The Dangers of a Wild Imagination
I’ve always had an active imagination. I’m also a glass-half-empty sort of person, easily able to imagine the worst that can possibly happen, a trait that has served me well in writing fiction where a story becomes more interesting the more difficulties a character has to confront. But when planning an AT thru-hike, a lurid imagination and obsessing about every potential problem can suck all the fun out of the trip.
That point was driven home for me this weekend when I was with my husband on a local (Maryland) section of the AT. We came across a couple of southbound hikers who’d just section-hiked Pennsylvania, and stopped to chat.
“Not really,” the older of the two men said.
His answer encouraged me. Of course, difficulty is relative, and what he found easy might prove daunting for me. Still, it was nice to hear that someone didn’t find that part of the trail too hard.
“How about snakes?” I asked next, voicing a fear that has kept me awake at night. Frankly, I detest snakes. Even a picture of one makes me shudder, let alone encountering one in real life. And from the accounts I’ve read, the rocks in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are teeming with rattlers — slithering masses of them just waiting to strike.
“We didn’t see any,” he said to my surprise.
“None?” My hopes began to rise.
“That’s not exactly true,” the younger man cut in. “We saw one, a black snake.”
But at least it wasn’t a rattler, I thought, still feeling relieved. Not that I cared to see a black snake, either, but at least it wouldn’t kill me. I hoped.
The first man nodded at him. “Yeah. It was hanging from a branch above us. The danged thing almost dropped on our heads.”
My heart stopped. My gaze flew to the hundreds of branches dangling over the trail. There were snakes crawling through the trees?
“Came out of a hole in the trunk,” he added, apparently trying to be helpful.
But by now I was totally freaked out. Dear god. Not only did I have to be careful where I put my feet now, but I had to watch for snakes attacking me from above!
A few minutes later the men hiked on. I continued down the trail with my husband, so wired up I couldn’t relax. And in that moment, I realized I needed to adjust my attitude. Being cautious and aware of the dangers on the trail was one thing, but there was no way I could hike for two thousand miles terrified of every step. I had to find something else to focus on while I walked through the wilderness, something that would bring me joy. Otherwise, what was the point?
I took a deep breath. I looked around and forced myself to concentrate on the things I loved about the woods: The butterflies flitting past. The deer peeking out from behind the trees. The intriguing mushrooms and fungi growing in shaded spots. Tree bark with its endless variety of colors and textures. Crumbling stone walls and fences. Gorgeous flowers and lovely expanses of ferns.
My mood lifted. My eagerness to hike began to surge. And I realized that I’d just learned an important lesson, that to complete a thru-hike with any sort of enjoyment I had to keep a positive attitude instead of worrying about everything that could go wrong.
Of course there are real dangers on the trail. It would be foolish to completely let down my guard. And given my half-empty inclinations, it’s probably impossible for me to stop worrying completely, no matter how hard I try. But from now on I’m focusing on the incredible beauty around me instead of succumbing to my wild imagination.
But I’ll still keep an eye on those trees…
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