Back country hiking is my husband’s passion. So to celebrate our anniversary six years ago, he took me into the wilds of the Shenandoah, to hike a series of circular trails near and crossing over the Appalachian Trail. It was the trip of a lifetime. Unused as I was to carrying a fully loaded backpack and my new hiking boots, I struggled on the rocky inclines, especially the ankle busting terrain on Brown Mountain.
But what made that trip memorable was our repeated encounters with black bears. Seventeen sightings in four days–although some of those might have been the same bears making their rounds in the wild blueberry bushes.
Now, most people would love that experience, as did my husband. What a rare gift to be that close to unpredictable, furry, breathing, grunting nature. And that each bear didn’t seem to mind us while they grazed on berries and turned over logs for bugs should have set my racing heart to rest. After all, berries are tastier than sweaty me.
In my overactive imagination, I envisioned charging that ended in mauling. Gore. Paws the size of dinner plates with razor claws. Teeth that ripped flesh, leaving hamburger like bodies.
It probably didn’t help that I failed to educate myself about black bears before going hiking. I didn’t understand that black bears are not like Grizzlies, nor like the violent creatures of mythical fame. With each encounter, my adrenaline surged and panic rose. I begged to leave on the fourth day, asking my husband to please call a ranger to escort us out. That was the day I went to use the little out house and a mother bear showed up with her cub.
But even being several yards next to a mother bear wasn’t enough to defeat my Richard. He was very disappointed that I didn’t see our trip as an adventure to remember, but a trauma to overcome.
Since then, I’ve taken the time to educate myself about the nature of black bears. I’ve taken short hikes to expose myself to the feeling of being vulnerable. With each trip that ended in success, my confidence grew.
It took six years for me to be able to hike in bear country without jangling nerves. I even saw this:
Her name is Flower, and she lives on Grandfather Mountain. She is in captivity. But what I noticed was the difference in the size of her paws compared to the size of a bear paw in my imagination.
What was I so afraid of?
The truth is that wilderness back country hikes are challenging not because of bears. I learned that my fear has everything to do with my vivid imagination that supplies me with a stream of dramatic, worst case scenarios. It’s not that I fear the bears, but the idea of what it would mean to be seriously injured or die a violent death on the trail. It’s so unlikely for this to happen, but it is an idea that persists.
So, I was celebrating in my heart with the freedom that comes with hiking unperturbed by fear. I had a handle on my bear-scare and all seemed well. There were waterfalls to enjoy, cool breezes, quiet peace.
Then one day on a particularly steep hike down to the river, Elliot, ever curious and full of adventure, decided to turn over a large rock. Richard saw that as a “teachable” moment, and described in detail what would happen if he turned over another rock and was bitten by a rattle snake. How he would have to carry him up this terrain so rocky and full of roots. And how that was a potentially deadly situation, especially since he was not carrying our first aid kit.
And I know this was an important lesson. But all of that drama played out in my head, giving me surges of anxiety. With the idea that I could lose my beautiful boy in a random encounter with a snake, I was no longer having any fun at all. I was reminded that anything can happen on the trail. I remembered the story of one man who went hiking by himself in the mountains, slipped on a river crossing and broke both of his ankles. Four days later, some college students found him hobbling with the aid of two crutches he had fashioned from long sticks.
What if it was a simple fall that turned a summer day in the mountains to a near death experience? Some of these hikes are treacherous. People fall from cliffs every year. In other cases, hikers are lost and have to be rescued by search parties. It’s not the kind of place to vacation if you don’t enjoy a challenge.
Which I do, at least physically.
It’s the terrain of the mind that is the hardest to hike.