Fear

Mile 1935.1
Andover, MaineHuman-Nature Hostel

OK, this place is a place. I have sensory overload. Ska and reggae and conversation always in the background, amazing woodwork, hikers hanging everywhere—beanbag chairs, porches, firepits. Hikers playing trivia games, watching movies, outside smoking weed, hanging at the fire pit. This is a clear vortex. 😁 I bought $37 of panic candy during a road trip to the general store, which I can’t possibly eat in one zero, and here I am in a bed in a loft. I’m clean and warm and wearing crazy velour loaner plants.

Hikers are either speeding up or slowing down. Yesterday I met two South Africans who started April 6 and a woman who started February 23. All of us, circling the same drain, as it were. I got a text from Kiwi! She saw a moose! She thought it was a donkey. 😆 That’s so Kiwi.

Woobie is here, although he’s hiking out today. Firefly, also, and a hiker I met up on Washington whose name I forget. Plus a bunch of others, all hiking out today.

Good things here: The atmosphere, for sure. Yukon, the owner (who was on some show called Naked and Afraid, which I thought was a joke but apparently isn’t 😄) is a former thru-hiker and is fantastic. He’s patient with the crazy bustle, but still exerts control over it all to keep things moving along. The food is terrific. I had a restaurant-quality cheeseburger last night, and the coffee this morning was actually the best cup I’ve had on the trail. My bed last night was crazy comfortable.

Disadvantages: You have to leave your pack outide in a wet tent. Which I get and respect, but it’s a big problem for, say, dealing with this massive resupply box I have. Can’t spread out, organize, optimize. Plus, you can’t hang your stuff up indoors, and my tent is soaking wet. My plan is to wait until all the shuttles have left, then go hit the pack and try to get it ready for tomorrow. Also, only camp shoes inside. It’s weird that AT hostels now have this expectation that everybody has camp shoes. But the bigger problem is that this place had a sensitive septic tank, so you have to schlep across a gravel yard to a portapotty during daylight hours. It’s like walking on Legos if you’re in bare feet!

What is it with the camp shoes? It seems so… section hiker. 😆 On the PCT, you could always tell the JMT hikers; they were the ones with camp shoes.

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So. Fear.

Fear of heights, like most phobias and fetishes, is hardwired. It’s just a fact of you, like blue eyes or that crazy birthmark that looks like a kangaroo. I remember being terrified as a toddler on the Jersey boardwalk, panic-stricken that I might somehow slip between the slats and plummet to my doom (on the soft cool sand three feet below). As a younger child, my mother and park rangers had to peel me off staircases twice—once on the third level of a firetower, and once on a ladder leading up to the cockpit of some historical airplane. I get… not dizzy, not vertigo, but in the panic I lose my sense of balance, and feel like my feet are going to fly up over my head. I can’t breathe. My hands rurn to rock and grip whatever root or rail they can find. Like… it’s awful. I’m sure you can relate. We all have our own phobias.

So. The mountains in Georgia and North Carolina and Tennessee are tallish, but not high, if you know what I mean. No scary precipices, no hundred-foot drops. Albert Mountain at mile 100 was scary the first time, and let me tell you, I’m currently climbing Albert Mountains about thirty times a day.

The scariest single thing I ever did in my life, at that point, on July 14, 2013, was summit Katahdin. I did it on my hands and knees, with my fingers practically clawing divots into the rock face. I’d flipflopped, so after Katahdin came all this crazy high stuff in Maine and New Hampshire. And later, the new scariest thing in my life, which has yet to be surpassed—“the Chute” on Forester Pass, 13,000 feet , in the ice and snow on the PCT in 2016. Six inches wide, ice. A straight drop into infinity. Scary enough for me to quit a thru-hike that instant—or at least, after I stopped shaking like a leaf. 😁 (They told me Glen Pass was worse. I couldn’t face it. I went back in 2017 and did the whole Sierra section. Glen Pass was not, in fact, worse. Nothing was worse. I’d quit the PCT immediately after I’d done the hardest thing on that trail. Out of fear.)

The anxiety, terror, panic never go away. But the muscle to breathe through it gets stronger.

At Fontana I met a young female hiker named Eleven with acrophobia who’d jumped out of an airplane to try to get rid of it and was surprised that it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. But all that stuff teaches your body how to remember to breathe while your feet are advancing an inch at a time.

An inch at a time, a day at a time, a step at a time. That’s the moral of the story. If you’re failing, you’re taking too big a bite of the thing. Get smaller. Breathe. Still failing? Get smaller.

I didn’t internalize this on Katahdin, or in Maine, or on Forester Pass. It finally sank in in the Sierra in 2017, when I had to cross these crazy raging streams on little toothpick logs. The rushing loud water is its own distracting terror. The motion of the water increases the fear and the dizziness. Then I thought, “You’re not responsible for crossing this river. You’re responsible for finding a single flat, solid footstep.” One step. Stop there for as long as necessary to feel the solidity, to take a breath. Stop there forever. The world is forever in that center of balance. The hell with pasts and futures and people on the bank. Just wait until it feels solid. And then take another step. Just one step.

I think the best way to train against a fear if heights is probably on a plank over a little stream. Then a smaller plank. Then a round stick. Moving water. Breath. And the wolf that gets stronger is the wolf of concentration, the one that can filter out the panic so the body keeps moving.

And there we are. I’ve climbed two bare rockfaces, infinity high, in the last few days: Old Speck and Baldpate. In both cases, fuck the magnificent view. I didn’t turn around, didn’t even look, until I was safe at the top with firm footing and a solid exit. I hate the view. The view is death. I crawled sometimes—particularly on Baldpate, because it was raining and slick as hell, and the wind was gusting hard. Honestly, I was terrified. But that rarely stops me anymore.

One step at a time. That’s how you get to Maine.

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PS. Yukon just spotted me limping acroos the gravel and gave me a brand new pair of flipflops to wear. What a great host that guy is. Maybe I’ll check out his naked TV show someday. But probably not. 😆

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