Do It Afraid

I almost turned the car around four times on the way to the airport. I was crying, my mom was crying, and I felt positively ridiculous hauling a backpack more than half my height to the baggage check. My hiking pants were too long. My trail runners were squeaky clean. I had never been camping, never been backpacking, never hiked more than five miles at a time, and only pitched a tent twice (both times the week before my flight). I looked like a phony and felt like it too, but I boarded the plane to Atlanta anyway, hoping that my nerves would go away as soon as I was up in the air and literally locked into my decision.

(They didn’t.)

Yeah, yeah, I know – I probably (okay, definitely) should have prepared a little better before the point of no return. But in the weeks leading up to my start date, I was way too nervous to practice with my gear or go on a pre-trail shakedown hike. What if, in the process of preparation, I realized I hated everything about what I was getting ready to do and decided to quit before I even began? What if the big, scary, kind-of-crazy thing I had just uprooted my entire life for was too hard? Too terrifying? What if it just flat-out sucked?

You’d think I would want to be absolutely sure I was capable of overnight backpacking before dedicating six months to a 2,200-mile trail, but I was so committed to the idea that I decided beforehand nothing was going to stop me. I was going to go out there and make it work. I didn’t let fear keep me from hiking, exactly…but I did let it keep me from being as prepared as I could have been.

It’s easy to let fear overwhelm reason, isn’t it? In the weeks leading up to my start date, I woke up every night to a pressing panic, my suddenly-too-awake brain cycling through every little thing that could possibly go wrong.

A small sample:

  1. Getting injured.
  2. Getting injured in a place with no cell service.
  3. Accidentally wandering between a mother bear and her cubs.
  4. Lyme disease!!!
  5. Getting wet, then getting cold.
  6. Not making friends.
  7. Charging bears.
  8. Not carrying enough food.
  9. Creepy men.
  10. Getting caught in a snowstorm.
  11. Getting caught in a thunderstorm.
  12. BEARS.

Now I know that statistics are on my side and most of the most serious things I fear are unlikely to happen. Still, a little voice in my head likes to remind me of Murphy’s Law, and ruminating over every potential disaster almost made me to back out of my hike more times than I can count. No matter how hard I tried to make my brain shut up, I just couldn’t turn off the constant nervous stream of “what ifs.”

And you know what? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to. I’m a big ole scaredy cat in a perpetual state of mild-to-moderate panic.

Which is why I’m hiking anyway.

Which is why I’m doing it afraid.

I used to kind of hate that phrase. Do it afraid: it’s the annoyingly campy type of thing you’d see on a faded quasi-motivational poster in an office copy room. The type of thing people say mostly because it sounds good, you know? It didn’t mean much to me until I realized I was going to have to hike scared. Really – I had to. It was either do it afraid, or don’t do it at all.

And what if I chose the latter? What if I live the rest of my life allowing fear keep me from fulfilling my greatest and most enduring goal? In my journal is a list of reasons I’m doing this thru-hike. One of my first bullet points, after those about honoring and memorializing my Dad, is this: “I don’t want to not do things because I’m scared, uncomfortable, or possibly bad at them.” Sure, it would be devastating to fail, but I don’t think I could ever overcome the regret of not trying just because of what might go wrong.

Now, after just under three weeks on the trail, I can say three things with confidence.

First, I am so, so glad I went through with this hike. 100% the right decision.

Second, every hiker I’ve met is scared of something. Or, rather, everything, just like me. I thought I was going to be the most timid, terrified person on the trail, but we all came out here afraid of cold, injury, hunger, and illness. (Some of the toughest-looking dudes I’ve met are more scared of bears than I am.) We’re all doing it afraid.

Third, my fears about hiking were so much more worse in my mind than in reality. The longer I’m on trail and the more scary stuff I actually face, the more I realize nothing I feared is as bad as I imagined from my living room couch.


Day 0: I arrived at Amicalola, got my hiker tag, and boarded up for the night in the Max Epperson shelter. Sleeping outdoors in the cold on a wooden floor next a bunch of strangers? Terrifying. But I made it through the night, got up the next morning, and realized…I was completely fine. Actually, I was kind of invigorated. I had wasted so much mental energy worrying about discomfort and unfamiliarity, but I actually enjoyed the very things I’d feared.

Day 1: Springer Mountain was as cold and windy as Neptune. I spent the night shivering and hoping my body weight was enough to hold down my tent, unconvinced I had pitched it correctly in the first place, let alone to hold against the hurricane outside. But again, I survived the night, morning came, and I weirdly appreciated the exceptionally not-warm welcome to the trail. Challenge tackled, you know? It felt like the start of a great adventure.

Day 5: Tripped, slipped, bumbled, and crawled my way down Blood Mountain. (Trail legs? Where are you?) My feet burned, my ankles hurt, my knees were screaming – I mean, every single step was intensely painful. But I was still standing at the end of the day, and there was a strangely cohesive joy in commiserating with other sore, hobbling hikers at the bottom.

Day 10: Rain. So much rain. The trail becomes a river in downpours, and most of the last five miles of my day (past the GA/NC border! Woohoo!) were spent slogging uphill through two inches of running water.  Oh, and it was COLD, too. I set up camp and dried out as best I could with teeth chattering, and I don’t think I got warm til the next afternoon when the sun finally burned through the clouds. It was an uncomfortable twenty-four hours, but now that I’ve faced the rain-cold combo, I don’t dread it as much next time. And there will definitely be a next time.

Days 13-14: The universe decided to commemorate my hundredth mile with snow. (Literally, the flakes started falling as soon as I passed the mile marker on Albert Mountain.) I sheltered up at Rock Gap with some fantastic friends, and our late-night jokes and conversations almost made me forget the sub-freezing temps and near-blizzard outside. I thought I would hate walking in the slick snow, but the next morning’s frosty trek down to Winding Stair Gap is one of my favorite hiking days so far.

Almost every day: Lots of laurel groves. Lots of bear potential. No sightings yet (knock on wood), but each day I spend a little less time wondering if every blackened tree stump is going to start charging, and I’m finally starting to feel comfortable forging through the forest alone.

I know I’m not even a month into my journey, so hopefully it’s not too early to say I’m already hiking with less reserve and more confidence. I see it. My friends say they see it. Experience really is the best teacher, isn’t it? Back home, I was so blinded by fear that I could barely envision myself on the trail. Now I can’t not see myself here, pushing through all the hard scary stuff that a few weeks ago I imagined would be impossible to overcome.

This is what I tell myself: keep doing it afraid, and one day you won’t be so afraid anymore.

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Comments 2

  • Jhony : Apr 17th

    Well written. So glad I subscribed. I truly like how you have overcome the fears we all have. And you are doing it great.
    Thanks so much. I will be reading each and every posting

  • Mercy : Apr 23rd

    Thanks for authentically sharing your experience this far. Your writings on grief brought tears to my eyes. I hope this journey brings healing to your heart and lightens your grief load a little. Rooting for you!


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