I spend a lot of time tromping about in the woods by myself. It's not that I don't have good playmates. I do. But going alone holds a strong appeal. I like solitude. It suits me. I have noticed that some people are startled by the notion of my choosing to go solo. Sometimes I’m out there for 4 or 5 hours at a stretch, which can get you pretty deep into the woods around here. They are nervous about my safety: What if something happens out there? Aren’t you afraid? The answer for me is generally No. And also, Yes. A healthy fear and respect for the wild is a good thing. We've all heard enough true stories with very sad endings to remember that the difference between everything being fine and dandy and everything going horribly wrong can actually just be one wrong step. Literally placing your foot on the ground in the wrong way. One moment of imperfect judgment. One bad decision. Taking a wrong turn. Not bringing enough water. Forgetting an extra layer of clothing. Out there things can get mightily fucked up in an instant. Mostly you pack up and go and it’s all just fine, but yes, it’s risky. Then again, so is getting in the car and driving to the grocery store. Statistically I’m much more likely to be incapacitated or wiped out completely behind the wheel of my car than to meet with my final unknown surrounded by swaying pines on a spiny ridge in the Green Mountain National Forest. What was it Bilbo or Frodo or Gandalf said? Going out your door is dangerous business.
There is just about always a moment in any outing when my heart skips a beat or two and I feel the fear. Sometimes it’s when I round a corner and spot a large dark shape in the woods and it takes me a moment to realize it’s only a harmless stump or boulder or shadow. A few days ago I was descending from the Skylight Pond trail when in my peripheral vision I saw a dark undulating movement about 75 yards away. I froze, my heart clanging around in my rib cage. I instantly thought: fisher cat. About the right size, about the right shape, about the right color, moving in about the right way. Whatever it was, it disappeared quickly and I took a breath to remind myself that critters out there — even potentially dangerous ones —have no interest in running into me either. Many years ago, hiking in Glacier National Park with my brother, we came upon a still steaming pile of grizzly poo, right in the middle of the trail. Vermont black bears are one thing, but a Montana grizzly is something else entirely. We simultaneously desperately wanted and desperately didn’t want to see one.
Sometimes fear just slips into your back pocket, unnoticed at first. Just this past week, breaking trail on a snowy section of the Long Trail, I found myself in a place I didn’t recognize. It took me quite awhile to find the white blazes again. This happened a few times that day. I have a reliable sense of direction, enough grains of common sense, and decent problem-solving skills, so it usually doesn’t take me too long to find the trail again if I lose it. But there is a very specific length of time within which I need to find my way, or concern turns to agitation which brings on the pin pricks of panic. A certain amount of fear can keep you safe, but crossing the line into panic is not only counter-productive, it can be dangerous. I knew I needed to keep that shit in check. I think when fear first begins to speak, it needs to get just a little bit of air time. Let it be heard, for just a moment, but don’t let it take center stage and run the show. I was more than halfway through a 4 hour hike, so the idea of turning around and following my tracks out, while off-putting, was still certainly an option. I wasn’t really facing peril. The chirps of panic were quieted for the moment.
One day in July my husband and I set out for a long trail run. Three quarters of an hour into it we stopped and looked at each other quizzically. What the hell? What sounded like a dump truck speeding down a nearby dirt road turned out to be a violent hail storm coming right at us. It came on so quickly we barely had time to react. Trees were toppling around us as we sprinted up the trail. I was terrified. Tom (who — in case you don’t know him — is kind of a lunatic) had this huge grin on his face as he yelled and maniacally egged-on the storm. There is a thing that happens in the body when faced with danger. A biological imperative which served us well in our cave-man days of hunting and being hunted. It’s the fight or flight response. Adrenaline is pumped through our bodies to give us a prodigious infusion of extra strength and energy. Suddenly we are able to do things we didn’t know we could do. The same chemistry that helped early Neanderthals outrun or fend off a sabre-tooth tiger 10,000 years ago helped Tom and me maneuver ourselves to relative safety through a swath of falling trees in that violent summer storm. I guess you could also argue it’s the same stuff that makes me have an anxiety attack at a flea market. Not so useful in that case.
Here’s the thing though. The body has to deal with all that extra adrenaline after the danger has passed. It has done its job and it is now time for it to vacate the premises. And in case this has never happened to you, I’ll tell you: the leftover adrenaline in your body does not go away politely. It does not just quietly get re-absorbed by the body while you catch your breath or tie your shoe or move on to whatever is next. When you’re done with that massive adrenaline dump, your body wants it out of you. Now. I found this out that day near the top of Moosalamoo, and every few miles the whole way home. Have you ever wondered where certain sayings come from? Like, Whoa that scared the shit out of me! Well, wonder no more.
I think the trick is in making the distinction between fear which is useful versus fear which is not. Useless fear engenders restless bed tossing and fretting about death, taxes, climate change, the next Supreme Court appointment. Important things to care about, yes. But fear can take a dry matchstick of worry and ignite it into a middle of the night inferno of distress. (Which, p.s., can render us entirely useless the next day, so now we are not only worried but too exhausted to do anything helpful.) Useful fear, on the other hand, keeps us mortal sacks of skin intact and here on the planet to do our good work as long as possible. Useful fear helps us to put on a helmet, buckle our seatbelt, cross that river with care, stay focused when descending an icy peak. It is said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in fear’s presence. No matter what scares us (flea markets, hiking alone, politics, jumping out of a plane), we all need courage to put one foot in front of the other, do it anyway, fight our fights, right our wrongs, and every day keep answering Mary Oliver’s question: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?