During our initial night hike into Harriman State Park, Obie and I were walking an unfamiliar trail lit only by my headlamp on a mostly moonless night. I’ve done night hikes before, but not usually with those conditions. As stated in earlier posts, we came across some unusual sights – lightning bugs, pale bats, reflective eyes staring back at us in the darkness.
I’m currently sitting in the airport awaiting a plane to Las Vegas – my first time out there. I’m not much of a gambler nor a club-goer, and I’d rather do as my new friend Baby Bird did, and go rock-climbing in the Nevada desert, but it’s a business trip that will be capped off with a bachelorette party. These are all new experiences for me, and pushing me outside my comfort zone, which brings us to fear of the unknown.
That Friday night in the woods my headlamp found two eyes staring back at me, maybe 30 yards away and to my left. They didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. I whistled and no change. Obie didn’t bark. I couldn’t tell whether he couldn’t see them or just didn’t care.
I weighed my options. I could stop walking and pitch the tent a few feet from the trail, hoping I’d find a flat spot. That was technically illegal and also would be difficult to find in the dark, but it was an option. It also meant whatever was staring at us would know exactly where we were and be able to find us easily. If it was indeed something dangerous, setting up camp in its line of sight wasn’t the smartest idea.
I could turn around and go back to the Jeep and spend the night in the vehicle with Obie. My seats lay flat and we had enough gear in terms of sleeping bag and pad to be comfortable, but I knew I’d feel like I was missing out if I turned around. I’d planned 3 nights in the woods. I wanted 3 nights in the woods, not in my car.
I could keep moving forward – on a trail that would lead either toward or away from the glowing eyes – and face my fear head-on. It wasn’t so much fear of what was looking at us, but what it wanted to do with us. The unknown.
We walked forward, approaching the eyes with caution. I kept glancing around us to make sure no other eyes were closing in and to keep an eye on where the trail was headed. The closer we got, the tighter went my grip on Obie’s leash with one hand and my knife with the other. I tried to keep my breathing steady in case Obie realized we weren’t alone and got nervous too.
As we ascended a small hill and slowly came toward level with the eyes, the creature owning them came into view.
The doe snorted in our direction, eyes fixated on my lamp, and – finally – put her head back down to graze.
I had been hesitant with fear due to a grazing doe – a sight which, during the day, wouldn’t faze me in the slightest. But in the dark, not knowing what I was looking at, she seemed much more intimidating.
In life, as in the woods in the dark, fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. Fear of the unknown is also nearly always more scary than whatever it is you may actually be facing. Sure, it could have been a bear or a mountain lion, or any other number of potentially harm-inducing animals. But if I’d turned around and let fear take over, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I would have left being nervous about returning. Instead, by facing the fear, I found I had nothing to worry about. Remember that quote about “the only thing to fear is fear itself”? My fleeting fear could have robbed me of a night in the woods at a most peaceful site atop a ridge with a beautiful view of the moonrise.
It’s those moments that remind me why I travel often, and often alone – why I want to try new things and push myself beyond my comfort zone. As my friend Sean often says, “When is the last time you did something for the first time?” Fear of the unknown can prevent those first-time experiences that require you to rely on yourself, make a choice, live with the consequences, and come out the better for it.
Today, let’s all try to remember to put on our Nikes, and just do it.