A Lesson in Fear from the Appalachian Trail

I was sitting on a fallen tree in the central Cascades, several miles down a trail that sees very little use this time of year. It would be raining within the hour. I rummaged through my day-pack for the bag of dried fruit and nuts I had stashed along with my rain jacket, gloves, hat, and miscellaneous essentials. We were six miles into a ten-mile hike and I was ravenous. As I chewed my way through a strip of mango, sitting there beside my wife in silent awe of the myriad shades of mossy, coniferous green, I couldn’t help but notice how absolutely comfortable I was in these woods. I studied and appreciated the beauty of my surroundings without worry about what might be lurking behind the ferns. Stray noises, the sounds of the forest in which we humans are normally not present to hear, went ignored.

It wasn’t always that way.

We began backpacking together while in college. In hindsight, those early trips were disastrous. We humped budget-quality, ill-fitting external-frame packs along overgrown trails and slept in a leaking tent we purchased from Sears. We tossed and turned throughout the night, only partially due to our amateur site selection. Mostly because we were scared. The woods were alive. The snap of every twig and the rustle of every bush signaled the beginning of our demise. It had to be. There could be no other explanation. A hungry bear was making its way straight towards us.

Did we cook too close to the tent?

Did we hang the food upwind instead of down?

Could it smell our fear? Our deodorant? Our socks?

“Hey bear!” I’d yell through my nylon barricade. “Go away bear!” The bear never answered. Why would it? It was trying to eat us, after all.

Alone On the A.T.

The Appalachian Trail stretches roughly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. By the time we were seniors, we had sectioned several hundred miles of the trail up and down the east coast. We cherry-picked the most scenic eighty-mile segments from Vermont to Virginia and tackled them in quick four- and five-night trips. We hiked in the remnants of a hurricane. We went hungry when it was too cold to light the stove. We were bitten by countless mosquitoes and ticks. As far as trip-planning was concerned, I was a masochist. We averaged over 20 miles a day and, not that we had an altimeter back then, but I’m confident we accumulated over 5,000 feet of elevation per day. Up and down, over and over, each and every day.

Little by little we improved our skills, acquired newer, lighter gear, and gained confidence. We even began to sleep through the night without fear of being eaten.

One day, in the autumn of 1996, I decided to head up onto the A.T. for the night. The trail came within thirteen miles of our college campus in eastern Pennsylvania, crossing a highway with a small trailhead I was familiar with. One of the three-sided shelters for which the trail is famous for was just seven miles down the trail. I finally had a car on campus and had no classes the next morning. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) couldn’t come, as she had an exam to study for, which was all the better. I wanted to do this by myself. My own private Into the Wild moment in miniature.

After cross-country practice, I ran back to my room and grabbed my backpack, sleeping bag, and cookware. I tossed in some packets of instant oatmeal and coffee, my five-pound geochemistry textbook, and a flashlight to study by. I may have remembered a clean pair of underwear. Probably not.

This was precisely the type of thing I had always envisioned myself being capable of: a spontaneous overnight trip into the woods—just because. But make no mistake about it, it was also a test. We went backpacking every chance we had, but there was always strength in numbers, even if just with my relatively petite girlfriend by my side. Would I have the same level of confidence alone?

I waited until there weren’t any cars coming then I grabbed my pack and dashed up the rocky trail as it ascended the ridge. The trail climbed steeply from the roadcut, gaining several hundred feet in a half mile. I reached the top and listened. No cars slowed or stopped. I heard no voices coming up the trail. Alone at last.

I hiked swiftly in the fading light, happy to be back on the trail. Within a few miles, I passed a clearcut utility corridor where Kristin and I had once foolishly camped in the open — in winter — and suffered sub-freezing wind chill. That I nervously double- and triple-checked to make sure nobody was following seemed perfectly reasonable. Two women had been murdered hiking the A.T. that same summer. My fear of being spotted, alone, out by the road should have been a warning to me about my suitability for this task, but it wasn’t.

The shelter was empty, just as I had anticipated. It was a weekday in early October in a relatively rural part of Pennsylvania, on a section of the A.T. known more for its annoyingly rocky terrain than its scenery. It was already dark when I arrived so I wasted no time in laying out my sleeping pad and bag, slipping on my thermal underwear and making myself comfortable for the night. I wrote in my journal then climbed into my sleeping bag. My intent was to fall asleep atop my textbook, only sleep never came. Free of tasks and the distracting focus of hiking in the dark across uneven terrain, my mind was able to run wild. Not for the better, entirely for the worse.

My fear of bears and humans kept me awake for most of the night. I jumped at every sound the forest made. I convinced myself I had been followed or that others were no doubt approaching from the other direction. The imagination that dreamed up the story I’m now working on writing was my most fearsome adversary that night. In a dirty wooden shelter, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I squeezed my eyes shut and wished sleep would envelop me. It didn’t. So I continued to lay there terrified and wishing I was back in my bed on campus, my soon-to-be fiance by my side.

At one point I climbed out of my sleeping bag and began stuffing my pack. I was going to hike out. My mission was a failure, I had decided. I wasn’t cut out for solo trips. At least not yet, anyway. I was this close to hiking out in the dark, until I decided not to.

I’ve Been Down this Trail Before

I woke up at sunrise the next morning, both proud and ashamed. I was glad I didn’t give in to my fear and proud of myself for staying the night. But I was equally embarrassed that I let my fears get the better of me, and for no good reason. That was the last time I was ever scared in the wild. I spent the morning in that shelter, drinking coffee, studying, and enjoying the sounds of the woods. The forest, whether on foot or on my mountain bike is a a place of comfort for me. It’s my spa. I’m not foolish and I don’t take unnecessary risks, especially when I’m alone, but I’m never afraid. Even when I know there are bears nearby; not even when I saw a mountain lion cross the trail in front of me, just fifty yards past my handlebars. My fear has been replaced with wonder and respect.

I’m roughly 35,000 words into the first draft of my novel — a first draft that, at this rate, will exceed 150,000 words and require heavy pruning. There have been times these past two months in which it has been near-impossible to see any point in the future in which this task will ever become easy. I sit and work and wonder when writing the novel will be performed with the ease at which I wrote the blog posts for Two Far Gone or the strategy guides I wrote for BradyGames. I wait and wish to be immersed with the innate ability to tell this tale. Will the muse ever arrive? Sometimes those wishes are granted and I hammer out paragraph after paragraph, only to be plucked from my reverie just forty-five minutes later. I jerk back to consciousness with the frightening realization that I have so far to go. And so much to learn. If I am immersed in anything, it’s doubt.

Author blogs, how-to books, and social media are filled with similar admissions of a paralyzing fear that grips novelists of all stripes. I’m in good company, but it’s not company I wish to keep. At least not for long.

As with those early worrisome nights we spent in our tent all those years ago, the fear of being destroyed by this project should (will?) ease with each passing chapter. Just as we upgraded our gear little by little with each successive year, so too will my writer’s toolkit improve with every subsequent draft.

I hiked into the woods one night twenty years ago wanting to test myself. I came out, 18 hours later, a different, more confident person. I tore the band-aid of fear straight off. At my lowest point, on the verge of tears, I slammed my backpack down and yelled into the night. I was not going to retreat! It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. And that’s what I need to do now. I need to just keep writing. Keep plowing ahead, facing my doubts and concerns and just get through that first draft. Survive that first draft and embrace the editor’s pen in the morning.

After all, it’s not like it can kill me.

Post Image by Terry Garrison, used under Creative Commons.

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