The room was still dark, but my alarm insisted I wake up. I slowly surfaced from the depths of sleep and rolled out of bed. Hitting the snooze bar would be pointless. I knew for the nine extra minutes I’d only stare at the ceiling anyway.
A backpack sat on my floor, waiting. I triple-checked it last night to make sure I had everything. If it’s not in the pack, I’ll be stuck in the woods without it for a week.
- - -
“So, you sleep outside in the woods at night. And you’re going alone? Man, you’d never catch me doing that,” said a maintenance man working in my office last week. “But, what about bears?”
“That’s the first thing everyone asks me, but if you keep your food protected there really is nothing to worry about,” I said. “Besides, there has never been a fatal bear attack in Yosemite.”
“Heh, well there could always be a first,” he said.
When you’ve been in Indiana your whole life, your experience with bears mostly comes from watching television shows with titles beginning with, “The World’s Deadliest…”
The truth is, the typical encounter is not unlike the typical encounter with a raccoon. If they see you, they flee. Or look at you, sniff the air, then carry on with whatever they were doing before you barged into their woods, singing “Rainy Days and Mondays”.
It’s not even all that common to see a bear on a hike. It’s probably no more common than walking around Hollywood and spotting a celebrity. Just like with a bear, you point, you take photos. You never EVER try to feed them. And while it’s true that in the past celebrities have murdered, few people will scatter in terror when they see one, questioning whether or not they’re supposed to run, climb a tree, or play dead.
As with most things, the more you learn and experience something, the less irrational fear you have of it.
- - -
Now, I’m in the back of a small 37-seat airplane sitting on the tarmac, waiting for my first flight to depart. On most Saturday mornings, I’d still be in my dark bedroom snug and warm, wrapped in a comforter with my head sunken into a pillow.
“Good morning folks. This is your captain speaking,” his gruff morning voice spoken too close to the microphone. “We’ll be departing in a few minutes, but I wanted to remind you that today is the ninth anniversary of September 11th. Please consider getting to know the person sitting next to you, for security of course, but also just for the joy of getting to know one another.”
Telling people what day I was flying out frequently conjured up another irrational fear.
I looked at the person next to me, an Asian girl with a black hoodie cinched over dyed red hair. She slumped in her chair the moment she got situated; chin to her chest, arms crossed. Lisa Loeb glasses framed her closed eyes. The only thing, other than the personal wall she had built around herself, that would make me not talk to her is, she’s kind of cute. And I have self-diagnosed clinical shyness. Well, that and a decent possibility she doesn’t speak English.
On the other side of the aisle sat a rather fidgety African-American man in his twenties. His legs bounced nervously. His eyes also closed, his arms on the armrests. His head was nodding rhythmically, to music I assumed, but then I noticed he wasn’t wearing headphones. Either he’s an extremely anxious flier, or he can hear music I can’t.
The flight attendant walked towards us down the narrow aisle. She noticed him while closing an overhead compartment, her lips in a thin tight grin. “How are you doing, sir?”
“I’m doing okay,” he said, with a failed air of confidence.
“Aw, you’ll be fine, and your son will appreciate that you went through all this to go see him in California,” she said. It’s always good to see someone not letting their irrational fear keep them from the important things.
That was the extent of me getting to know the people next to me. I don’t really mind, but truthfully the last few months of my life have been, to say the least, unfulfilling. I’m ready for a change and I know getting over my shyness would be a great way to start.
The course of many lives have been changed by the simplest of words: hi.
I sat quietly, writing in my journal, and said nothing. I mean, not everyone wants to talk to a total stranger anyway, right? And I’m not lying when I say that, for the most part, I like to keep to myself. It is a major reason I’m heading into Sierra Nevada wilderness. To be alone. It’s the only way I know how to simplify life, relax and be myself, and calm this restlessness I’ve felt after another year going through the same motions; traversing the same rut.
And when I’m hiking, I never feel like I’m wasting my life.
The plane glided between two layers of clouds that stretch on like white linens. The red morning sunrise poked through the occasional opening in the bottom layer.
- - -
“Do they have poisonous snakes out there? What if you fall and break your leg, or hit your head? What if you get lost and can’t find water?” the maintenance man asked. “I got an email one time with photos of a guy that got attacked by a polar bear, have you seen that?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen that one, it was pretty gross,” I said. We were interrupted by another co-worker who, once seeing the maintenance man, started talking to him about motorcycles.
“Oh yeah, there’s nothing like it,” he replied.
"If I went on the Internet right now and found some photos of a guy that got into a motorcycle accident, would you sell yours and give up riding?”
“Alright, point taken,” he said. “I still wouldn’t do it, though.”
- - -
At a time I would normally be sleeping in on a Saturday, I landed in Milwaukee. I rushed to the opposite end of the airport to be corralled through another TSA line. I was as fidgety as the man on the plane, worried I would miss my next connecting flight.
And when I would ordinarily be eating breakfast cereal, blissfully indifferent to my bedhead cowlick, I was speed-walking to my third plane in Phoenix.
I hoped I’d have enough time for a quick restroom visit before the final boarding call. I did, but in my haste I splashed water when washing my hands. Of course it landed in just the right place to make me the perfect poster child for urinary incontinence. And where else would it go? Don’t you remember Newton’s forth law: All moving liquids must remain in a uniform flow unless near my crotch, in which case said liquid must follow the path of least resistance to aforementioned crotch.
When I left the restroom they were boarding the underprivileged requiring wheelchairs, and the over-privileged with first-class tickets. I felt like all eyes were on me and my wet pants. It’s okay people, I didn’t piss myself. It’s just water, nothing to see here.
I know nobody cares, or probably even noticed, but this is how my brain instinctually works. It knows that at least one pair of eyes is always on me, and always for negative reasons.
When I’d normally be having another predictable lunch and feeling guilty for having no weekend plans, the treadmill on the Fresno Airport baggage carousel started whirring. I had finally arrived, but the traveling didn’t end there. I stared eagerly at the rubber flap doorway, wondering if my crucial gear made all the same connections and security screenings. It was the first bag to come out. I could breathe easy.
When I walked out of the airport through tall automatic sliding glass doors, it dawned on me that I was over two thousand miles from home with nothing but the forty pounds of gear and food in my pack. No vehicle, only a train ticket and bus schedule in my pocket. No roof over my head, only a permit to live in the woods for a week. Wonderfully contrary to that mind-numbing rut I just freed myself from.
A man standing next to a car, with the words “Airport Taxi” on the side, seemed to be waiting for me. Or at least his eyes seemed to follow me even though he was always pointed straight ahead.
“I need to go to the Amtrak Station?” My statement morphed into a question, like I realized telling him wasn’t polite and I needed to actually ask. Or maybe I thought he might say, “You’re doing this all wrong, you freakin’ hayseed!”
I’m not an experienced traveler yet.
Without saying a word, he put on sunglasses and opened the trunk of the car. I put my gear in, then hopped in the backseat.
- - -
“But, what about bears? Are you taking a gun?” asked a worried co-worker a few days ago.
Sometimes in my head I work on replies to this persistent concern. Such as, did you know that 2,800 Americans die from choking, every year? And, I live alone. I’m flattered that so many are concerned about my well being, but if you really want to worry about something, worry about the left over pizza in my fridge.
“But, what about apples? Surely you’d never eat an apple by yourself? Oh my dear heavens. You should never eat fruit alone!”
I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t dangers when backpacking alone: dehydration, getting lost, falling, hypothermia, sudden illness, contaminated water, an approaching melody of dueling banjos in the distance. But when you’re prepared and careful, the risk is low, and absolutely worth the potential for reward.
Without trying too hard, I could come up with several reasons to never leave the safety of my home, but how enjoyable would that life be?
Part 2 >
Go to Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10