have to travel as alertly and intelligently as they can, putting their wits together. 

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” Roberts quotes her father figure Muir, and muses, “Years later … my yoga instructor would tell me that the journey from pose to pose is the feminine, and the pose itself, or the destination, represents the masculine, and we must honor both.”

Through that forest wilderness, Suzanne catches a glimpse of who she really wants to become: an author. She realizes that both John Muir’s writing, and his namesake trail, offer directions for her to follow.

Whether you’ve ever, or NEVER, contemplated month-long hike into the universe, you’ll enjoy these women’s company for the twenty-eight “days” you spend with them.

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