The Trail is Your Teacher
“How are you feeling?” John asked me as we waited for the car to take us to the trailhead.
“Nervous,” I replied. “I’m excited but really nervous”
“It’s okay to be nervous. It’s actually understandable, you’re about to do something new. Just don’t let the nerves give way to fear. It’s going to be hard sometimes, but you can do it. You will do it.”
John’s words calmed me on a day when I needed it most. I had joined him, his daughter and five other people to hike the last leg of the northbound John Muir Trail. The plan was to hike 60 miles from Mammoth to Yosemite Valley over the next six days. It was going to be my first backpacking trip and longest period camping. The fear of the trip ending in failure made me grind my teeth in my sleep for a week straight.
For the majority of 2018 I had been doing the long and hard work of healing and recovering from three major events that had happened the year before. If this trip went well, it might mean that both the darkness and brokenness that occured over the past 18 months had ended and a new era of light and healing was coming toward me.
Over the next six days I experienced the joy of seeing the most beautiful campsites I had only ever seen in photos prior to the trip. I ignored my fear and self doubt long enough to climb the cables of Half Dome in Yosemite. I found myself drifting between wonder and boredom while walking for miles on a small dirt trail each day and enjoyed feeling fully present in both states of mind.
I also experienced the terror of being lost in the wilderness for 45 minutes after misreading the maps on my navigation app and taking a literal step in the wrong direction.
Being lost was terrifying. I was desperate to retrace my steps and get back to the trail. I searched and tried to get back to the right trail on my own, but eventually resorted to yelling for help and was found shortly after. The rest of the trip continued without any other major disasters. I left the trail wanting to learn more and return as soon as possible.
I wish I could say that my first backpacking trip turned me into a brave and fearless woman, one who is ready to share her writing with her friends and post her weekly blog on social media. But I’m not there yet. The bravest thing I can muster right now is devoting myself to one hour of writing everyday. Hopefully this ritual will resemble those 12 to 14 mile days we had on the trail. Walking all day is a constant and sometimes mind-numbing process that can leave you feeling like you’re not getting anywhere; certainly not as fast as you would wish. But eventually you do make it to camp and you can take off your 40 pound pack and enjoy the results of your hard work by the lake; only to do it again the next day and the day after that. You remind yourself that you’re doing this difficult thing because you love it and it because rouses you out of complacency and invites you into the thrill of risk.
I’ve always been pretty fearful. There are many opportunities I have missed out on because I was afraid of failure. It was easier to remain complacent than to hope to be part of something great and experience rejection. I’m still scared of making the wrong turn again and never recovering from the failure.
The path to overcoming the fear of failure is steep and requires every part of you. You must shift your fear of failure to a fear of having never attempted. If I attempted and failed, I will not have any “what ifs.” I will have gained wisdom from the experience and be better prepared for when I try again.
But if I listen to the fear of failure, I end up doing nothing. I learn nothing. I will not grow. By never pitching to my favorite magazine I will never see a rejection letter, but I will also never experience seeing my name on their website or in print.
Stepping out in fear and learning how to make peace with it is the lesson the trail has to offer each of us, if we are willing to take the first step. I am at my most brave and creative self when I step out of complacency and into the wilderness of risk and uncertainty. Instead of worrying about inevitable failure I welcome whatever lesson the detour has for me and continue on until I reach the top of the next pass.