It was supposed to be a joke. When a friend told me over outdoor drinks this summer that she was about to go camping with her new boyfriend, I pursed my lips and gave a knowing grin. “Well, if you can get through that together,” I said, “you can get through anything.”
I didn’t just mean that it would be awkward to shit in the woods in front of her crush or try to make conversation while they spent hours alone together with no Netflix to distract them from each other. The outdoors can test even the most devoted couples. But it’s more than the mundane arguments over how to roast hotdogs over a campfire that make me fear for any woman who agrees to sleep alone in the woods with a man.
Gabby Petito’s case, of course, has me thinking a lot about this. The 22-year-old “van-life” influencer, who documented her cross-country travels in a souped-up Ford Transit, is believed to have been found dead this week near Wyomong’s Grand Teton National Park. The FBI is currently searching for her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who has been described as a person of interest in her disappearance. (The details of this case are still fuzzy, and we have a long way to go until we know for sure what happened in those mountains.)
The couple selfie’d and Instagram-reeled their travels from Long Island to the western United States. They presented that sort of enviable nomadic life many millennials and Gen Z’ers harbor dreams about quitting it all for and embarking on. They kissed on the beach in southern California, frolicked through sand dunes in Colorado, and watched the sun set from the tricked-out backseat of their van.
And as we now know, they also fought. Utah police have released a dashcam video from a traffic stop taken after an alleged domestic dispute between the couple. Cops separated the two, and Petito can be heard saying through tears that Laundrie “really stresses me out.” She also apologizes profusely, stressing her responsibility for starting a fight. “I guess my vibe is like, I’ve been in a bad mood,” she politely admits.
I see an old part of myself in Petito’s eyes at this moment. She’s meek and hunched-over. She nods her head nervously and fiddles with a water bottle, looking for any distraction. She makes herself small.
“I have really bad OCD,” she tells a cop, adding, “Sometimes I just get really frustrated.”
I was a few years younger than Petito when I dated a man who used me as his emotional and physical punching bag when things didn’t go his way. Once he spilled coffee on his computer keyboard and ended up pushing me away, hard, when I tried to help clean up. Another time I came home from a night out and told him I had been groped at the bar, and he said it was my fault for dressing like a slut. Another time I made the mistake of telling him I was not hungry when I came home to see him making dinner; I looked up to see a grilled cheese sandwich being hurled in my direction.
The reasons why I stayed with my boyfriend aren’t particularly unique. The psychology of abuse survivors has been written about at length by experts and advocates. Of course my boyfriend had been nice and loving and the best person I’d ever met before he became the worst. Whatever the explanation, I am quite tired of justifying why I stayed; go ask him why he did what he did.
It was always my fault for starting something, and my boyfriend frequently blamed his outbursts on my “mental health.” He never clarified what, exactly, was wrong with me. I quickly learned to accept his accusations, to promise to get better. I slept a lot to avoid doing, well, anything that might set him off.
“I’ve been in a really bad mood,” Petito says in the dashcam video. I know those words. I’ve said them before while staring at the floor in front of my ex. “I don’t know what’s up with me,” I would say. “I’m so moody all the time,” as if someone wouldn’t be moody after being pinned down on the couch and yelled in the face.
The man I dated was an equal opportunity abuser; he didn’t wait for our camping trips to terrorize me. Nowhere I was with him felt entirely safe, but the outdoors gave his behavior a particular edge.
“You only eat because I say you can,” he told me as we climbed up a scramble during a four-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. He was right: He always controlled our food rations and doled out my portions.
He was gone when I woke up the next morning. He’d taken the map and the food and the car keys, leaving me alone with the tent. I didn’t know how I’d get off the mountain. I walked up the trail in a daze. A kind thru-hiker took pity on me and gave me a toke of his joint and directions to the next campsite. I found my boyfriend there, laughing, surprised I’d made it up in one piece.
This trip has been memorialized on my social media feeds. One photo, taken the morning after he abandoned me, shows me on top of a mountain, my arms outstretched to underscore the majesty of what's around me.
Pillow-white clouds and the blue ridges of a peak loom in the distance. I’m smiling like I mean it. I probably did mean it at the time. It’s easy to get out of yourself for a while when you breathe alpine air and realize you’re just another ephemeral dot on million-year-old topography.
To be a woman means constantly having to negotiate your desires with your safety. You want to wear the short skirt but you don’t want to be harassed on the street, so you pair it with a thick sweater. You want to save money, but you stay out later than you planned to, so you splurge on the Uber home. You want to go camping, but you’re a little afraid of your boyfriend, so you make a plan with a friend to understand that something is very, very wrong if you don’t text that you’re OK by Monday morning.
The outcry over Petito’s death reminds me of the response to another tragedy: the murder of Sarah Everard, a London woman who was killed last March while walking home. The case prompted national protests and a kind of mini-#MeToo in the UK, where many women took to social media to share the ridiculous, but normal-to-them things they do to stay safe during late night commutes.
Everard’s killer—an off-duty cop named Wayne Couzens—is the archetypal villain we don’t know. The stalker in the shadows. The bogeyman. As the public projects guilt onto Brian Laundrie (again, he has not yet been charged with a crime), he represents the danger closer to home. The one who promises it will never happen again. The one who is sorry, so sorry, he doesn’t know what came over him. The one who hurts you because you started it.
There certainly are women who have become synonymous with the outdoors: Annie Smith Peck, a turn-of-the-century mountaineer, climbed in pants which was quite the scandal at the time. She ascended her last peak—coincidentally, on the same mountain range my ex left me to fend for myself on—at the age of 82.
Willa Cather put camping’s intoxicating effects better than any “digital nomad” ever could in My Antonia, writing, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did no want to be anything more...That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” (This comes from he perspective of a male character, Jim Bolden.)
Cheryl Strayed discovered herself after walking over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, completing the feminist triumph Wild as a result. Meryl Streep’s character in The River Wild steps up and gets the job done to save her family from vicious criminals while whitewater rafting in Idaho.
There’s that whitewashed explorer narrative that the outdoors turns us all “wild.” We ditch the pretense of our urban lives and become some sort of primal survivor. That’s a tantalizing opportunity for women. Why wouldn’t we want to ditch the asinine, gendered standards of “real” life? We sacrifice our safety for the perceived freedom. It can almost seem worth it.
And then there are the slasher film horror stories: the Appalachian Trail serial killers, the fugitive who stalks campsites at night for his next, usually female, victim. I have a guilty pleasure podcast called “Park Predators” that dutifully chronicles murders that took place on national parks. Funnily enough, those stranger-danger stories do not terrify me nearly as much as ones where the offender was someone the victim knew and trusted.
As my colleague Molly Jong-Fast and others have noted, Gabby Petito’s case has dominated front pages and social media feeds due a lot in part to her race. It’s the classic case of what journalist Gwen Ifill calls “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” It’s a travesty that 710 Indigenous girls and women have disappeared between 2011 and 2020 and also suffered the fate of anonymity. Adding to the irony, of course, is that Petito’s case—and every case of a missing person in the United States—occurred on stolen Indigenous land.
I was lucky enough to get out of my abusive relationship four years ago this fall. I fled his apartment in the middle of the night, blocked his calls, and ignored the numerous letters he sent me even after I moved to a new address.
I also kept camping. With friends, mostly, but sometimes by myself. I went on my first solo hike. I pitched a tent upstate, and coal-roasted the worst foil-wrapped sweet potato I’ve ever had. I was nearly bitten to death by horseflies. Every bump in the night terrified me. I was convinced a bear would break into my tent, and tear through my soft parts.
I loved it.
I was hundreds of miles away from anyone I knew, but I felt infinitely safer than I ever had when I went camping alone with a man.