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.
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:
- Getting injured.
- Getting injured in a place with no cell service.
- Accidentally wandering between a mother bear and her cubs.
- Lyme disease!!!
- Getting wet, then getting cold.
- Not making friends.
- Charging bears.
- Not carrying enough food.
- Creepy men.
- Getting caught in a snowstorm.
- Getting caught in a thunderstorm.
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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