I was staring into the dark eyes of an abnormallylarge black bear standing to the left of the wilderness trail, just 10 feet fromme. He snorted and shook his head as I slowly backed away from him. He took a fewsteps in my direction, and the pack I was carrying suddenly felt heavier as Itightened my grip on the knife in my pocket. Our gazes were locked, bothwondering what the other had planned. A drop of sweat glided from my forehead tomy chin, and then hit the ground as the bear suddenly picked up speed. My heartpounded and I prepared for a fight.
But first let me tell you somethingabout me, a common high-school senior. Things can get out of hand, and in themidst of a busy schedule and an endless list of projects, a grip on presentsituations is lost. My imagination begins to pump adrenaline through my bodywhile I dread days to come and events that have not yet happened. Thoughts of thefuture surround me, irrelevant to the present. I face fears of not getting intothe right college, failure - all kinds of failure - and more than anything else,fears of letting others down. That's just my day-to-day, normal life. Now let'stake another look at that bear.
This was real fear. It was fear of thehere and now, a rush of adrenaline that comes from actual danger, with thepurpose of keeping one alive. It had nothing to do with the future or anxiety orcollege; it had everything to do with the giant predator tapping its claws on arock in front of me. And I would choose real fear over anything created in myhead.
Did the bear maul me and walk off with my arms? No - I was lucky -he turned and ran in the other direction. I watched until he was out of sight,and then continued walking, knowing I had to find a place to camp for thenight.
I was in the wilderness because days consistent with the anxiety ofmy normal life were becoming too common. I felt as though I were spending mywhole life waiting for one predetermined bullet. I had to get away from thatworld, even if only for a couple days.
I've always felt that there issomething amazing about hiking alone in the mountains. At that point, I hadn'tfigured out exactly what that was. All I knew was that sleeping in a forest milesfrom another person, and ten miles from any civilized future, had an unparalleledcalming effect. At one time, I might have ventured to say fear didn't exist inthe wilderness, but that's almost a funny thought, given the whole bearincident.
After the bear, the fear wasn't gone, but something else was.It would only take one night under the stars to figure out what.
Ifound my campsite, 100 feet from a babbling stream. I lay on the ground beneathmy tarp, which I'd hung between two massive oaks. It was midnight, and in themoonlight I could only see shapes and shadows. But I could hear the wilderness.The slow rain knocked incessantly on my shelter, and the stream surged in a dullroar. An owl hooted ominously overhead, and a cry rang out in the distance, as ifsome bird had just met its end. Most notably, I could hear sticks snapping nearbyunder the weight of something big.
That night I slept better than anynight in my own bed waiting for the alarm to wake me for school.
Thesounds of the wilderness can incite fear, but they never caused me anxiety, evenif I didn't know what was making those sounds. I could hear them, so I knewsomething was out there. I was aware, and there were no illusions. At home, in myown room, I hear nothing. The silence breeds speculation and allows myimagination to create things to fear, as if failure and disappointment arelurking in the hallway. In the wilderness I do not fear aimlessly or fear thefuture. Everything I cannot see to fear, I can still hear, and so I feelsafe.
Solitude in the wilderness contrasts with my normal lifebecause it entirely lacks the anxiety of the fast-paced world. The benefits stemfrom having to confront real fears as they appear and only as they appear, andnot harboring unfounded fears. In the wilderness, there's no room for worry aboutthe future when the present is not certain and you don't know if that bear willbe staying for dinner.
Out there, no one else has a stake in your successor failure, and that's liberating. There's nobody to disappoint, nobody to fail.When fear is felt, it is genuinely your own; in the wilderness there is no one tohide behind, and no future to hide from.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.