Hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the scariest times of my life, and yet one of the least dangerous.
It was interesting to me that when I would talk about our plans to tackle the 2,000+ mile journey over ominous terrain, the first thing a lot of people would ask is “Are you going to carry a gun? Aren’t you afraid of getting robbed/raped/murdered?” I honestly hadn’t thought to be afraid of that. I was too busy worrying about getting lost/injured/depleted or struck by lightning or bitten by a snake or mauled by a bear. Fearing other humans hadn’t yet made the list.
After months of preparation we set out on our trek, first climbing to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine with a gross underestimation of how long and hard it would be. We staggered into camp well after dark, hungry and dehydrated and well aware, in that very first day, that we were in for a long and arduous journey. I, personally, got a little freaked out about what I’d gotten myself into.
The next 10 days were spent traversing the “100-mile Wilderness,” a stretch of trail in Maine that is perfectly defined in its name. Our calorie calculations were terribly insufficient, my boots were busy developing quarter-sized blisters on my heels, and our bodies were screaming over the miles we had to make each day in order to get to our next food drop.
No one would have faulted us for bailing out at the first road crossing but we decided to keep going and, while it never got to be easy, we eventually resigned ourselves to the difficulties. We figured out a better food formula and our bodies got used to the expectations. And I got new boots. It began to be a bit of a routine, but what I didn’t expect and couldn’t get used to was awakening every night to the sound of footsteps.
You read that right. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but every night for a big chunk of our journey, I would startle awake and sit bolt upright in my sleeping bag, completely convinced I’d just heard footsteps approaching through the leaves. I became certain that the folks who had feared the humans the most had been exactly right!
Of course, it didn’t help that while we were hiking, the man accused of murdering a young couple on the trail the year before was on trial in Pennsylvania. It was big news and it was a common topic with hikers and other folks we met. It was terrifying to imagine such an encounter with a crazy person in the middle of the woods. When you are at home, you have your escape plan in mind. Which weapon you’ll grab, who you’ll call, which window you’ll climb out if an intruder enters your home, are all details that you’ve determined, even if only in the back of your mind.
When you’re in the woods, your only escape plan is to go deeper into the woods, and that prospect in the middle of a cold, dark night is not a very appealing one. I’ve never felt more vulnerable, before or since, than I did in that setting, which is sad. I truly believe that it was probably the safest place I could have been when you consider that the ratio of danger from humans is so much lower in the woods. Two people were murdered and millions of people became terrified of the possibility while thousands of people were, and are, safely and peacefully hiking the trail every single day.
But, the logic of numbers and facts doesn’t come into play when we are determined to build a boogie man.
Despite the impossibility that someone could be sneaking up on us in our tent as we slept each night in a new location, I was convinced that was what I was hearing.
It was making me so crazy I would sometimes wake to find that I was frantically trying to get the zipper open to the door of the tent.
Had I been able to determine a logical explanation for the sound, I would have been able to let it go.
But, logic eluded me and boogie man construction took hold.
When I think back on that time, I wonder how my experience might have been different had I not been building up fears in my mind. While I knew that we weren’t truly in danger, the stress of the speculation about what I was hearing and fearing was exhausting. An injury prevented me from finishing the trail that year and I still have one-fourth of it to go, were I to decide to complete it. I honestly don’t imagine ever doing that, but I can tell you it won’t be fear of the boogie man that keeps me from it.
On a campout long after our hike, I again awoke in my sleeping bag to that skritch, skritch, skritch. But rather than startling, I lay still in my bag and listened. Believe it or not, there was no boogie man. That sound was the sound of my own blood, pulsing through the vein in my neck against the skritch-y fabric of my sleeping bag. Oh, how I wish I had been able to understand that on that long journey!
Here in the time of playing make believe with ghouls and goblins, it is wise to consider where we might be building boogie men in our lives. What better time to lay those demons to rest and head out into the world knowing that, in many ways, all is well.