(Emotionally) Naked and Afraid
In a flash of quick hugs and lingering dust, Marc was gone.
I waved at his receding form a bit longer than necessary, my hand mindlessly stirring up the atmospheric inferno that was already brewing well before lunchtime. I shouldered my pack and stepped onto the trail alone, the high desert silence wrapped around me in a way that was at once both comforting and smothering. The fears I’d ruminated on for days and weeks and months all tumbled forth into a roiling stew of uncertainty. What kind of stupidity was it to charge forward on my own, just me and a backpack, me and my two calloused feet, me and my hyper-imaginative mind?
I feared waist-deep post-holing, cold clumps of snow making a slow, frosty creep down my legs to lodge in the crescents of unclipped toenails, eventually guiding me towards the brink of hypothermia. I envisioned careening down a glistening slope of verglas, watching helplessly as my ice axe loosened from my grip and plummeted out of reach before I tumbled into a pile of rocks that would serve as my makeshift memorial. Here lies Shawnté, who died like an idiot, alone and cold.
I feared a cougar’s silent lunge from some hidden granite perch, fangs gnashing through the air with a roar to settle on my tender neckflesh, slicing south to devastate an assortment of internal organs until I capitulated in an expensive, but lifeless pile of Gore-Tex and wool.
I feared Evolution Creek or Bear Creek or really, any body of water mercilessly frothing against sharp and slippery rocks, raging towards a dizzying precipice, where one faulty step would lead me head over trail runners towards becoming an alpine Davy Jones.
I feared turning the corner on a mama bear and cubs, finding myself on the wrong end of fight or flight, cowering as the ladybeast summoned her rage, deploying her painfully sharp claws to tear me and my intrusion asunder.
I feared serving as human lightning rod during an electrical storm, feeling a hot pulse sear through my skin and rip out the other end, my startled body suddenly skewered by an invisible force of angry, fiery nature.
But perhaps I was most afraid of being alone. With my thoughts, but no one to speak them to. With my fears. With my realizations. With all of the outrageous beauty around me – overwhelming, awestruck kinds of things too big to contain within my own self.
In a matter of weeks in the Sierra, I came nose to teeth with all of these things and found myself ground to a halt, stopped in my tracks, laughing at the way the world can take that which you’re most afraid of and turn it into strength and growth and everything good.
I stood in wonder as the snow fell in fat, sticky flakes in July, coating the slopes and ridgelines with an otherworldly whiteness. Two days before my birthday, a cougar crossed my path not twenty, thirty feet ahead, a slow, slinking beige swagger that captivated and terrified me at once. I crossed many a drought-starved waterway, wetting my feet – and sometimes calves, knees, thighs – with purpose and glee on those hot days, staring spellbound into the mist cartwheeling off of moss-slicked rocks. I turned a corner and came within high-fiving distance of a cinnamon black bear, whose gaze I held for at least a full minute, a mutual sizing-up and eventually, a mutual understanding that we were, in fact, just two harmless wandering souls swimming in the same great big, rock-filled bowl, and on we went. I clambered up rain-slicked granite to the knife’s edge of Glen Pass and made one of the largest vertical leaps of my life upon the almost immediate BOOM! and CRACK! of a rapidly incoming electrical storm that ushered me down the switchbacks in record-setting time.
And I was alone. A lot.
And I loved it, truly.
I hiked with so many people, old friends and new – families, Boy Scout troops, rangers, trail angels, weekenders, and so many more. But sometimes the greatest privilege came when I was left completely alone to hear and accept my thoughts and feelings, to wrap my brain around the immensity of it all. To revel in everything unearthed, no matter how uncomfortable. To accept, acknowledge, and love every part of me, no matter how flawed. To smile and laugh and feel wonders of the highest order. To realize that there is nothing to fear in being alone.