A Sudden Moment of Fear
During a recent hike, the fear of a fellow hiker roused in me a sudden and surprising experience of fear that I am still working to overcome.
Apr 27, 2023
There’s a trail I like to hike on my days off. It’s a popular hike that snakes and climbs its way through the Santa Rosa Mountains. It’s the perfect place to hike by myself without feeling too alone all while enjoying the monochromatic landscape lit by the desert sun. One of the last times I hiked this trail, I was keeping pace with an older lady. When we reached the peak, she turned to me to ask if the whole trail was like “this.” Much of the trail is narrow with huge drop offs on one or both sides. It’s not uncommon to see bighorn sheep balancing on ridiculously narrow ledges of the ravine above or below the trail. I said, “No, it widens up ahead where the trail turns to an old fire road.” After years of hiking this trail, that was the first time I realized there was something I should be afraid of.
The rest of the week I couldn’t stop thinking about whether the trail was as scary as she thought. Being so comfortable with the trail, I couldn’t remember the extent of the danger, but my mind naturally began constructing what I should’ve been afraid of all along. Even though I was feeling sharp pangs of nervousness, I felt like I needed to reassess the trail. So, the next week, I went back. Throughout the initial 20 minutes of the climb, everything was fine until a man pointed out three magnificent big horns on the “ridge.” The spot where the bighorn were resting was around 25 feet below where I had to cross to get to the main trail. The trail in that area consisting of a measly 3-foot-wide path bordered by a drop of hundreds of feet.
Not too long before this hike, I had read about a person being pushed onto train tracks by a stranger, viciously threatening to take their life. With people frequently passing you on the trail, there’s nothing to stop a person from doing the same, intentionally or unintentionally, on that ridge. There’s also my frequent clumsiness that could just as easily send me plummeting. All these worst-case-scenarios causing the fear residing in my chest to spread onto and blanket my lungs. Despite the spread of fear, I was managing my panic and still wasn’t too afraid just yet. It wasn’t until I finally turned the last switchback right before the ridge that I started to feel the tremble in my knees.
On the ridge, that’s when the fear came hard. My line of vision narrowed—something I’ve only seen in movies. The already narrow trail narrowing to a fearfully thin line. Feeling uneasy, I put my hand out to feel the hard granite, burned with desert varnish, to the left of me. If someone wasn’t behind me, I would’ve stopped, dropped to my knees, and begun to crawl. If that person wasn’t behind me, I don’t think I would’ve been able to keep going, paralyzed as I was with the weight of an immense fear. But, thanks to the pressure of not wanting to hold up the line, I was able to take a deep breath and manage to think, “Almost there,” which released enough of my anxiety to push through the last dash of the trail over the ravine. When I finally made it to the wider part of the path, my head felt light from the aftershocks of fear. The unshakeable, unnerving feeling that I could die at any moment reverberating in my body.
A few weeks later, the reality of my mortality is still resting in my body. Just thinking, let alone writing, about this sudden realization ramps up my anxiety as if I’m back on the mountainside. The unexpected sense of impermanence is a hard feeling to forget. It’s hard to stop thinking about how vulnerable I am at any moment whether it’s driving to the store or eating too much processed meat or being surrounded by the constant radiation of wireless devices.
Feeling a sudden rush of panic is humbling. It’s a reminder that we know the end of our story, just not the details, which is the single most frightening aspect of human existence. Maybe it’s a part of getting older paired with an increased appreciation for life, but I’ve been consumed by the fear itself but also the sudden onset of fear for something I’ve done countless of times. It’s incredible and confusing how one person could so dramatically influence my perception. I hope to eventually return to this trail, but, for now, I need a little distance to process (and hopefully forget) this sudden and unexpected bout of fear.