When you live in the country, like I did for the majority of my childhood, learning to navigate the wilderness constitutes a way of life.
Where I’m from, tiny villages and towns are separated, like so many islands, by kilometres of forest and field. Public transit is non-existent, and the list of things within walking distance generally only includes your mailbox—which in many cases is still at the end of a lengthy driveway. Getting much of anywhere without a car is impossible, unless you’re up for a very long hike. Even then, most businesses shut down by 7 PM on weekdays. Time and distance work against the intrepid explorer.
Though Toronto is only three hours away from my hometown, I experienced a lot of culture shock when I moved here for university. The nights were no longer oppressively dark and quiet; each street glowed with life and electricity. My new Torontonian friends’ nonchalant attitudes toward such wondrous inventions as the subway and 24-hour grocery stores continuously baffled me. While my tiny, 500-person village had had one poorly stocked food mart, there were now hundreds of grocery stores and restaurants within walking distance of my residence. Three dollars and a comfortable pair of shoes could get me to an incredible range of places. I felt like a sailor who had suddenly been granted an uncharted ocean and unlimited access to a boat.
More baffling still was how many of my new friends did not have—and had no desire to obtain—a driver’s license. I soon learned that for many people my age in Toronto, driving was a largely superfluous skill. But when you grow up in a place where going anywhere other than your house or school requires begging your parents to give you a ride, earning that little plastic rectangle feels like sprouting wings.
I still remember vividly my sense of explosive freedom the first time I drove alone. Instead of feeling confined by all those miles of wilderness, for the first time I felt a mastery over them. In my first few weeks getting to know the city, this sense of freedom expanded unchecked until I felt almost as though the streets themselves might bend to my will, if I so wished.
My first encounter with what I now privately term “urban wilderness,” which I would soon come to know just as well as the wilderness of my childhood, was halfway through September of first year. I had been out with some friends at a restaurant on Queen Street for a birthday party, and by the time we left, it was late. I hung back for a moment outside the entrance to wait for someone who had lagged behind. As I waited, a man, very angry and probably drunk, strode up to me and began to yell sexual obscenities. The city had always seemed so close and full of people, but in those few moments I felt as though I were stranded in open water. The man looked like he intended to run right into me, and he was blocking my path to my friends, so I had to dash around him in a wide circle to reach safety. He continued to follow me, still yelling, until one of my male friends, the only one who had noticed what was happening, grabbed my arm and guided me away.
Getting from place to place in the country often involves making concessions for safety. Snow days are par for the course, since most people don’t live in towns but in isolated houses connected by narrow, winding dirt roads. These roads are often rendered impassable by snow or freezing rain, so bus cancellations become less a safety precaution and more an issue of survival. Driving at night means proceeding cautiously in constant fear of hitting a wild animal. Many of my friends and family, myself included, have sustained damage to their vehicles or persons in such collisions with nature.
Predators are also a concern. Throughout high school, “There was a bear in my yard” was an acceptable and not entirely infrequent excuse for missing class. While I was home for Christmas this year, my neighbour told us she had started carrying a gun when she went out at night to care for her horses—the coyotes in the area were becoming a little too bold. She and some other local farmers had begun to discuss the possibility of illegally culling them, just in case.
When I was 11, my best friend had a sleepover in her backyard. She lived in a small house bordered by thick forest, and our tent was well-stocked with junk food. Before her mother retreated to the safety of the house, she advised us how to deal safely with bears. “Make lots of noise,” she told us. “If you see one, don’t give it any reason to come near you. Most importantly, don’t go outside by yourselves.”
Bear sightings in that area were rare, so I doubt there was any real danger. But lately, when I’m walking home alone at night, I find myself remembering that advice.
Recently, I traveled to Ottawa with some friends for a conference. We went out for drinks one night a few blocks from the hotel. I wasn’t having a great time, and before long I decided to head home. Though two of my friends left with me, my desire to be alone made me push ahead. In the three blocks between leaving them and reaching the hotel, I was harassed by three separate groups of men. The first group blocked my path halfway through a construction tunnel and refused to let me proceed until I gave them my opinion on their “date-ability.” The second group stood close behind me while I waited for the light to change and mimed sex acts at me. The third group literally ran me off the sidewalk, into oncoming traffic, because I wouldn’t tell them where I was going. One of them attempted to hit me in the face.
Halfway through this trek I had ducked into a convenience store to get my bearings; the respite was brief, and the thin bubble of safety the well-lit space created felt small. I recalled the times in my childhood when I would swim out to the raft at my cottage. I was always too scared to swim back by myself, out of my element and fearful of what big fish might be lurking in the dark waters below.
When I moved to the city, I thought I had left behind the archipelago of accessible space that had characterized my youth. But ever since that first incident on Queen Street, I am constantly reminded that, as a result of my gender, my environment still restricts me. Instead of worrying that the store will close before I have a chance to buy dinner, I worry it will be too late to walk home by myself. Instead of bracing for wild animals in the road when I travel, I brace for catcalls. I no longer rely on my parents or a car to help me reach my destination, but on the support and safety provided by my friends (usually the male ones). Although I had hoped that moving to Toronto would increase my freedom rather than restrict it, I’ve since learned that, for women, urban existence constitutes its own kind of wilderness.
Ultimately, I’d much rather possess the dual skill sets I’ve developed for living in both country and city than ignore the dangers that necessitate them. Though the necessity of the latter angers and saddens me, if I must exist in dangerous spaces I would prefer to know the safest, most intelligent way of navigating them. If my experience living in both environments has taught me anything, it’s that you will face some form of wilderness no matter where you go. And if you’re properly prepared, it’s possible, at times, to thwart it.
Although for women the rules are nowhere close to fair, I know that if you wait in fear while the wilderness howls around you, you’ll only be beaten down. The intrepid explorer always prepares herself with a map.