Hike some miles in my beat-up Vasque boots, and you’ll know that I’m still afraid. Well, I’m not afraid all the time by any means, but my heart does beat a bit faster when I hear that first faraway rumble of thunder or the proverbial stick go snap! in the night outside my nylon walls.
You’d think, after my own walk in the woods from Georgia to Maine, I’d have more trust in my own two feet, even near the edges of long ways down. But, alas, I still challenge the strength of the seat of my convertible pants as I do the ol’ sit-and-slide when my very active imagination displays before my eyes scenes of yours truly taking spectacular falls. I see my feet slipping out from under me, flying into the air as I land hard on my back, smacking my head. Or taking a plunge into the nearby abyss.
You’d think that, after countless hikes all over the globe, from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon to the Inca Trail to the top an isolated plateau in Israel’s Negev desert, I’d skip merrily from boulder to boulder, nevermind the sliver of chasm in between. Yet, I still find myself frozen in place on the warmest and driest of days, my feet beginning to slip on slick stone or hard-packed earth for lack of momentum until, at last, I have no choice but to “just go.” Or until a trail buddy literally gives me a hand and, I’m sure, a hidden smirk behind an encouraging smile.
You’d think that after hundreds of Search and Rescue missions, I’d be calm and collected while negotiating icy ridges, scrambling across steep slopes, and skiing down scree. But truth be told, I have to remind myself to breathe as I painstakingly pick my way along an intimidating trail or route.
You see, to me it’s not about pride. And it’s not about looking cool and calm when I’m not. I’d much rather look like a dork than break my neck.
Sure, after all those miles of trail that have passed beneath my feet, I’m pretty good at setting up a tent in the wind and rain and have far fewer campsite culinary mishaps than I used to when I was green (ie. mac-n-cheese turned to glue; turning a Whisperlite into a flame-thrower). I even border on being a bona fide pro at backcountry preparedness. However, I still carry with me all the same fears and insecurities I had decades ago when I first hoisted a pack, placing far too much weight on my shoulders rather than on my hips.
No, for me it’s about the journey, be it long or short, having fun and exploring the world on foot while remaining intact, and facing those familiar fears with as much common sense as possible whenever they confront me.
One thing that has changed over all the years, the miles and pairs of retired hiking boots is how I handle and use those fears I’ve never been able to leave behind. Nowadays, I actually see them as more of a help than hindrance, because my fears make me more aware — aware of my actions, the terrain, the conditions. I think ahead, do my homework about trails and routes I’m planning to hike for the first time, and take care both to prepare and to be careful.
When I hear that first rumble of thunder, I now have the knowledge under my belt that I didn’t have years ago, and I’ll look around and consider the safest place to take cover should the storm get closer — a stand of trees of uniform height perhaps or a nearby depression.
Nowadays, I have a much better handle on what works best for me when it comes to navigating sketchy spots and scary stretches, and I can more effectively use my feet, hands, and perhaps a hiking pole or two, not to mention my rear end, to get by without too many scrapes. And I know how to ask for help if it’s needed, available, and willing. I’m able to say, “If you’ll just stand right there to give me a visual barrier, that would be great.” Sometimes, it really is all (or mostly) mental.
My fears make me pay more attention to common hiker errors and how I might avoid those pitfalls. So I leave an itinerary with a friend or family member, check the weather and learn about the terrain before I go, and make sure my light sources work and that I have extra batteries. My fears make me think twice about my strategy before crossing water, including unclipping my hip belt. They make me test the stability of questionable rocks, logs and rickety little bridges before I step, once even preventing me from taking a very big fall. My fear (of those big critters that make twigs go snap! in the night) make me think about good food storage practices where I’m camping. They make me sit-and-step rather than jump. Sometimes they make me go around the long way and occasionally even go back. My fears keep me from being complacent or cocky and, I firmly believe, keep me safer doing what I love most.
So, how about you? What makes your heart beat a bit faster on the trail?
About Deb Lauman
Deb “Ramkitten” Lauman is a freelance writer and novelist, who wrote the first draft of her first book, “I. Joseph Kellerman” (http://www.debralauman.com) while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, which is often the topic of her articles, including “Hiking the Appalachian Trail: What you really need to know.” (http://www.squidoo.com/appalachiantraildirt) One of Deb’s other passions is being a Search & Rescue volunteer with the Coconino County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Department, based near her home in Flagstaff. You can read about her SAR experiences in her blog, Deb’s Search and Rescue Stories. (http://debssarstories.blogspot.com)