When there’s a bear lurking behind every tree, just waiting to eat you

It was September 25, 2016, and I was alone in the woods, five hours from home, hoping not to get lost, or injured, or eaten by a bear. Or squirrels.

I was experiencing a sort of dark night of the soul and the week-long camping trip was intended as a healing journey, or a good start to it. It was a way to get distance from daily life and dive completely into my emotional trauma, disconnect from it, seek clarity, recapture some lost creative spark, blah, blah, blah.

And obviously, there’s no better way to do that than to go camping, alone, in the woods, on top of a mountain, 238 miles from home. For a week.

(I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that just Thoreau-ing your life away? Hahahaha. *snort*)

It was on the second day — a Sunday afternoon, after the park had emptied of almost all humans — I decided I was going for a hike.

It would be (a) the most literal metaphorical journey or (b) the most metaphorical literal journey I’ve experienced to date. Let me know if you work that one out.

Let’s put it this way:

I didn’t have a good map. I didn’t have a good compass. I didn’t have any experience hiking alone. I didn’t really know how to get to where I thought I wanted to go. I didn’t really even know where I wanted to go.

I simply picked a spot, packed a snack, and started walking.

(I also packed an emergency survival bracelet, a flashlight, a knife, bug repellent, water, a small towel, my driver’s license, twenty dollars, and lip balm.)

Let’s be honest: I was scared. Scared enough to bring a form of government-issued identification so unsuspecting hikers and/or Search and Rescue could more easily identify my body. But I was also curious, and knew I was capable of reading signs and following blazes, and just kind of figuring it out.

I simply picked a spot, packed a snack, and started walking.

There were a few different paths at the trail head, some broad and pristine, some narrow and rocky and barely more than a deer path. It was confusing. I was nervous. So I picked a direction and it only took forty minutes before I finally checked my tiny plastic compass to confirm that, yes, I’d been hiking the right trail… in the wrong direction.

I stood again at the trail head, staring at the signs and the paths laid out in front of me. In the stillness, I tasted the bitter reality that I’d just invested over an hour of my life hiking through eerily silent and unfamiliar woods and had gotten absolutely nowhere. That’s when the voice started:

Look, you’re alone. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not ready for this. People are worried about you. You’re gonna get lost. You’re gonna get injured. You’re gonna get eaten by a bear. You just hiked for an hour! Now let’s go back to the tent where it’s safe. I’ll make soup.

Where it’s safe.

That’s how I knew.

That’s how I knew it was Fear talking, because that’s what Fear does: it tries to ride shotgun and push its twin, Curiosity, to the backseat — or better yet, off the wagon altogether. It reflects our confusion and doubts; it rationalizes our insecurities. It holds your face in its gentle hands like a loving friend, stares deep into your eyes, offers you comfort, and begs you — please, please — not to look away.

Let’s be honest: I was scared. But I was also curious, and I knew I was capable of reading signs and following blazes, and just kind of figuring it out.

Fear keeps us from getting eaten by bears, yes! But it also takes us away from adventure. And I didn’t spend weeks preparing and packing, driving five hours into western Pennsylvania, I didn’t cut myself in the first three minutes while hauling firewood, race to get my camp set up before dark, didn’t brave D.C. Beltway traffic and Appalachian back roads, burned fingers and cold showers, wet shoes and a tiny cot, stink bugs and spiders and frustration and loneliness just to sit alone on a gravel pad and be very, very, very safe.

Not this time, Fear. Today, we’re going on an adventure.

In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her evocative Liz-Gilbertian way why it’s worth the ugly discomfort of leaning into fear if you want to live a life where you actually, you know, do meaningful things:

“It isn’t always comfortable or easy — carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean — but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting. 

“And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. […] we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.”

I never made it to the place I had intended to go. I don’t even remember what it was. Instead, I found the joy and freedom that comes with play and calculated risk. After that, I hiked all over the place, every day — wherever and whenever my curiosity took me. I had punched through the tissue paper wall, and now the woods were my home. There was so much beauty. There was so much peace.

You know what there wasn’t? Bears.

All of which is to say this:

That place you want to go — the life you want to experience, the work you want to create, the people you want to meet — lies far beyond your tent; it’s deep in the woods along a rocky, twisted, unfamiliar path. Fear will step in front of you, time and time again, suggesting detours, shortcuts, even a full retreat. All terrible suggestions.

The way forward is not to fight fear, argue with it, negotiate with it, bury it, destroy it, or least of all — to follow it.

All you need to do is see it. Hear it. Give it a little pat on the shoulder. Maybe offer it soup after you tell it to get in the back and keep an eye out for bears.

Then pack yourself a snack, my friend, and start walking.

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