“Why am I doing this? Why alone?” I tensely scrolled in my then damp journal. It was 8:35 PM on Thanksgiving night. Ideally, I would have been lounging cozily in the modern-country style living room of my now ex-boyfriend’s family home. Belly full and content from a meticulously made meal, smothering Luke for purrs, while gazing at their moonlit backyard.
Instead, I was plopped on my belly, accompanied by bear mace, human mace, a ready to unsheathe hunting knife, a five-inch flashlight that also served as a strobe (in case I came across an epileptic bear or rapist), a powerful four-inch flashlight, a second-hand copy of The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. The latter a borrow from the aforementioned ex-boyfriend, an ex for only two days then; yet, not the reason why I was camped in a sloping trail in Wicke, Arkansas, at the Cossatot River.
No, this walkabout was months in the making. A spirit journey that had grown from an obscure void I had been feeling and avoiding. I expected to soak in the magic of nature, be ferociously inspired, and leave with inexplicable peace, but what I expected and learned were night and day. Fear suddenly surfaced like a full metal hellion, challenging my perspective of the word and my own potential.
Either by naivete’ or sheer mindlessness, I wasn’t afraid of camping by myself. I was anxious, yes, but not afraid. My friends laughed with me when I joked I would be mauled by a bear, humor that may have been masking fear. In retrospect, I just needed to venture somewhere unfamiliar, to escape, but that’s not what I was calling it. “I’m going on a walkabout,” I explained to my amused friends. Even when driving the dreary, desolate road that would take me to the state park, even when I hiked someone’s hunting camp having been mislead by my confused GPS, I still was not afraid.
I miraculously made it on the trail when a middle-aged woman stopped her car, probably equally bewildered and concerned that a 15-year-old-looking, 5’0” tall female, with a backpack the size of her torso, was on the side of the road looking like an antelope that strayed too far from her herd. She took me to the river bank (where the trail began) then back to get my car (at the deer camp), beckoning me to “Get off that trail if it rains. The river floods fast.” That piece of intel shook me, but I knew the forecast before I came.
I would have canceled my trip if it weren’t for my ex-ex boyfriend challenging me, “You gonna’ let a lil’ rain stop you?” I decided it wouldn’t, but it didn’t end up being a little rain. It rained in thick droplets that eventually soaked into my tent, and would have made for a colder night than it was, if it weren’t for the Köppen sleeping bag. Still, impending doom didn’t jolt my nerves until I finished pitching my tent and a violent rustling of branches toward the bottom of the slope shattered my fantasy. I grabbed the bear mace, holding it with both of my hands, aware, but indifferent of my trembling hands.
When I was young and only a little more erratic, my mother would often check my ego by saying in Spanish, “It’s one thing to call the devil, but it’s another thing to see him come.” As I tightened my grip on the bear mace, adrenaline feeding my awareness, I knew I was living that saying. The entire night a torrent of fears played out in my mind.
Between reading, writing in my journal, and staring at the top of my tent, I strategized how I would survive a potential animal attack:
“If a bear attacks the tent, will I be able to unzip myself without getting mauled? Are there mountain lions? Why the hell didn’t I Google the wildlife up here? If it’s a mountain lion I need to protect the back of my neck; that’s where they get ya’. Coyotes! There is no way I can fight off or outrun a pack. Wait, are there wolves out here? Surely no animals will come out in this downpour. Shit! It’s been raining for hours. A tree could fall on me. Why didn’t I scan my surroundings? If I survive tonight, will I even be able to leave the trail if the river floods? God, for my mother’s sake, please don’t let me die. It’ll ruin her life.”
The fear came in waves. I would be reading and would suddenly become paralyzed. Steadying my breath was laborious. Even with my yogic training, it felt like swimming in mud. At one point, I began mentally singing Grease tunes, falling asleep to “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” I only slept for about 45 minutes. There were moments that I was on the verge of leaving, even in the pitch black and steady rainfall. It was such an irrational impulse, but it felt like a healthy decision. I stayed.
By 5 AM, I was staring out of the mesh part of my tent, wishing for the slightest hint of light. That opportunity would not present itself until 7AM. The first hint of light made the surrounding trees look like shadows on a dark grey canvas, but that was sufficient for me. Flashlight in my mouth, I began packing up, not even bothering to roll my tent into its pack. Tent and lunch bag in hand, I hiked back in a steady gallop.
Feeling like a survivor, I soaked in the view of the Cossatot river from the other side of the bridge that led to the trail, reflecting on how I had fucked up. I romanticized my trip, and had been slapped with the consequences. Maybe that makes me a scaredy-cat, but I’m proud that I stayed. I don’t know if I survived my fears, as much as I managed them–I read through heart palpitations that made my chest hurt and wrote while I forced myself to breathe deeply.
Obviously, I’m no Cheryl Strayed, but I left Cossatot that morning with the fresh understanding that the only way to survive fear, no matter what form it takes, is to be enveloped in it, and I think Cheryl would say that, that makes me brave.