Women Writers in the Wild: Lilace Mellin Guignard and Suzanne Roberts in Conversation
There’s no denying that the baggage we carry—the fear—isn’t just of our own making but handed to us by society and the fact that some people still don’t like to see women alone in the wilderness.
Historically, women have not often been a visible, acknowledged presence in wild spaces—nor on the bookshelves devoted to outdoor writing. Feminist scholarship and activism have concentrated on interior spaces like the workplace, not on wilderness and nature. In the current wave of diversity and inclusion in the outdoor industry, and as the #metoo movement raises awareness of how women experience the world differently from men, it’s time to take that conversation outdoors. Two writers, Lilace Mellin Guignard and Suzanne Roberts, do just that.
Guignard and Roberts met at the University of Nevada, Reno, in the literature and environment graduate program in the early 2000s. Both poets and both interested in gender and nature writing, they had much in common. Years later, they each wrote memoirs about outdoor adventures.
Guignard is the author of When Everything Beyond Walls Is Wild: Being a Woman Outdoors in America (Texas A&M University Press, 2019). Spanning her 20s through 40s, in lyrical and often humorous prose, Guignard recounts her struggles and successes in finding her place in traditionally masculine spaces, where land is seen as woman and women are rarely seen. Guignard lives in rural Pennsylvania with her family and teaches creative writing, women’s studies, and outdoor recreation leadership at Mansfield University.
Roberts wrote Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), which won the National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature, and has a collection of travel essays with the University of Nebraska Press publishing in autumn 2020, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel. She teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Sierra Nevada College in Nevada and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate.
Recently, these two writers spoke with each other about what it means to be an outdoorswoman, and how they learned to feel at home in the wilderness.
As parents, spouses, and friends of women who wish to do things alone, in remote areas, or after dark, I think our role is to help them plan and prepare in ways that minimize risk.
Suzanne Roberts: Your new book When Everything Beyond the Walls Is Wild discusses the challenges you have faced as a woman in outdoor spaces and how that relates to women in general. Do you think things are getting easier for women who want to venture outdoors alone in America, or do you think we still have a long way to go?
Lilace Mellin Guignard: My answer to both questions is yes—it is easier and we still have a long way to go. I’m thrilled and astounded by all the social media around inclusion and diversity outdoors that wasn’t there a few years ago. Not just concerning gender, but all intersectional identities. I laugh and think “thank goodness I took so long writing this book” because the timing turned out to be great. For instance, there’s a SNL video skit called “Leave Me Alurn” that presents some basic issues men don’t understand about women who travel alone—respecting their space, both mental and physical. A few years ago when I first taught my women outdoors class there was nothing like that. Other than your book and Gretchen Legler’s All The Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook, there wasn’t much written from the perspective of a feminist experience and critique.
Still, though, in all the #metoo wave I have not seen the issues facing women who work in outdoor professions, especially in remote areas, get any notice. Both High Country News and Highline Huffington Post did long, solid articles on sexual harassment in the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service in 2016, but no mention of any of those whistleblowers in the big TIME 2017 people of the year issue on silence breakers, or anywhere else that I’ve seen.
Your trip hiking the John Muir Trail that you wrote about occurred in the early 1990s, the same time I was learning how to engage with outdoor spaces without a boyfriend or father. I know my students really enjoyed your descriptions of the different perspectives of three young women. Still, they see that as so long ago and everything as different now. Do you ever find yourself talking with twenty-somethings who think it’s easy for women to move about in public outdoor spaces and any fears or discomfort women feel now is simply their own baggage? Or do you get different reactions? How do you respond? Sometimes I just feel old explaining the privilege that goes along with saying one doesn’t see gender or race or….
Suzanne Roberts: Some of the 20-somethings I speak with are still uncomfortable in the outdoors, but the difference between when we were that age and now is that there are many more women exploring the outdoors alone. I’m not sure if they feel safer because of technology (they often have a phone with them, whereas we didn’t); because being a woman outdoors has become more normalized; or because society is more accepting. I hike alone all the time now, whereas I wasn’t as comfortable doing so in my 20s, but I have attributed that to feeling more at home in the wilderness now, especially in the Sierra, where I live. I’m glad young women feel safer in the wilderness, and they should feel that way, though there’s no denying that the baggage we carry—the fear—isn’t just of our own making but handed to us by society and the fact that some people still don’t like to see women alone in the wilderness. It threatens their sense of the way the world is, the way the world should be. Books like yours bring more awareness of what it’s like to move through outdoor spaces as a woman. I don’t have any children, so I’m curious what you tell your daughter, how you have introduced her to the outdoors and how she has responded?
Lilace Mellin Guignard: I spend a lot of time thinking about how to talk to young women and parents about the issue of self-regulating behavior—what I call spatial patriarchy—that has women limiting their choices based on often false messages about what spaces are and are not safe. My daughter at 12 is starting to have some freedom in our small rural town. I absolutely encourage her to walk to and from the school dances a half mile away even when it’s dark out. She needs to be able to move around confidently and to develop habits like always letting me know where she is by note or text, being on time, and trusting her instincts. I don’t want her afraid of the dark because of something I said. She has an active imagination but now her fears are of clowns and zombies. Stuff she can outgrow. I don’t want to replace that with the stranger-behind-the-bushes-boogie man so many women still fear.
This is tricky stuff because when we discuss safety many female college students tell me they do anything they want without worrying about safety because they can’t control it. That’s a huge swing in the other direction. To me that’s as bad as the ones who want the blue emergency lights with panic buttons all over campus. As an outdoor educator, I teach risk assessment, which means knowing one’s capabilities, comfort level, and the fact that statistically a woman is at more risk of violence in her home and from people she knows. And it’s an equation that involves also knowing what you perceive the benefit of an activity to be. Risk and benefit are different for everyone. As parents, spouses, and friends of women who wish to do things alone, in remote areas, or after dark, I think our role is to help them plan and prepare in ways that minimize risk.
Suzanne Roberts: You bring up some great points, especially the idea of risk versus benefit, and that’s one of the reasons I hike alone so often now. The benefits of it outweigh any risks, real or imagined. I think of this equation often. How did you learn to make those kinds of assessments for yourself?
Lilace Mellin Guignard: It didn’t come easily. When I started paddling in my early 20s I’d scout rapids with my group. It was up to me to decide if I should or could run it and I’d think, “How the hell do I know?” But going through that got me to where I trusted my gut decisions, and that helped in many other things. Really, we do risk assessment all day every day, but some are so automatic we don’t realize it. Do you wear a seat belt? Are there some people you won’t climb with in remote areas? There are places I won’t walk after dark, but there are many I will. Making a choice is empowering, no matter the choice. One of my goals with the book is to help readers who’ve had those choices made for them, or feel like there is no choice. It happens when they are told it’s not safe—as if anything is ever completely safe (and wouldn’t that be boring). But it also happens on an outing with an overzealous friend or sweetie who insists on going further, pushing harder, doing something because it’s the best way, you’ll love it—it’ll be fun. If that’s not your idea of fun then you have a choice. You might not know that activity but you know yourself. Speak up.
In addition to experience and skills, I’ve gained new freedom now that I’m in my 50s. I move around public spaces without much sense of being sexualized. I don’t feel as objectified as when I was younger. I don’t mean I feel less sexual or sensual or even less attractive. I just don’t expect to be reacted to that way, and it is a huge relief. Do you think some of your confidence hiking alone now has anything to do with age in ways that aren’t about increased skill and knowledge?
Suzanne Roberts: Like you, I do feel the relief of not being seen in that way much anymore, and when it does happen, it’s more surprising and interesting, rather than scary or exciting. But mostly, I feel more at home in the woods, especially in the landscape of the Sierra, where I’ve lived the past 20 years. And I think that’s key—the very idea of a home in the wilderness or in wildness, especially for women. You touch on those ideas, especially through different modes of recreation (backpacking, river rafting climbing, etc.) in your book, and I’m curious how you decided what to include and what to leave out?
Lilace Mellin Guignard: Deciding what to put in and what to leave out was the hardest part of writing the book. I’m a structure fiend—as a poet I can’t help focusing on form—and drafting my essay/chapter outline for the proposal was when I decided to use my experiences more-or-less chronologically as a way to talk about the issues I faced in the order I struggled with them. I hadn’t always known I’d be writing a memoir, even though I knew some of my own stories would be included. My hesitation had always been that I didn’t try to become great at any particular outdoor activity or attempt any real unique or extreme adventure, so why would anyone want to read too much about me? At some point I realized, duh, that’s why it would work. My midlevel experiences would be the narrative frame to which I could attach the cultural analysis and stories of historical and contemporary women. They were relatable and wouldn’t come across as “look at me and what I did.” (At least I hope they don’t.)
Then I noticed that different times of my life were defined by different activities, like road tripping and backpacking in my early 20s, then whitewater, then rock climbing, then cycling and more domestic outdoor adventures. Of course I did other activities during those times but seeing this pattern helped me focus, and the activities also lent themselves to looking at different concerns. For each section there is one long essay with a lot of cultural critique, flanked by shorter essays that are more lyrical and experiential. They all had to work together and not repeat information or ideas, except as the experiential essays demonstrate the struggles and realizations in a more felt way. In the lyrical essays, I allowed myself to play with point of view even though it’s nonfiction and the I/you/she is always me. With the longer essays I was always looking for the experience that would tie the critiques to my experience and be a bridge from one idea to another.
The whole time I was writing, though, I’d remember other stories and sometimes find myself putting too much in. I think I had the silly notion that I’d exhaust all my material from those years, but I didn’t at all. I tried to note in my journal what they were so I’d use them in the future. Journals were really helpful when writing about times decades ago, but I didn’t always keep one. The times I left home to write for a few days or weeks, with a nice view and no domestic distractions, were so enjoyable. Reading old journals and looking through photographs, researching trails and looking at maps to reconstruct a trip, writing to people I’d lost touch with asking what really happened or where we’d been felt like a gift. I never dreaded writing, but I might have if I had to do all my writing grabbing a few hours here and there out of my busy day.
You’re working on your second prose book now, right? What’s your process and is it the same as when you wrote Almost Somewhere? Is the new book travel or outdoor writing—and what do you think about those distinctions and how they are used?
Suzanne Roberts: I’m working on a couple of projects. I wrote a travel memoir that didn’t work, so that went into the drawer, but I reconfigured parts of it into a collection of short, funny travel essays called Bad Tourist, which will be out fall of 2020. Bad Tourist is set up like a guidebook, but like Almost Somewhere, it’s more about what not to do than what to do. In talking about this, I’m seeing a theme here, and I think it emerges because I have always had imposter syndrome. I’m not a real outdoorswoman, a real travel writer. I know this is ridiculous, of course, but it’s there just the same, which I do think is related to being a woman in some fairly male-dominated worlds.
I’m also working on a memoir about my relationship with my mom and taking care of her when she was dying, which has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, just emotionally exhausting. And as far as process goes, I’m a binge writer. I thought this might change when I quit my full-time teaching job, but it hasn’t. I clear my schedule and go down the rabbit hole to write. It always takes me a few days to get into the hole, and usually, my house is super clean by the time I go down in because I have done everything possible to it, because once I’m there, I am really there, and everything else falls away. It’s lovely and it’s dreadful at the same time.
I know I don’t have a choice about whether or not I’m a writer, but sometimes I just wish I could spend my days outside, hiking or skiing. That’s the hard part about being an outdoorsperson and being a writer, which is about as sedentary as it gets. My solution is to go on backpacking or skiing trips, totally away from writing aside from a bit of journaling, and then at other times, I’m all in, to the point of not even showering. It’s gross, I know. And it’s crazy-making. But it’s the way I write books, and it sounds like you had to get away to write your book, too, so I know I’m not alone in this. I finished Almost Somewhere at a writing residency in Port Townsend, and I made a huge dent in The Good Time Girl this past May at a writing residency in Alabama.
And as far as genre distinctions, that’s more useful in thinking about marketing a book, rather than writing it, which are two separate things. The Bad Tourist does have a few outdoor adventure essays in it, but it’s mostly travel or place-based writing. What are you working on now?
Lilace Mellin Guignard: I am a binge writer too, and wouldn’t change a thing. It gives me an excuse to take time away in natural settings (a must for me) where I can escape crowds. So I’m binging on solitude too; this is how I recharge.
I, too, had imposter syndrome (and I love how you talk about this in your book) and hope the genre of outdoor writing has expanded some to allow for more diverse and inclusive narratives. I’m not writing now, but I am gathering new experiences for my next collection of essays by learning to stand up paddleboard as well as hunt with my 15-year-old son and his mentor. My next collection will explore labels and distinctions in the outdoor and environmental groups I’m a part of, such as traditional (hunting and fishing) versus nontraditional outdoor recreation, with a continued focus on gender.
Suzanne Roberts: Wow! Sounds really interesting. That will be a great complement to When Everything Beyond the Walls Is Wild. What books by outdoorswomen are you enjoying now?