“Come on, girl,” I say to my dog as we walk along the networked trails near my home. It is a new area to me, and while I’m not completely sure as to where we are, I’m nonetheless comforted by the sounds of dozens of cars driving by on the highway, assuring me to the presence of people nearby. I watch the narrow boardwalk below me, making sure my feet fall on the thin strip of grip tape instead of the slippery wood next to it. I look up, and, staring around myself, feel an all too familiar feeling of fear stab my heart for a moment. In my mind’s eye, the empty forest surrounding me is full of bears, hiding behind fallen logs and moss-covered boulders, waiting to jump out at me.
I reached the bottom of the run, and turned my head both ways in search of my brother. I jumped off my bike and called his name, choosing a trail and walking down it, squinting ahead in search of him. Suddenly, I heard a rustling slightly ahead, in the bushes. I stopped in shock, but assuming it was just someone’s pet, I continued walking forward in search of my brother. Then my heart began to pound as my eyes, but not mind, registered a large black blur stumble out of the bushes slightly ahead of myself – a black bear.
I froze in fear and shock, and took a moment to comprehend what had just happened. When I regained control of my mind and body, I backed up, and, stumbling, turned and ran up the trail to my parents.
“Bear.” I choked out, “There’s a bear.”
My dad simply stared back at me, and I realized he was feeling the same feeling of shock I just had. Then he told us to drop our bikes and run. Without question I released my handlebars and watched my bike fall, in slow motion, into the bushes. I vaguely heard my dad telling my mom as I pulled myself up onto a log ride and began my hike up the mountain. I jumped from one part of the trail to the next, ripping off my helmet and gloves as I went. I chucked both on the trail, and stopped for a second to catch my breath and watch as my helmet rolled down the slope, finally resting against a stump. I stood and watched it for a while, wondering if I’d ever see it again, then turned away and restarted my hike.
Quickly diverting my eyes back down to my feet, I’m able to erase the forest around me, and create the illusion that only myself and the boardwalk exist. In my mind, I focus on the soft sound of my puppy’s feet pattering on the wood, and try to block out all other thoughts. But when I look ahead, I see the path twisting away into the forest, and wonder to myself how far it goes, and when I’ll be back to the safety of civilization and people again.
Walking alone on the boardwalk, I begin to long for the presence of people. With only my dog as company, I feel bare and exposed in nature, as though there are eyes watching me from every angle. My pace quickens, hoping to find more populated trails to escape to. Everything within me begins to speed up, my heart, jumping on a trampoline, is beating higher and higher into my throat; my gaze, darting around, following an invisible fly; my breathing; and my pace, changing from a walk, to a trot, then breaking into a jog. As I run further and further into the forest, my eyes look up at increasing intervals, quickly scanning the trees around me, and then dropping down in fear of finding what I’m searching for.
As my breathing began to slow my hike, I took a short break and thought about how untrue that conception is – that when your life is in danger; you find an energy you never knew you had. I looked up and down the trail, and seeing my family below me, could only think the unthinkable – the possibility that we may not all make it back home. Painful images of the bear ripping apart my family entered my mind and seared the vision into my brain forever. The realization of how real this could be set in, scaring me out of my stupor. I jumped, and continued up the trail, making sure only to slow, not stop. I turned and looked back at my family for a moment. Fear, my newly acquired stalker, crept up behind me once more as I noticed my mom lagging behind. The whole of my mind screamed out for her to speed up, but instead, I turned away.
I enter panic mode as I begin to race across the boardwalk, stopping momentarily to pick up my dog, whose short legs prevent her from running too quickly. I hold her close to my chest as we dart through the trees together. In my mind I repeat a mantra: “Please, just let me find somebody.” I don’t know who I’m speaking to, but I ask for it anyways. Somehow everyone in the forest, which seemed to be full minutes ago, had disappeared. Indecision rips across my body, trying to tear it in two, as I halt for a moment. It occurs to me that I could turn around, go back to where I’d come from, and find people for sure. The other half of me screams for me to continue, and potentially find civilization around the next corner. The knowledge of people waiting for me back where I’d just been wins, and I stumble as I quickly turn around and head back into the darkening wilderness.
I turned the corner and almost tripped in shock. There were two guys standing at the trailhead, taking a break before starting the run. I felt like the outside world had returned, and nearly fell over as the rush of realization that the world remained swept over me. They asked me what I was doing; obviously curious as to why I would be running up a biking trail lacking both a bike and helmet. I told them the same thing as I had told my father, barely able to speak the four words. “Oh, that’s cool,” was the response I received, but once my dad made it to us, he was able to properly explain that not only had we seen a bear, but that it had decided to come up the trail after us. If they felt any fear, their faces gave nothing away, for they merely picked up some large rocks and told us to help scare it off.
I clutched the back of my dad’s biking shirt as the bear came back into view. Then, just as I had started to become accustomed to the idea, another appeared behind the first. This had barely registered in my mind when a rock sailed through the air over my head, and I winced as it smashed into the ground feet from the bears. They both jumped slightly, but held their positions. Then, as though saying that we weren’t worth their time, they stood still for a moment, and then stumbled off the side of the path.
As I step back onto the main trail, I feel safer, but at the same time, a deep unease begins to settle in my stomach. Why couldn’t I make it through the forest? Why didn’t I push past the fear and finally accomplish something? I could’ve continued on; instead, I turned back, and the failure to face the wall preventing me from moving forward begins to encompass my mind. As I climb the trail heading back to my house, I feel as though I’m not moving forward at all, but instead only walking away from the challenge I stood in front of and walked away from only minutes before.
“We need to find our son,” my dad told the bikers, who had stepped back and told us they’d continue down the mountain on a different trail.
They wished us luck and left, leaving us alone again. My dad told my mom and me to grab a rock each, just in case the bears came back. We picked a few up, and held the feeble weapons in our hands, and after taking a few deep breaths, started to make our way back down the trail we’d just been chased up. My dad spoke to my mom and me as we continued down, his voice getting more frantic and less reasoned as we got closer to where we last saw my brother. We all began to call out his name, over and over again, and the word echoed in the forest around us.
I checked both sides of the trail for my helmet and gloves, and used their absence to push thoughts of my brother out of my mind. Eventually, though, I found them, and my brother returned to my thoughts, scaring me with the idea that I may never see him again. It seemed wrong, impossible, that it could be true, and my heart began to race again, that clawing feeling in my throat returning.
A week later, I stand at the trailhead of the forest near my home, unsure of whether or not to enter. What could lie within the forest scares me, and both that and the thought of being unable to face that fear holds me still for a moment, teetering on indecisiveness. Standing there for a moment, I think back to all the other times I haven’t been able to enter a forest, and, not wanting to add this time to that list, I take a deep breath, and enter. Unlike the last time, I have an idea of where I am, and I keep track of my progress as I walk deeper into the forest. About a quarter of the way there, about half way, about three quarters, and finally, I reach the spot I turned back at only a week previously. I step past the point and into an unknown area. As I turn the corner, I try to focus on the music in my ipod rather than my own thoughts, and notice that the light is brightening.
“Come on, buddy,” I say to my dog excitedly, stepping up the pace and beginning to jog, rounding the corners of the pathway faster and faster. We pass a bench, and then I see the main path once more. Stepping out into the sunlight, I smile, and tilt my head back to look at the cloudless sky.
“I did it!” I think to myself, and jump into the air, filled with happiness. I tug on my dog’s leash and begin to make my way back home, but this time, I’m not walking away from the fear; instead, I’ve walked straight through it.
As we made our way down to the last part of the trail, and all I can hear is my brother’s name, being called out repeatedly by my family, I take a deep breath, and step down from the last ladder bridge to the main trail. Seeing my brother standing there, grinning at us, nearly made all the weight I’d just had on my shoulders crush me, but instead, I simply stood and stared at him. I heard my dad talking to him from a distance, but really, my mind had become blank. “We made it,” I thought to myself, hardly able to believe what had just happened.
Now, as I walk the forest paths each weekend, I’ve slowly stopped looking through the trees, panicking when people don’t come around for a few minutes, and even bothering to think about bears at all. Instead, I’m able to relax and think about life, and just enjoy walking alone with my dog. I much prefer this way, it’s peaceful and contemplative; it just took a lot of courage to get to this point. Now, I look through the trees, and instead of seeing fear, I see the beauty that lies before me.