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Opinion

My feminist icon isn't Beyonce, it's a bruised-up backpacker

Guest blogger
Feminism's freshest face isn't a pop star, but backpacker Cheryl Strayed

It wasn’t long ago that feminists were ostracized activists viewed as nothing more than man haters. But thanks to years of work and the recognition from a few key figures, pop culture has finally embraced the notion of gender equality.

There are many faces of the current gender equality movement. But to me, the absolute embodiment of the empowered female isn’t Hillary Clinton, Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, or even Beyonce.

It’s a bruised up backpacker named Cheryl Strayed.

After the death of her mother and a messy divorce, Strayed hiked a significant portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, an incredibly challenging wilderness route that stretches from the southernmost tip of California all the way to the Canadian border.  And she didn’t just hike those 1,100 miles. She hiked them alone.

Strayed’s journey -- portrayed in her memoir “Wild” and the new film starring Reese Witherspoon -- speaks to me as a young woman who has taken a similar pilgrimage.

When I was 22 years old, I sold my car and most of my belongings to embark on a yearlong trip backpacking around Australia and Southeast Asia, also alone, with the goal of working on farms and learning about food production. At the time I didn't realize it, but that experience, challenging as it was, shaped me into the woman I am today. 

Working as a glorified day laborer without a worker’s Visa (at the time Australia didn’t grant them to Americans, and there was no sense getting one for unskilled labor jobs in Thailand), I weeded vineyards, cleared paddocks, harvested coffee and pruned grape vines in the bitter cold — an immigrant experience that was very far from my relatively privileged upbringing in suburban Southern California. I hitched rides, doing my best to pick up local languages, soaking up as much as I could learn about food production along the way.

Of course there were times, like Strayed, where I felt incredibly vulnerable simply because I was a woman traveling solo. Then there was the questioning, which I still get when traveling for work, namely regarding the whereabouts of my husband, followed by queries as to why a nice girl such as myself doesn’t have one at my age, and finally why on Earth would I ever travel alone? Then there were the warnings of how I could get robbed or raped, or worse yet, might never find said husband because I was too busy globetrotting.

To be fair, being on the road can be quite dangerous. I questioned myself, just as my family and friends back home did, when money was low or when life got lonely, or I was simply just dying for a hot shower or a warm bed to sleep in. And there are plenty of things I had to consider as a female on my own that a man would never have to worry about.

But those challenges weren't an excuse to quit, or worse yet, to never start.

In those moments of doubt, I leaned on a similar narrative to what Strayed told herself. “I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me."

Just like Strayed, that time on the road forced me to confront my demons, to value life’s simple luxuries, to realize the world's view on Americans wasn’t as rosy as I was raised to believe, to know what it's like to be judged based on where you come from, to learn to be hyper-aware of my surroundings, and most importantly, to never give up -- even when the odds are stacked against you.

Confronting poverty and gender inequality in other parts of the globe made me incredibly grateful for my ability as a Western woman to embark on a journey such as mine. As far as we have to go to achieve true gender equality in the States, it made me thankful for the strides that have been made. And, it gave me the confidence to realize that I can do absolutely anything a man can do.

No matter the distance covered, travel is always humbling in that way. It’s one of the very few things that you can buy that will actually make you richer.

A century ago, doing what Strayed or I did would have been even more difficult. But as far as we've come, I still face those preconceptions of what a "traveler" is on a daily basis, not just on the road, but in my professional pursuits.

Even in this era of female empowerment, in a time when feminism is trendy, I’ve personally been told by production companies that "travel is a man's job. They [the Travel Channel] have a male audience, and men don't want to see a woman's job." These are actual words that came out of a female producer's mouth as I was pitching a travel show.

What? We need more strong, empowered young women exploring the globe in the media. There just aren't many out there amid the Anthony Bourdains, Andrew Zimmerns and Roy Chois of the world.

I hope that stories like mine and Strayed’s can help change that and inspire a new generation of young women who are fearless both in their work and in their journey toward self discovery.

 Krista Simmons is a culinary travel reporter and TV personality based in Los Angeles. You can follow her here.

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