I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.
— Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”
I started reading Wild this summer. I had no idea it was a New York Times bestseller, that it was an Oprah book club pick or that it was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Don’t judge me. I’ve had a lot going on.
My husband,Wes, and I are planning our second bucket list adventure for 2016 — a section hike of the Appalachian Trail — and a friend recommended the book. But since Strayed gets bloodied, bruised and chased by a bull in the first 50 pages of this memoir of her solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m beginning to wonder if my friend has reservations about my plans.
I’m not gonna lie; I’m a little nervous. Being from the Bronx I’m not naturally equipped for such a venture. Friends who have actually slept in a tent before have offered me advice on how to retrieve water from a spring, how to not get your clothes dirty when taking care of business in the woods, and how to get over my “bearanoia.”
“As long as you don’t sleep with your head on a pizza,” they assure me, “bears pose little threat.” Those words were pretty comforting until they gave me two very large knives to keep in my pack because I couldn’t be convinced to carry a gun. Given that I’ve already sliced open my thumb exploring the different gadgets on my new Swiss army knife, I think I’ll leave the big blades at home.
There are plenty of narratives running through my head to make me afraid.
The crazed serial killer hanging around the shelter until I fall asleep.
The mice rummaging through my pack, or worse, through my sleeping bag.
And, of course, the bear who will smell the one granola bar wrapper I forgot to stuff in the ziplocked trash bag hung dutifully over a tree limb with my food pack. The bear who will not be deterred by my attempts to stand bigger than he is, even as I fumble for the $42 bottle of bear pepper spray that has fallen to the bottom of my overstuffed backpack, forgetting, of course, to blow the bright orange whistle purchased just for this occasion.
It is the whistle, by the way, that saves Strayed from the charging bull, but, hanging around my neck, it makes me look like a novice and a dork, drawing the attention of the aforementioned serial killer.
It’s exhausting. The stories in my head. The imagined scenarios, assumed motives and relentless “what ifs” that make me question myself, think the worst of others and suck the joy out of life. I’m worn out before even taking one step on the trail. And I owe the bears an apology.
If I allow fear to overtake me, my journey will be doomed.
And so I tell myself a different story. A true story. That most people are good. That attacks are rare. And that there is something amazing waiting for me on that trail. A sunset. A revelation. A discovery that I am more than I thought I could be — and that those who share the journey make me better.
Do not be afraid. Fear separates us from others. Fear makes us small. Fear blocks our path and keeps us from meeting God on it.
But fear is powerful. It can weave a convincing tale that preys on our deepest anxieties and suspicions. It can take a kernel of truth and make it appear as the whole. It can lead us to be people who follow our own dark shadows instead of following the One who promises to light our way.
Unless we choose to tell ourselves a different story. A true story.
Are there dangers hiking in the wilderness? Of course there are. And if next month there is no column from me with a picture of that sunset and a reflection on that divine revelation waiting for me out there on the Appalachian Trail, then I guess you will read, instead, a few kind words in memoriam with a parting caution that bear whistles don’t really work that well after all.
We cannot protect ourselves from all of the dangers in life. We pack as best we can. We put our matches in waterproof containers, bring supplies for blisters and sprains, and let someone know where we’re headed.
And having done what we can, we tell ourselves a different story. A true story. A story of faith, not fear, that believes the best in ourselves and others and trusts the God who says, “Do not be afraid. I will be with you,” as we set out on the trail set before us.