Alaska made me strong. My first summer, I worked for a month building a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. For seven hours a day, I peeled ninety 25-foot log poles using only a drawknife. In winter, I snared snow-shoe hares along the frozen Coleen River and trekked through tundra at 40 below. At age 16, I backpacked over the Brooks Range, paddled a whitewater river to the Arctic Ocean, and spent three days trapped on an island with a polar bear. Each experienced tested me, both physically and emotionally. At times, I felt afraid and doubted myself and my abilities. But, over time, I became more and more competent. I saw myself not as a 16-year-old girl following her father’s lead, but as a confident, independent woman.
But, in Barcelona, Spain I learned what it was to feel helpless.
It was our first night in the city. Naomi, my longtime friend and traveling companion, had picked out a tapas bar in El Born, a festive neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars. We got dressed up and walked through medieval cobblestone corridors beneath balconies leaning out into the street. It was a Saturday night and the bars were already overflowing with people. As we passed one, a group of men whistled at us. We ignored them. Both of us had experienced Spanish cities enough to know what to expect when two American girls walked alone. I had never found it flattering, but I never found it aggressive either. This time though was different. It persisted. Every bar we passed, we were verbally harassed. I thought of the mace my dad had given me sitting on the bed of the hostel and wished I had thought to bring it. Finally, we found the tapas bar, a hole in the wall, and headed for the entrance. A group of rowdy guys moving in a pack intercepted us. They were American, and they were drunk.
They stumbled toward us and moved in front of our path. As we passed, eyes straight ahead, one grabbed me and started laughing. I shouted and twisted away. We sped up, their jeers following us to the door of the bar. But the bar was closed and the men were still watching us. We turned and headed down another street without any idea of where we were going. All we wanted was to find a taxi and go back to the hostel, but the farther we walked the emptier the street became. Finally, I saw a taxi ahead and took off with Naomi following behind me. She stumbled on the cobblestones in her boots. “Run it down and hold it,” she yelled after me. I kept sprinting. I was fifty feet away when the taxi took off. Cursing, I started to walk back to Naomi when I saw two guys on skateboards turn up the street toward her. There was no one else around. The first guy spread out his arms to block her path. The second guy circled behind her. The first one said something and the second one started laughing and moved in closer, while Naomi stood quiet, clutching her purse, frozen against the wall. I ran toward her, holding my steel water bottle over my head. “Leave!” I yelled. The first guy turned. “Leave!” I screamed again. The second guy raised his hands and started backing up. “No — Wait,” he said. Naomi pushed past him. We left the alley and followed a couple ahead of us until the street widened and we reached an intersection. For fifteen minutes we stood on the side of the road, trying to call a cab, but none stopped. Men continued to whistle at us, some with their wives sitting right beside them. As we hailed a cab, one car pulled over to the curb and trailed us as we ran down the sidewalk, the passengers calling after us.
When we got in the cab, Naomi was crying. I was too stunned to feel anything. I thought of the guy with the skateboard in the alley and the look on his face when I yelled at him. He had looked guilty, but also as if somehow he wanted to explain. In the moment, it was all a game: faking Naomi out, circling in, the laughs. I don’t know if he ever meant to do any real damage. But he made us feel powerless.
Riding in the cab through Barcelona, I thought back to my experiences in Alaska. There, I was often afraid. In the Arctic wilderness, it’s hard not to be. But, I had never felt weak or helpless. Instead, my fear, and overcoming it, had empowered me. Bathing in the ice-cold Coleen River, butchering a caribou in the half-light of winter, battling the rapids and the wind in the foothills of the Brooks Range, that gave me grit.
But that night in Barcelona, I felt lost. A part of me wanted to be done with my adventure. I thought about taking a flight back home and camping out in my parents’ basement. But, I didn’t. The next day Naomi and I got up and went out to explore the city; we were reluctant, but we knew that giving into our fear would be worse.