Wilderness Taboo Buster China Galland Wants Women to Keep on Trekking

UPDATED 06/29/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/29/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

For five years the comely Marin County mother of three had led scores of anxious city women on hikes through the rugged Point Reyes area north of San Francisco as part of her wilderness workshop entitled Demystifying Fear. This spring China Galland first had to overcome her own apprehension—a killer stalking the region had already claimed the lives of eight hikers. "I finally decided," she says, "that I wasn't going to let some maniac ruin my life." So she screwed up her courage and hit the trails again, without incident. (A suspect was later arrested.)

Confronting fear is all part of Galland's mission: to demolish what she calls the "wilderness taboo" against women striking out into the wilds without male guides. In 1975 she founded Women in the Wilderness Inc., a 1,000-member San Francisco-based organization aimed at encouraging women to strap on boots and backpacks and head out on their own. Galland, 37, stresses that her Wilderness Women are "not a bunch of hard-boiled feminists. We encourage men to participate on most of our trips. Our only requirement is that a woman always lead." In 1978 Galland helped guide the first all-woman raft expedition through the Grand Canyon, and the next year she took seven females kayaking down Mexico's Baja coast.

By far her most ambitious project was last October's journey with 16 fellow trekkers—both men and women—to a region of Nepal where, appropriately enough, a female Buddha called Tara is worshiped. At one point, China (her real name is the more mundane Ruth Ann) stumbled on a washout and slipped off a mountain trail, shattering her left ankle. "A few more inches and I would have tumbled into the river gorge 60 feet below," she says. Sherpa guides carried her piggyback to the next village, and from there she continued the climb by pony for a day before the severity of the break forced her to return to Katmandu. Galland claims her fall "wasn't the disaster it seemed. Coping with a medical emergency 10,000 miles from home created new confidence in myself."

Confidence, in fact, is something she has never seemed to lack. The eldest child of a Dallas housewife and a mechanical engineer, China was in the process of earning the first of two English literature degrees from the University of Dallas when she married at 19. "I was asleep when I did it," she says, "like most women of my generation." While her husband worked toward a Ph.D. in engineering at MIT, she took a job as a research assistant at Harvard. After divorcing in 1966, China went back to Texas to earn a master's degree before returning north to teach English at Boston College. Three years later she married Dick Galland, who taught kayaking and mountaineering at Colorado's Outward Bound School in Denver. In 1974 she organized the first Adult Women's Outward Bound course, a trip down the lower canyons of the Rio Grande.

Since her second divorce five years ago, China has lived in a redwood-and-glass hillside aerie north of San Francisco with her two youngsters by her first husband—Matthew, 16, and Madelon, 15—and one by Galland—Ben, 10. She published her first book, Women in the Wilderness (Harper & Row, $7.95), last November, describing the adventures of 19th-century women explorers as well as her own experiences in the wild.

Galland encourages parents to take their kids along on forays into the unknown. "Exploring heightens my feelings for my family," explains China, who plans an expedition back to Nepal next year. "Hiking in the woods and floating down rivers helped me realize that each of us—city folks included—lives in our personal wilderness. There are no maps; you create your own as you go along."

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