Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Fear is an integral part of any long trail that I have ever walked, and I’d like to believe that anyone who tells you that this wasn’t the case for them as well is telling a lie. It can go by a different name like anxiety, trepidation, uncertainty, excitement, or hesitation, but it’s all a manifestation of fear in some form or another.
I was more afraid in the past, and I don’t think that’s by coincidence. I’ve gone through long miles trying to understand the nature of fear, or even what fear is to begin with, and in moments of enlightenment I feel like I’ve come close to wrapping my head around it. But I’ve never managed to make it to the core. The glimpses gave me a peek into understanding though.
It has to be related somehow to a lack of understanding. The less we know, the more we fear, and by contrast, the better something is understood, the less that feeling of fear permeates into our being. When I think back to the petrifying fear of the dark that I had as a child, I can still remember walking down into my grandparents’ basement where the light switch was at the bottom of the stairs. To get there I had to walk in the darkness into a room that could have held any sort of monster that was waiting to grab me. Even when I was old enough to know that no such monster existed in this world, it still scared me to walk down those stairs without being able to see down there. Intellectually I knew what I’d find when I turned on the light—it was always the same, empty basement with a pool table and scattered boxes—but not having visual proof left me so afraid that even today, twenty-five years later, I can remember how awful an experience it was to have to go down there. The light gave me answers though, and as I’ve walked the miles that are behind me now, I feel like the trail is less unknown than it used to be.
I wasn’t afraid of my first thru hike, the Arizona Trail in the same way that I was afraid of the darkness of my grandparents’ basement. But “fear” is still the right word for the feelings that I had going into that hike. I was afraid that I was getting in over my head. I couldn’t put my finger on what it would be that might stop me from walking the 800 miles from Mexico to Utah, but there were so many unknowns that it left me scared. There was no thing that I was scared of; rather, it was the not knowing that made me afraid.
Then I felt those same feelings again going into the Pacific Crest Trail, because although I had been through a long walk before and I had accomplished walking the Arizona Trail in the years prior, the PCT was so much longer that I felt like it had to have some other challenges that I couldn’t yet comprehend. I wasn’t sure what to be afraid of, but there had to be something, and so I feared this unknown thing—that same unknown thing that I knew wasn’t in the basement of my grandparents’ home, but that I still couldn’t get over fearing.
With the PCT behind me however, the Colorado Trail felt different. I wasn’t afraid in the same way, but then again, the fear that I felt going into the Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t quite the same as the fear that I had going into the Arizona Trail before it. Every one of these experiences gave me a different kind of hesitation and uncertainty.
It wasn’t as overwhelming when I looked towards Colorado though. I had seen longer miles before the Colorado Trail. I had walked through taller mountains and hotter deserts, and for all practical purposes, I had seen the challenges that I’d find on the Colorado Trail before.
Years had passed though. Maybe there was something that had changed in me since I finished the Pacific Crest Trail and I was no longer as strong as I used to be. What if I went into the Colorado Trail without any fear only to find it harder than I remembered? What if I couldn’t do it after all? What if the nights were too cold? What if wildfires turned me away? What if I forgot some critical piece of equipment? What if I injured myself out there? What if I couldn’t find water? What if I ran out of food?
In a way, I think that a thru hike would be easier if I didn’t have to watch it approaching. If somehow, I could just find myself at the trailhead one day, and from there just begin walking north, then the fear would never have to build and I could just enjoy every moment of it, from beginning to end. But that would be nothing more than a fantasy scenario. And at the same time that I dream of such a world where anxiety and trepidation aren’t a part of big experiences like the trail, I wouldn’t really want to wish them away even if I could. Because despite the natural desire to want to wish away the hard parts of life, like the fear of a trail that I’ve felt ever since that first one, there’s a part of that fear that makes the experience all the more desirable.
Without challenge, I don’t know that it would draw me in like it does.