Open Letter from an Allegedly Doomed Woman.
In under eight hours I’m flying from SFO to Key West, Florida, to begin a four-month bicycle tour up to Maine, punctuated along the way with stops in big cities to work as a mostly-nude model.
This trip has been a year in the making, but until I began planning for this trip, my knowledge of bicycles was somewhere between layman and nonexistent.
Plus, the fact that my primary moneymaker for the last five years has involved capitalizing on my moneymaker (ahem!) has already made me privy to a fair amount of controversy, particularly given my own feminist bent that’s baffled traditionalists and other self-proclaimed feminists alike.
My five-year stint as a traveling freelance model has garnered me a disproportionate online following compared to my other friends who are living similar lifestyles and doing similar things, with the one tiny but fundamental difference that they’re not naked all over the Internet.
This leads to all sorts of emails, many of which have nothing to do with modeling, but with general speculations on my life and character — some scathing, others unduly flattering, all unsubstantiated.
Many people have gotten in touch offering support: suggestions on places to stay and things to do, tricks they’ve learned from their own bike tours, recommended books. Well-wishes and virtual fist-bumps. And that’s awesome.
On the other hand, I’ve received a lot of unsolicited advice with less of a constructive upshot… or, moreover, doomsday proselytizations that I’m representing a fallen woman archetype.
This is largely coming from people I haven’t seen in years, whom I’ve only ever been peripherally acquainted with, or whom I have never met.
Strangers have sent me links to accident statistics for the states I’ll be traveling in, or rape statistics, followed by the insistence that I really ought to bring someone with me — particularly a big strong man whom I can elect responsible for my safety by deferring to his judgment instead of making my own day-to-day choices.
Then there are my personal favorites, backhanded compliments along these lines: “Hello! That’s so cool what you’re doing! You really remind me of this really inspiring woman who did x, y, and z amazing things… until her untimely demise, that is. Oh, man, I shouldn’t have even said that!…
(except, really, that’s only a rhetorical regret, because I’m fully equipped with a backspace key and am still choosing to send you this email as is rather than exercising tact.)”
I’ve been sent lots of blog posts about how this-one-time-I-was-assaulted-while-couchsurfing or this-one-time-my-friend-did-everything-right-and-still-got-hit-by-a-drunk-driver.
I get it. This is a reception I’m pretty used to. I’ve traveled alone, hitchhiked, done extreme sports and lived in the backcountry and plumbed giant pyrotechnics without being properly qualified.
I’ve financed my existence primarily by going to strange cities and showing up to meet up with strangers — usually male, usually one-on-one — and waddle around presentably in front of their cameras. I’ve inspired a lot of raised eyebrows.
Presenting me with graphic examples of my own mortality will not actually propel me into different life choices. Nor will they empower me to better prepare against the freak incidents that occur abundantly in this absurd world.
As much as we try to hold on to notions of universal cohesion — of cosmic justice or karma — in order to assuage our fears that bad things could happen to good people for no reason, I basically believe we live in an absurd world, and that no amount of either praying to God and paying tithes, or attuning my chakras or projecting good vibes, will safeguard me absolutely from risks of crisis, trauma, or death.
Sure, having a self-deluding sense of security while brazenly undertaking unfamiliar, potentially dangerous (scarier still: potentially randomly dangerous) pursuits isn’t wise.
But there is nothing constructive in reminding a would-be adventurer that, no matter what preparations she takes, she has a limited amount of control in what happens to her.
I haven’t been conned by the youthful fallacy that I’m invincible. I’ve had a few rattling near-misses. I’m terrified of this trip I’m about to take. I’ve thought about everything that could go wrong. About painful deaths and the humiliation of failure. I’ve had uncomfortable dreams about it.
I realize something really could happen to me.
However, that something really could happen is true no matter how placid and tame of a lifestyle you create for yourself. Making all the safe choices won’t save your life, either. It won’t guarantee you a life of fulfillment and love — it won’t even safeguard you from dying young.
However, it might make you forget (if you ever knew) what it feels like to be free in your own mind and body (whether or not you’re externally free), cut open, naked, both infinitely strong and infinitely vulnerable.
It might make you forget (if you ever knew) how to feel beautiful when no one is there to offer you validation — or when everyone is lobbing their criticism.
It might make you balkanize with friends who agree with you about most things, but from whom you never learn anything, for fear of being pitted against the world without the crutch of elitist us vs. them solidarity.
It might make you clutch at codependent relationships or an unfulfilling career because romance and status are the only ways you know how to substitute having intrinsic passions, interests, wisdom, strength — virtues you could offer to those you love, or apply to your work, if you chose to cultivate them.
Moreover, it might make you preoccupy yourselves with other people’s lives, scrolling over their news feeds and leaving negative comments on the status updates of people you hardly know, interviewing your mutual acquaintances about the whereabouts of people you’ve never shared a connection with and then asserting your criticisms of anything they’re doing that you don’t quite understand.
It might make you send strangers opinionated emails about how they’re on an express train to humiliation or tragedy, to cry hubris and tell them, “How dare you? You’re wasting your life. You’re selfish, stupid, proud, entitled. And also a slut. And you’re going to die this way, and good riddance, because it will prove I was right to doubt you.”
Rather than denying my fallibility, I’ve chosen to confront my own fears and neuroses about relinquishing control over my own outcomes, to embrace that terrifying absurdity… because the upshot, every time I’ve gotten out of something at least mostly unscathed, has been a sense of identity and strength and euphoria and meaning that I don’t think I could manufacture within a life without surprise and challenge.
For some reason, that’s grounds for a lot of people to despise me or wish for my failure.
At some point, whether tomorrow or in fifty years, in some way, I’m going to die while doing whatever I’m doing. So is everyone. And when I kick the bucket, whether tomorrow or in fifty years, someone could project their own worldview onto the event — the moral of the story.
If I die young, it will prove to many people that I was wrong.
But the anonymous animosity I’ve received during my life, followed by the risk of posthumous embarrassment, is not as scary to me as the idea of looking back in thirty years, with sound mind and body, on a life unlived.
A committed bonne vivante bearing scatological proclivities, Bumpkin Wolfgang is an ex-yuppie who quit a cushy office job in favor of running off to the mountains, where she spent six months building trails and digging cat holes at 13,000 feet. The experience irretrievably addled her brains, and she’s since been on an unstructured pilgrimage to nowhere in particular, which has led her to work as a ski instructor, massage therapist, freelance model, golf cart mechanic, and so on. She believes in candor, experimentation, and catharsis, and generally enjoys this whole Being Alive Thing. Her table manners border on obscene. You can reach Bumpkin via her website.