The Arizona Trail: Fears, Hope, and Irrationality
There be Demons in Them Thar Hills!
It’s the night before. Right now I’m wishing it was the night before Christmas, not departure. I struggle for sleep. All sorts of terrors and anxieties ramble wildly through my head, those demons that hide in the closet or under the bed till night falls. This is my last night in a soft, warm, cozy bed, but I’m tossing around. Time to face those demons, those fears!
This is not new for me. I’ve been on many adventures in my life and they all started like this. Even my adventure to Disneyland at the mature age of seven started with a sleepless, anxious night. Well, probably not so much fear then, though I had heard about crocodiles in the river! As I grew older and had more adventures with greater risks, that last-minute fight with demons always appeared.
So what is this fear, the source of those demons? Is it simply the threat of pain or death as many dictionaries suggests? That is certainly part of any adventure into the wilderness, but it is also part of any trip onto a freeway. There must be more to this. And, it must also be considered that one person’s fears may not be another’s, yet both are experiencing the same adventure. What goes? Is irrationality a factor?
Opening That Closet Door
Let’s dig deeper and get to specifics with my biggest fears, or demons, on the Arizona trail. I’ll just make a list with a few notes
Mountain Lions: You won’t see bears here, though they are possible. I’ve had enough close bear encounters in the past not to be overly fearful of bears. Mountain lions, on the other hand… Encounters are unlikely and seldom deadly but I just don’t know them. Humans tend to fear what they don’t know. Irrationality.
Dry Water Sources: The Arizona Trail is probably unique in its lack of reliable water sources, and running out of water can be deadly. The AZT is also blessed with an abundance of incredibly wonderful trail angels that place water at critical junctures. They simply cannot be thanked enough, but then the Arizona Trail Association always warns not to depend on them. It’s truly a wild card: how much water to carry between water sources, and if it’s really dry can be as much as 10L, or over 20 pounds. The trail does not always provide.
Hot and Cold: The AZT is, after all, climatologically mostly a desert. Extremes of both hot and cold are possible, though the prime NOBO and SOBO thru-hiking seasons try to avoid the extremes. As I write this I suspect for me this really should be in the next section.
Altitude: This is here only because of my recent bout of lung disease. While I’ve tolerated altitude well in the past it hasn’t been tested since I healed. Regardless, anyone who hasn’t tried extended exertion at altitude should be aware of the symptoms and treatment before doing so.
As I’ve said, I have had a lot of adventures in the past so this isn’t a very extensive list. On my very first adventure, a solo hike of the John Muir Trail when I was 19, this list could have been much larger. In reality I was probably in ignorant bliss, and very lucky. Ignorance, though, is foolhardy, but knowledge can also be strangling, especially if you become so fearful of the possibilities you become frozen and won’t try. Elemental here is rational understanding. Knowledge with wisdom.
OK, I Can Live with These!
There are more concerns with this hike, but not to the extent of being fearful. Fearful I view as generally things out of my control, where this next level, I’ll call them concerns, are where I do have some control. They don’t generate the risk that fear does. Again listing with comments.
I Forget Something: I can’t think of anything I could reasonably forget that would be so critical I couldn’t get by until at least the next trail town, if not the entire hike. I’m sure there’s something, but I feel confident I could deal with it.
I Go Slower than my Food Supply: If I see it coming I can always ration until the next trail town or resupply point.
I Go Slower than my Water Supply: A bit more concerning but care, rationing, and carrying more water between sources should work.
I Run Out of Power: Woe behold I lose my electronics!
Writer’s Block: There goes my blog!
My Body Fails: Or a subset, my lungs fail me. There will come a time when I know I can no longer do this. I think that is still far in the future, but there are enough bailout points on this trail that I feel confident I could reach one in this worst case. In the very worst case, I do know I have the SOS function on my inReach. That is truly a last resort. Of course, I recognize there could be body issues that would only mean halting the adventure—for now. Sprained ankle, broken bone, kidney stone all come to mind.
All of these and many other problems (equipment failures?) I am quite confident I can resolve. Being a natural, innovative handyman probably helps. Being rational is quite helpful.
On the Positive Side
These don’t really need comment as they’re probably similar for many adventurers.
Prove to myself can do it.
A grand experience!
And one AZT specific one:
Wonderful trail angels bearing water.
One thing that is not listed is finding myself, or the answer to some other great question about oneself. My own experience has led me to firmly believe that these cannot be forced. You must let them happen and the answers will find you. They may not be to the question you were seeking, but they will be the answers you need. I’ve seen this over and over.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
OK, let’s not think Monty Python here! So what about this fear thing. Fear, simply put, is the lack of knowledge or lack of understanding of something that leads us to believe it could in some way harm us either physically, mentally, financially, or some other way. It can be rational, but too often is irrational. I see two fundamental ways to cope with this fear. The simplest, which was from a self-improvement course I took many years ago, is to not worry about things that are out of our control. In many situations that works very well, but on an adventure that can be rather fatalistic. It reminds me of the T-shirt I recently saw that said something like, “Get outside, the worst that can happen is the bear eats you,” or maybe in my case the mountain lion eats me!
The other is to educate oneself, learning the true risks (am I overreacting to the mountain lion threat?) and learning ways to mitigate those risks. Again, don’t let either the fear or education paralyze you. Understand the true risks! View them rationally. Develop a plan. Go forth and experience the rewards and wonder that an adventure can deliver. And one more thing. An adventure does not have to be a great expedition. It can simply be a weekend trip, or even a day trip. Its all in what you make it to be. It’s up to you.
To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” A very wise message for all adventurers. To be otherwise is to be irrational. For me, I really should know this, but irrationality must be part of my nature.
As I write this I am sitting in Flagstaff. It is one of my two most favorite cities in all of Arizona, the other being Tucson. They are very different yet very much alike. I love them both. Today, in Flagstaff, I took a long walk and it was a fabulous experience. The coolness of the fall wind was clearly evident, so wonderfully fresh, so wonderfully inspiring , so wonderfully stirring me to look forward to this grand adventure of the Arizona Trail.
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