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Adventure, Alpine, Travel / March 5, 2017

Women are reclaiming the adventure story

Written by: Stacey McKenna

In the first chapter of Harley and Me, author Bernadette Murphy observes, “Women in road films are rarely driven by a pursuit of adventure—more likely they’re in flight from abusive males… Where are the heroines’ journeys that are life enriching?”

According to cultural scholar Alexandra Ganser, female protagonists are seen as venturing into a “dangerous frontier” when they hit the open road. There’s an unspoken social expectation they must have good reason to confront such unsafe spaces. In contrast to the male narrative, in which adventure seldom needs justification, women’s tales of daring are often framed as quests to repair a broken life or a fractured self.

Damaged women are central to our blockbuster female travel and adventure stories. Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to cope with the death of her mother, the dissolution of her marriage, and her ongoing struggle with heroin addiction. Elizabeth Gilbert credits the heartache and confusion that followed a messy divorce for prompting her year-long soul-searching trip around the world.

That trope now shows signs wear. Last year (and the early months of this year) brought us a fresh bounty of adventure memoirs written by women. And at least two of those new books challenge the genre’s conventions with bold, unapologetic writing about the quest for a better life.

In 2010, Steph Jagger quit her corporate job and left her comfortable life to chase snow around the globe. Her inspiration? Boredom. Curiosity. And a sign at Whistler instructing skiers to “raise restraining device” before disembarking their lift chairs.

Jagger spent 10 months skiing down 45 mountains on five continents. She accumulated nearly 4.2-million vertical feet —the equivalent of descending from Everest’s pinnacle to sea level 145 times. Jagger’s memoir—Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery—tells about her adventure and the life overhaul it triggered.

In keeping with more traditional female narratives, Unbound marries physical adventure with self-discovery. Jagger learned to ask for help as she lugged 80 pounds of gear through airports and set her ego aside when fatigue and New Zealand’s mountains tested her limits. However, she is not the standard heroine who needed everything to fall apart before she set out.

“I did it from a place of seeking joy and looking for more in my life,” Jagger said. “And of course along the way things broke, because I had to take them apart. But all of that came from a place of choice as opposed to force.”

A similar restlessness inspired Bernadette Murphy to take the 5,000-mile motorcycle trip she writes about in Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life.

“I was in mid-life, my kids were getting older, and I was craving a bigger life,” she said. In her mid-forties, she decided to climb Mount Whitney, something she thought her asthma would make impossible. That first test inspired more challenges.

“It all started by mistake. I didn’t think I’d get into motorcycles, I didn’t think I’d run a marathon. I found out I was stronger than I thought I was. I keep doing stuff that shows me, ‘oh you’re stronger than you think you are,’ and I end up wanting to do something bigger because of that.”

“As I started spreading my wings… it made me look differently at my marriage. ”

Murphy’s book interweaves her own narrative with an abundance of research on risk and adventure. It’s an almost scholarly defense of big adventures and their power to expand a life. It’s also a prelude to Murphy’s divorce.

“As I started spreading my wings, because it was so rich, it made me look differently at my marriage, and see for the first time how unsatisfying that part of my life was,” she says.

But the friends and family she had expected would support her decision responded instead with resistance. Loved ones shook their heads at her bike and its noisy pipes. Some even shamed her for wanting to leave her husband.

It’s this discomfort with women wanting more that troubles Jagger. “When a kid is bored we tell them to get their coloring book, go outside,” she says. “When a man does it, we tell him to go climb Everest, go for the promotion. But for women, the reaction is, ‘Are you sure? This sounds risky. You should be happy with what you’ve got.’”

Neither Murphy’s nor Jagger’s tale follow the standard adventure script, which author Blair Braverman has referred to as a “straight-up and almost male adventure narrative, which doesn’t require a lot of introspection.” (Braverman is the author of yet another 2016 adventure memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube)

These books push back against the restraints dictating why and from where women can embark on their adventures. They question the need for women to justify making big changes, taking big risks, or simply asking for more. And in doing so, they make a bit more space for the rest of us to forge our own path.

Both Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery and Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life are available for purchase now.

Want us to review your book? Email your request to [email protected].

about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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