In response to the movie Wild being in (select) theaters, I am featuring some Wild Women who are going against the norm when it comes to people’s perception of what a hiker should be. The women featured are some of the most badass hikers, male or female, out there! Today we are featuring Helen “Cat” Beckers. She runs a fantastic and often hilarious blog, Walking Womad where she shares her hikes, photos and other adventures. She is also an outdoor educator in Germany!
TTS: Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a hiker?
Helen: I grew up in a hiker’s/climber’s family in Belgium. Both my parents are long distance hikers. When I was 15 my dad solo hiked the Camino, all the way from our home in Belgium to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. So I guess it’s obvious who I got the bug from. Each vacation my parents would take us kids hiking, climbing, mountaineering. We did some crazy stuff back then.
TTS: Many hikers who hike the John Muir Trail are from California or the surrounding area. What inspired you to fly from Germany to do this hike?
Helen: It all kinda started with my dream of hiking the PCT. That dream is so old I can’t even remember when I first heard of the trail. Anyway at the time I couldn’t leave Europe for 5 months (at least I thought I couldn’t) neither did I have the money to do so. But the JMT seemed doable. I was at a point in my life where I needed to do something just for me. I had just gone through a divorce and I had the need to feel strong and independent. I needed to fly away to some far wild place. It wasn’t running away, it rather was a celebration of my new gained freedom. And I was like: “If I can do that, I can do anything!” Of course that’s nonsense, because I now believe a person can actually do anything, no matter what has happened or what you’ve done before. It’s all a matter of to how much you want it and what you’re willing to do for it. Compared to what others do, the JMT is not a big deal. But to me at that time it was a challenge, especially going solo. It was the key to find my strength and my passion and to relight my inner fire.
TTS: You had an encounter on the trail. Can you tell us about it?
Helen: On the evening of day 2 on trail (and in fact my first night all alone in the “real wild”, well at least it was “real wild” to me) a mountain lion came to visit and decided to stay with me till the morning light. I had just eaten my dinner and sat down in my tent, writing my journal, when I saw something moving behind a bush, about 30 feet away. I have the crazy habit of speaking with animals out loud, may it be a lama, a bee or a mouse. I thought it was a deer so I was like: “Hey deer, come out, show me your beauty.” To my astonishment the animal came out, only it wasn’t a deer, it was a mountain lion. We stared each other in the eyes for about 30 seconds (I can tell you I stopped breathing) and then he or she started walking around my camp. I still remember, though I felt scared to death (we don’t have mountain lions in Belgium) thinking: “My god, what a beautiful creature!” The way it moved was just amazing, so strong, graceful and elegant.
As soon as the mountain lion started circling my camp my thoughts went in all directions. What should I do? Break down my tent? Go back? Hike on? It was slowly getting dark, and in either direction I had at least 2, more likely 3, hours to walk till I’d reach people for sure. So I decided my only option was to stay. Besides I thought it was a bad idea breaking down my tent in front of a mountain lion, being in a “close to the ground-position” half of the time. So I stayed and I started banging my pot. I kept on banging and banging. I didn’t know if it would make any difference but it gave me the feeling of being in control.
After about 13 hours of being trapped in my tent (I guess it was around 9 am, I didn’t have a watch or cell phone to check) I heard voices. So I started yelling. Dave and Gordon from Seattle “saved” me and gave the word trailangel a much deeper meaning to me. It definitely was the longest night of my life. I’ve prayed, I’ve surrendered, I’ve asked what lesson it is that I need to learn, I’ve made promises. The only thing I didn’t do was sleep. But I can tell you I’ve never ever learned so much in one night like I did in that night. In the end and above all I’m very grateful for what happened. The encounter made me stronger, more aware and more grateful. Besides…not everyone gets the chance to spend a night with a mountain lion!
TTS: Looking back is there anything you would have done different?
Helen: If I’d be alone and in the exact same situation… probably not. Yet I wish I would have been braver and less scared. I wish I would have kept talking to the mountain lion the way I would have when a deer had come out from behind that bush.
TTS: What advice would you give to women looking to hike on their own? What about concerns friends and family may have?
Helen: Go! Hike! Follow your heart! Don’t let the fear of other people keep you back. As long as you use your common sense (which to me includes at least some basic knowledge of orientation, map reading, interpreting weather conditions, backcountry safety, LNT,…) , have some guts and trust your intuition, you’ll be fine. I feel safer in the wilderness than I do in a city at night. If your family and friends worry, you could carry some sort of spot device, so they can track where you’re going (and of course it could be useful in a rare case where you’d really need help). I guess for women hiking solo as well as for their family and friends “trust” is an important key (not the only one, but -at least to me- an important one)!
TTS: Do you finding thru hiking to be more of a mental or physical challenge?
Helen: Depending on the trail I’m hiking it may be a more mental or a more physical challenge. Though I think in the end, when it really gets tough, it’s the right mindset that keeps me going. I feel at some point my body can keep going, but my mind has to be strong. Good thing I’m not a quitter. When I put my mind on something… nothing (alright…almost nothing) can keep me back. And o yeah, humor is a key too. In the most nasty situations some dirty humor can do miracles :c)
TTS: What do you cherish most about your hikes?
Helen: There are so many things I cherish when I’m out there. I love the feeling in the morning when my body starts moving again and after 10 minutes I’m like: “Ah, this is it! Life is perfect! I wouldn’t wanna be anywhere else but here!” I love being out there and not hearing a sound, except for the song of the wind, the flowing of the river and the call of a coyote. Nature becomes my teacher, my friend, my home! And I love the fact that I need so so little to live so well, to feel so great, to be absolutely happy.
TTS: Are there other female hikers you look up to or go to for support?
Helen: Of course there are some other female hikers I look up to. There’s Christine (aka German Tourist), Kristin Gates, Sarah Marquis, Anish, Jennifer Pharr Davis, … and I love Carrot for her writing! If only I was half as cool as these women!!! But really, I look up to each female hiker who has the guts to follow her heart and to do what she loves, who decides not to live a life of “what ifs”, no matter what other people say!!! When I start doubting myself, I go to my mom for support. She always says: “Child, all you gotta do is walk!” She’s right, it’s that easy!
TTS: Can you tell us about your Wilderness Education Program?
Helen: My partner and I own a wilderness school in Germany, where we teach outdoor-, survival- and wilderness skills, nature connection, art of mentoring, coyote teaching and try to pass on the knowledge of native cultures. Most classes and trips we offer are for adults, but we work with kids and teenagers as well. In December 2015 we’ll start a new project (“school on the road”) for teens between 15 and 19, who need some time off from school, who wanna learn from the natural world and life itself. Our plan is to organize and accompany 7 teens on a 3 month-long biketour through Australia or on a hike on the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand. With our work and our way of living (we live in a tiny home) we hope to inspire people, to bring them closer to nature and to help them find their passion. Our website www.weltenwandler-wildnis.de is in German, but if anyone wants to know more, I’m always happy to share information in English.
Helen: It’s time to fulfill the bigger dream! I’ll hit the PCT next April! I’m gonna try to blog a bit when I’m on trail, so those who’d like to are welcome to follow along on my walkingwomad blog or on my facebook page!
Looking for more inspiration? Check out these other wild interviews: Jennifer Pharr Davis, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, Helen “Cat” Beckers, and Kristin Gates!
Last modified: September 2, 2017
Thanks for all the great women stories!
These articles on Wild Women are fantastic.