If there were a 12-step program for my particular problem, I’d introduce myself this way: “Hi, my name is Cheryl, and I’m a recovering nature-phobe. It has been 38 years since my last traumatic hiking experience.”
I was 8 years old at the time, and finally deemed mature enough to join my father, his buddy Bert, and my older sister Michele on their annual backpacking trip along the Tuolumne River. As I trudged down the foot-wide trail through a forested canyon, my dad walking ahead of me, my sister and Bert behind, I was puffed up with pride and full of questions like How long is this trail? When can I eat my snack? When do I get to sit down? When are we gonna get there?
Each question received a one-word, grunting response from Dad, which confused me until my sister hissed, “Shut up,” through gritted teeth, indicating that my chattering was a major breach of some unspoken backpacking etiquette.
So I shut up. Until I heard an unusual sound, coming from a trailside bush that my dad had just walked past. Something like a rattling sound. I stopped beside the bush and said, to my dad’s back, “What’s that sound?”
My half-deaf father turned his good ear toward me and asked, “What sound?”
I pointed to the bush, “That sound.”
I don’t remember anyone actually saying the word rattlesnake. All I remember is my dad launching into this series of slow-motion ninja moves. He swept his left arm around and placed his palm on my chest, easing me away from the bush, while his right hand reached for the holster on his hip.
Oh yeah, the holster. The gun. The fact that my dad was packing heat didn’t faze me. He carried a firearm on every family car camping trip, every daytime fishing excursion, every family vacation in a condo at Lake Tahoe. Why? Because you never know. That’s why.
So I was used to guns, but I had never actually watched my dad shoot one. When I saw him reaching for the holster, his eyes laser-beam focused on the unnamed threat coiled in that bush, my 8-year-old brain said, Something very dangerous is happening.
And I responded like any seasoned hiker would. I screamed, burst into tears, turned tail, and sprinted back up the trail toward the Pinto station wagon we had left parked on the remote dirt road up there. That is, I intended to sprint, but a fist gripped my backpack holding me in place, and my sister, to whom it belonged, hissed in my ear, “Stay here,” with such authority that I stayed.
Hands pressed to my face, I watched through splayed fingers as my dad aimed the pistol toward the bush, his face transforming into an expression that could only mean I’m gonna get you sucka, and shot two canon-loud blasts into a snake I never did see.
Then, pulling a page from the trauma manual entitled If You Pretend Nothing Happened No One Will Be Scared, my dad turned toward me — my tear-streaked face, my trembling body — and said, “What’s the problem?” He shrugged and continued walking toward camp.
Now I realize that my response to this situation was probably personality-specific. Some kids would be all “Dude! My dad’s a freakin’ hero!” I, on the other hand, thought this: “Oh my god, nature is trying to kill me.”
Enter nature-phobia. I spent the rest of the backpacking trip terrified. Every stick on the ground was a snake. Every leaf that fell from a tree was a poisonous insect flying at me. Every rustle in the bushes was a rabid badger thirsty for my blood.
That weekend I learned that nature was a dangerous threat. But I learned something else, too. At night, lying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the sky, I learned that out beyond the light pollution of the city I could see more stars than I ever knew existed. And they seemed closer somehow, like I could reach out and touch one. Seeing that made me feel both expansively large and very, very small. Under that glittering canopy, I listened to Bert, somewhere in the dark of our camp, playing his harmonica, songs I’d never heard before, their slow notes rising to the heavens, until I fell asleep.
I had no word to attach to that feeling back then, but now I do: reverence. I grew hungry for it.
And therein lies the problem: I loved nature as much as I feared it.
This conflict has played itself out in many ways throughout my life. But it really came to a head in college, when I was hanging out with a group of friends who loved to go hiking. I wanted to love to go hiking — wanted the reverence, finally, to eclipse the fear — so I tagged along.
Those hikes would start out peacefully enough. I’d have my backpack looped onto my shoulders, my snacks, my water bottle, my birding book, my binoculars — ready to love the great outdoors. I’d be chattering in my head about the crisp beauty of the fresh morning air, the hyper-blue sky, the birdsong emanating from the canopy of trees, and then WHAM! Something would startle me.
“What was that?!” I’d gasp.
“A squirrel?” my friends would say.
Oh, yeah, squirrel, I’d think. Then I’d start chanting: just a squirrel, just a squirrel, just a squirrel, my heart pounding like shoes in a dryer. I’d take a few deep breaths, start to calm down and then WHAM! Something would skitter across the trail and I’d be all, “What was that?!”
“A lizard?” my friends would say.
“Oh, yeah, okay,” I’d nod. And the whole process would start all over again.
After several near misses with squirrels and lizards and butterflies and mourning doves, a half-mile into the trail, my adrenaline would be pumping so hard that my eyeballs would be pounding to the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I’d know there would be no calming myself down. So rather than twitching my way along the trail like a junky in withdrawal, I’d abort the hiking mission, choose the most patient friend in the group, and ask him or her to walk me back to the parking lot, where I would eat my bagel and sip my water in the relative peace of my Mercury Lynx.
Ugh. The frustration. So badly, I wanted to revel in my love of nature without the knee-buckling fear. So I started reflecting on the origins of said fear. One day, while hiking up near Bolinas (the town where Alfred Hitchcock filmed — ahem — The Birds?), I shared some of my thoughts with a friend, “You know what’s weird?” I asked.
“No, what?” he responded.
“When we go hiking, we don’t carry a gun,” I said.
“You know what’s weird?” he countered.
“What?” I asked.
“Your dad does.”
Revelation No. 1: Apparently, most people don’t carry guns while hiking well-marked trails in state parks. Huh. So, as logic might follow, maybe what we were doing wasn’t actually all that dangerous?
I decided to press the issue, asking, “But what would we do if we saw a rattlesnake?”
“We’d turn around and walk the other way?” my companion suggested.
Revelation No. 2: You don’t need to go storming through nature, guns a blazin’; you could just, you know, respect it.
Okay. Now I was getting somewhere.
High on my two revelations and eager to put them into play, one day I decided to try a solo hike. This wasn’t a well-thought-out plan; it was more of an impulsive, Hey, there’s a trailhead, and I have 20 minutes free sort of a thing. So yes, I was wearing flip-flops and a sundress, and I had no water or snacks, but I figured all the better. Maybe hiking didn’t need to be a big expedition? Maybe it could just be like a peaceful walk around the neighborhood?
Up the trail I went.
To my surprise, I was feeling pretty darned comfortable, enjoying the early summer breeze, hiking amongst the mountain bikers, runners, and lunch-hour walkers on this truck-wide fire trail. So comfortable, in fact, that when I noticed a shed snakeskin alongside the trail, I challenged myself to stop and take a look at it. Then, just to prove to myself how very brave I could be, I decided to crouch down for a closer look. And just as I was mustering up the courage to reach out and touch the scaly thing, out of a hole about two feet away from my left flip-flop came the skin’s former occupant.
Holy mother of …
My sister would be proud to know that this time I did not actually scream or burst into tears. I did, however, turn tail and sprint down that hill as fast as my feet could take me, kicking up more dust than a Ford F-150.
But then something interesting happened. In my state of panic, I felt myself astrally project upward, and suddenly I could see myself, this crazy young woman with wild red hair, flying down a hill in her sundress and flip-flops, and I thought, I look ridiculous.
I stopped in my tracks and realized what I was doing: I was sprinting like my hair was on fire, because I actually thought the snake was chasing me. Chasing me. Like I was what, a Looney Tunes character? Snakes don’t chase people.
Enter Revelation No. 3: Most of what I feared would happen in nature doesn’t actually happen. Squirrels don’t go for your jugular. Turkey vultures eat you only if you’re already dead. And bats don’t actually want to get tangled in your hair. That’s when I realized what I needed to combat my nature-phobia was not a Colt .45, but more information.
So I did a little research, learning things like “venomous snakes have diamond-shaped heads,” and “if you see a mountain lion, don’t turn and run,” and “if you get bitten by a black widow you have plenty of time to get to the emergency room before your leg shrivels up and falls off.” Slowly, over time, I became aware of nature’s actual dangers and released the unnecessary fears.
Like all recovery processes, the work has been challenging and often maddeningly slow, but the payoff has been gorgeous. I have hiked in bamboo forests; I have watched seals teach their pups how to swim; I have sat quietly, completely alone, on the tip of Tomales Point, listening to elk whistle into the wind. Each of these gifts has felt hard-earned and therefore so incredibly sweet.
In the past two decades, nature has become my church. To quote Paul (McCartney) and John (Lennon), “when I find myself in times of trouble,” all I need to do is head for the nearest hill, and by the time I’ve climbed to the top, I have received whatever wisdom I need. Whether it’s a metaphor like a wildflower growing out of a rock or an inner truth revealed when the physical activity of hiking pulls me down out of my endlessly whirring thoughts into the quiet home of my body, the message I need to hear finds me, every time, without fail.
I fully admit that I am still a bit of a nature-phobe. For example, when my friends announced their plans to hike across South America, my first question was “Isn’t that, like, the home of the world’s largest rodent?” When they confirmed my suspicions, I scratched “Hiking Across South America” right off my bucket list. So yeah, my name is Cheryl, and I’m still a nature-phobe, but I’m recovering. And that’s what matters the most.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now