When I was in my early 20s, my mother and I went for a walk along my favorite nature trail near Wolfe’s Neck off the coast of Freeport. For years I would hike this same path by myself. I loved nothing more than to feel the sea breeze on my face and smell the salt air as I hiked the winding trails along the ocean.
We pulled into the parking lot that autumn day and I immediately noticed a man with dark hair pull into the spot next to us. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, but for whatever reason, I brushed off this feeling. There were other people scattered around, what could happen?
We trekked along deeper into the woods toward the glittering sea in the distance, the tall pines and birch trees hugging the sides of the path. Another typical crisp autumn day. Soon we heard soft footsteps behind us. I turned and the man with the dark hair jogged by us in silence. My mom and I continued our chattering, not paying much attention to what was waiting around the bend. Suddenly, the man was standing in the trail facing us and holding his shorts in his hands. We froze. My heart stopped. He lifted up his hands and exposed himself. “Hi ladies, what time is it?”
At first I was shocked, my mind wouldn’t compute — this can’t be happening! Then a million thoughts flooded my mind. We are all alone out in the woods with this guy! What is he going to do? What if he has a knife or a gun? Is he going to kill us? Is he going to rape us? Should I yell? Should I scream? Holy shit is he really standing there naked in front of us? Is this some kind of joke? Am I seeing things?
My mom — god love her — actually had the courage to say something back. She straightened up, stared directly at him and laughed, “I think time is the least of your problems, buddy.” This threw him off, as he slunk back into the bushes and disappeared. I was shaking like a leaf. My heart was exploding out of my chest. Not only was this the most disturbing thing to witness (and in front of my own mother)) but now, we had to make our way back to the parking lot in the other direction for fear he would pop out of the woods again and do god knows what. Longest walk of my life. (This was before cell phones, so we had no way to notify anyone of what had just happened.)
We finally looped around the entire park and reached the gate. I had to describe our story to the man stationed there. He called the police and I had to detail my humiliating story all over again to him.
Turns out, this man had done this many times up and down the coast on different trails to random women and young girls. Yes, he never actually did anything physical. Yes, he was finally caught and arrested. Yes, I can laugh a little about how absurd the whole thing was now.
And yes — this single harmless experience caused me to never, ever walk on that trail or any other trail outside again for years. This man, because of his depraved urge, took away my sense of safety, my god-given right to freely walk and enjoy the outdoors, something that I adore immensely.
To this day, I carry pepper spray when I walk alone. I hold it in my clenched fist, ready to spray the shit out of any man who jumps out of the nearest tree. I constantly look everywhere, I’m always aware of my surroundings, because hey, that man over there might do something or that guy over there might say something or hey, I might be abducted, raped or murdered.
To men — most of you have no goddamned idea what this is like.
And I wasn’t even physically touched. I wasn’t raped or sexually abused or attacked. Imagine what it’s like for a woman who was. The fear, anxiety and soul-crushing torture of shame and guilt she faces the rest of her life. The rest of her life! It will color and shape everything she thinks or feels or believes for years to come. It never really goes away. Never. No amount of therapy or alcohol or drugs will stamp out that memory that is seared onto her soul. She can overcome it, yes. But she will never forget it.
Sadly — but not surprisingly — since the creepy man on the trail, I’ve experienced sexual harassment at work from my boss, unwanted groping from strangers, and general leering and verbal abuse many, many times from men*. The sexual harassment at work only five years ago sent me into a tailspin of nonstop anxiety attacks that put me on anti-anxiety meds for 2 years. Of course, I quit the job — I had to. No amount of money in my paycheck matters. Even now, years later, the mere chance of me running into this asshole randomly when I’m in the same town sends me into the nearest bathroom stall hyperventilating with full-blown panic attacks.
And I wasn’t even raped. I’m one of the “lucky” ones.
Hopefully, my own daughter will be “lucky”, too. And that’s sad as hell.
This post is inspired by fellow blogger, Jess.
You can read her post here What it’s Like to be a Woman in America
*Note: I do realize not all men are like this, some always treat women with dignity and respect and if you are one of those men, kudos to you.