Fear And Anxiety On The Trail

By Julie Edwards

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

— Georgia O’Keefe

For the first time in three weeks, I felt calm.

The effort of negotiating the snow-packed trail without crampons or cleats kept my body occupied. My senses were alive to the woods: cold air, bright sky, the crunch and squeak of snow. My mind was mercifully quiet. The sum of all this, against all reasoning, was absence.

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The morning before on the phone with my mother, I’d crumbled under the weight of too many sleepless nights. My days were filled with gnawing anxiety that ranged from the cosmic (what are the odds of global war?) to the personal (how could people advantage “locker-room talk over the safety of my body?). I eyed every stranger with suspicion. I reassessed personal relationships. Everything I believed about the basic goodness of the world tilted. The ground grew unsteady. I grew quiet.

My mother said, “I think you should see someone.”

It was good advice. When I was younger, anxiety perched on my left shoulder. Lodged just behind my ear, it viciously whispered gibberish at me. It is quieter these days, but settled more solidly in my body, cropping up at the oddest moments lest I get too comfortable, too relaxed. It is an ongoing struggle – the physical manifestations now so familiar that some corner of my brain is always searching, searching, searching for some sliver of worry to latch onto.

On the trail, though, it is gone – replaced by blessed absence. Our hike that day had no agenda – we didn’t even have a route mapped out, choosing instead to stitch together whichever trails appealed to us at each junction. If I was looking for anything, it was a phenomenon I had first observed years ago in Wyoming where, from the high desert floor, I watched in delight as gusts whipped sheets of snow off the peaks of the Wind Rivers. I witnessed it again from my home in western Montana, and was hoping that Colorado’s famed 14,000 footers would reward me with that same raw power. Further up the trail, looking westerly from The Loch, they did. The mountains, silent and impenetrable, were crowned impossibly with movement – wind and water and light, winter’s confetti thrown up in joyous celebration of impermanence. It is an unceasing wonder – not the same as watching clouds skimming over a mountain. This is the mountain itself, moving.

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Just before the last pitch to Sky Pond, we stopped, assessing the icy falls and vertical climb to what we finally marked as that day’s destination. There was a lone hiker off to the left, hands thrust in pockets and chin jutted down into his coat.

Steve (my hiking partner), fearless and preternaturally well-balanced on any surface, made the climb. I did not. The hiker and I stood apart, each separately contending with the late-afternoon wind. Tall, bearded, dark haired and dark eyed, he broke the silence first.

“Are you from Colorado?”

“No,” I replied, “Montana.” I volleyed the question back and learned that he was a student in a nearby state. “But I am from Pakistan originally,” he added.

“Then you know something about mountains.”

A smile. “Yes – but I’m done for the day. My friends are up there,” gesturing with a nod beyond the ice falls. “One of them has climbed to the basecamp at K2. But I know my limits.”

“That makes two of us.” A shared grin, now. His friend returned, skidding down the icy rocks, Steve not far behind, maneuvering with the skill and confidence of a mountaineer. We talked of K2 and Nanga Parbat, of our desire to trek in the Himalayas, then went on our way while they waited for the rest of their party: two brothers who, he had told me with a laugh, had been arguing so loudly up at Sky Pond that he could hear them over the wind.

On the hike down (during which we were eventually overtaken by the students, each a far stronger hiker than I) the trail grew crowded. We ran into a small group, obviously new to the outdoors, puffing up the trail, the young man in the lead asking about proper trail protocol – who has the right of way? “Uphill hikers,” Steve replied, stepping aside so they could continue their climb.

As we got closer to the trailhead, the crowds thickened and I noticed something I’d never seen on a trail before. Most of the people out with us were people of color. Others were from very far away. One woman wore a brightly colored wool poncho. Another saluted us with a German accent. We exchanged nods with three different south Asian couples as we came parallel to them on the trail. People slid effortlessly between English and Spanish. A group of young students from east Asia chatted happily amongst themselves, waiting while one finished some macro-lens shots of berries and pine peeking out of the snow. Stopping to take a photo of two men who had been taking turns photographing each other, we were thanked in accented English and learned they were from Argentina and France. A young couple stood in the middle of the trail, he in a dapper wool coat and she in a dress and vintage heels, smiling for their engagement photo – the literal picture of beauty and hope, in each other and in the future.

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Climbing the last leg to the trailhead, Steve up ahead, the day that had unspooled before me wound itself back up and settled in my chest. I spoke into the darkening woods: “It isn’t anxiety. I’m afraid.”

Like many women on the trail, and in the world, I fight fear all the time. Every time I slip on a backpack. Every time I’m in the wilderness. Every time I’m car camping. It is always there. Can I do this? Am I strong enough? During my first deep trip into the desert, each step was an act of will. The fear was palpable, settling so tightly in my chest, pulling at my breath, that for the entire first day I was certain that my pack was ill-adjusted. I try to make a point of not letting fear rule me, but it is – indeed – a conscious choice. Every. Single. Time. It’s a choice I make every time I step off a plane in a new country. Every time I crawl into my sleeping bag. Every time I take the next step toward creating the woman I want to be in the world.

But, this. This fear was different, born not of self-doubt but of deep love for everything around me. The realization that our current external narrative was so darkly opposed to what I’d experienced on the trail surfaced sadness – grief at all we stand to lose. It was fear for our civil liberties. It was fear for the future of our public lands. Underneath it all, it was fear that we’ve rejected the very idea of these things.

Everything about that day – trust in my own body, willingness to go into the unknown with someone, simple connection with people who have their own ways of being in the world, languages I can’t understand but would like to learn, new hikers, and immigrants, and young lovers, and whole families together, outside, in our great, wild, wondrous public lands – everything about that day reflected and magnified all I’d chosen to believe about the world. I trust fiercely in what engagement with the wilderness and world teaches us: That there is possibility for shared experience. Shared ownership. That public lands are sacred, and worth saving, and hold enough grace for us all. That we are not diminished by being willing to step aside so that someone else can gain ground.

 

I trust fiercely in what engagement with the wilderness and world teaches us: That there is possibility for shared experience. Shared ownership.

I was afraid of none of it, even though our national narrative told me I should be afraid of all of it. I was afraid for all of it, because I love it all so much. I am terrified every moment of my life. But at the end of every hike, every trip, every moment of connection, I’m a little stronger, a little less afraid, a little more in love with the world. I acknowledge the fear, but I will choose engagement – every time.

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Author’s note: At least in terms of public lands, we’re perhaps one step closer to realizing some of the fear I felt that day. My own Congressional representative – and our own probably future Interior Secretary – despite a strong stance on keeping public land public, recently voted in support of a bill that would make federal land transfer back to the states that much easier.

Julie Edwards is a writer & photographer based in Missoula, Montana. Find more of her work on her Website and read about her overlanding adventures on her blog.

How do you manage fear and anxiety?