We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.
The breeze slipped through the tops of the beetle-weakened conifers and headed east. The light from the setting sun cast its rays through the phalanx of dying trees illuminating spots here and there around the parking lot. Three pickups sat like abandoned hulks.
I walked left and right and back and forth, kept looking at my watch, listening for the sound of anything besides the zephyrs in the pines. Nothing. No birds, no coyotes, no squirrels. Nothing.
I plopped in my old camp chair and turned on my battery-powered lantern and tried to read a short story from Rebecca Lawton’s, Steelies and Other Endangered Species. I kept standing up, peering into the darkness. I searched for a place to sit where my back wasn’t exposed. No large rocks close by. No thick trees. I sat back down and picked up the book. The approach of night chilled my back. Like something had sneaked up behind me. I stood up.
Finally I escaped into my bedroll, covered my head and tried to sleep. But sleep proved elusive. I thought about home and work I needed to do and about what might be out there sniffing around the car, my gear, my bedroll. I thought about tomorrow’s hike and I thought about the possibility of rain and I thought about Vietnam, and Arizona, and California, Illinois, Seattle, Boise. It seemed I relived my entire life as I rolled and tossed and turned. I kept sitting up, looking around.
I recalled a fable by Edgar Alan Poe that I read when I was a kid titled “Siope,” about a character who cursed the noise and horror of a storm in the wilderness, and the noise and storm then became silence, and the character cursed the silence for it was more frightening than the chaos of the storm.
And then I fell asleep.
I awoke at 01:45. Wide awake. I wondered why. I wondered if something was prowling around my campsite. I wondered if I should look into the black of night or if I should stay buried inside my sleeping bag. I listened. Nothing. Not even the breeze in the treetops.
I threw back the tarp and sat up. The night chill hit me and I shivered. Nothing except the Milky Way spread east to west like a raging mountain river surging between the snaggled treetops. The galaxy was bright and white and yellow with hints of blue and red scattered around. A satellite blinked across the night and shooting stars rocketed from the north and the southeast. I saw a plane fly over.
I laid back and folded my arms behind my head and watched the magnificent stream of stars and galaxies that thronged the black heavens. I retraced my thoughts, the earlier ones. And then the stream of stars led me to think about something I’d heard years before. It was from the motivational guru Earl Nightingale and about personal security and by inference, fear. I am paraphrasing here:
You want security? You are living on a piece of rock that is spinning around at about one-thousand miles per hour. The earth orbits the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour. The Milky Way, our galaxy, travels at the speed of five-hundred-fourteen-thousand miles per hour. Our universe is expanding at a rate signified by an almost unimaginable number. And you feel secure? You are not secure.
As I looked at the amazing patterns of galaxy upon galaxy and the flash and sputter of dying asteroids, I thought, this is what you are out here for. Security. Or your need to overcome your need for security and your penchant to let fear (fear of what…suppression, failure, rejection, death?) depress your drive to do what you must do.
I thought, I am out here. Alone. By my choice. Not a choice I normally make, but that’s why I’m here, lying on the ground, unable to sleep. Overcoming my fear of being alone and all the fears I wish not to think about. I am overcoming my constant need for security.
Then I went to sleep again only to wake at 04:30 to the sound of tires knocking over rocks. I rose and climbed inside the car and watched. Headlights blared into the stillness. The rumble of the engine destroyed the silence. I listened and watched and wondered who would come into this place this time of night, or morning. They parked and a door creaked, then slammed. What did they want out here? I heard the sound of steps and looked in my rear view mirror. Nothing. Again, a door creaked open, then slammed. Then the sound of feet shuffling off in the direction of Hell Roaring Lake. I wondered if it was a good idea to hike in the dark. It seemed like whoever had arrived came as a single person. I heard no voices and soon I heard nothing at all. Whoever had arrived hiked alone, at night.
Later as the morning hinted at showing up, I ate and dressed in layers, put on my ball cap, my bright blue day pack, laced up my hiking shoes and took off up into the wilderness area. Nothing but a squirrel on a tree trunk and a buck leaping across the meadow. Nothing but beetle-killed trees, and rocks. A chipmunk skittered across the trail. Then the sound of a woodpecker. A Cassin’s vireo landed in a tree and flitted from one branch to another. So, I thought, I am not alone after all.
But who was I kidding? I was. Not a human being in sight although there were tracks in the mud from other hikers, one of whom must have been the person I heard arrive so early in the morning. What if a mountain lion stalked me? I kept spinning around in three-hundred-sixty-degree pirouettes trying to catch a glimpse of what might be behind me. What if I encountered a mother bear with cubs? At my age, could I run fast enough and climb high enough in one of the skinny, dying trees?
I reached Hell Roaring Lake. The morning sun etched audacious patterns into the craggy spires of the Sawtooth peaks to my west. Fish jumped. I saw a snowy plover and some kind of grebe I could not identify. I looked for bald eagles or osprey. But nothing else appeared except a jumble of black storm clouds lowering over the peaks to my west.
The sullen charcoal color of the clouds alarmed me so I started back down the trail. A sudden summer bluster blew right up behind me. Lightning and thunder suddenly filled my mind and I hurried along towards the car. But the storm caught me. I thought about all the things I’d learned. Don’t get beneath a tree because lightning might hit it. Keep yourself as low as possible. I halted and yanked my poncho out of my daypack and found a rock to lean against. What would happen if I got struck by lightning? Bright flashes and thunder stabbed at the land and at my eardrums. I squatted low and let the rain run down the poncho and onto the ground. Blinding blares of lightning caused me to flinch and shut my eyes as I waited for the sound of the thunder. You can get a pretty good estimate of how far away from you the lightning is striking by counting the seconds between flash and boom. Some of the lightning got pretty close. What if lightning split a thick tree and it fell on me? Crushed me? Who would help me?
The rain squall blew east and I started out again towards the car. Another storm hove into sight and I started to trot but that was not sufficient either. I ended up squatting beneath a thick conifer as hail peppered everything around me. I thought of those hailstorms in the Great Plains where hail grows so large it can pummel a man to death. I feared that might happen as the hail came in the teeth of a more serious blow. What would happen to me if the pounding balls of ice knocked me unconscious? The hail ganged in the sunken boot tracks on the hiking trail, but it did not harm me.
I finally got back to the car and shucked my gear and tossed my pack and wet poncho into the back and eased my way down the rock-strewn road that leads to the pavement. I stopped in the town of Stanley and treated myself to a thick, greasy cheeseburger. As I headed home, I metaphorically slapped myself on the back. I had done it. Not that I had any illusions about conquering fear. We are born alone and we live alone and we die alone and fear of all kinds of things is perched on the shoulders of our consciousness like red-headed vultures. But for the moment, I’d gone out alone and slept alone and hiked alone. Alone.