While selling tents today, we got on the subject of what one would be absolutely terrified to see upon rounding a corner of a trail.
My first response was a clown because, well, clowns are frickin’ creepy to begin with, and could you imagine finding one out in the wilderness? Somebody else said a hairless bear. I had to google it, and it is a thing. Yes, that would initially skeeve me out because it looks like the zombie dogs from I Am Legend, but then I’d go, “Huh. A hairless, zombie like bear. Let me take a selfie.”
I’ve seen a grizzly in the wild. It was some distance away, but it was still a little disconcerting when it lifted its nose and looked exactly my direction. I’ve had a mountain lion run through my camp. I’ve heard wolves and coyotes howling close by in the dark. I’ve been this close (I’m holding my hands a foot apart) from a bull elk.
All of those encounters were more exhilarating than terrifying. Was there possible danger of evisceration and a clear understanding of my true position on the food chain? Perhaps. As with most things in life, being in the wilderness is about managing risk and understanding probability. I don’t carry a gun or even bear spray, but I also don’t sleep with my food. I don’t try to pet cute baby bears. In fact, it is a good rule to not try to pet any creature in the wild. I don’t make camp near a water source. I pay attention to sights and sounds and smells. If all the birds in the forest go silent, you should go, “oh shit.” Don’t stick your head in a hole to see what is down there.
My point is common sense goes a long way anywhere that risk is increased from that in your living room, whether it is a foreign country, a big city, a glacier, a desert, or a forest trail. The only times I’ve been afraid on a trail, it involved two legged animals. They did happen to be mostly hairless. Another good rule is if you’re going into the wilderness, go far enough that it isn’t easy for people to get there. In that way, you’ll avoid most rowdy locals. Cases of beer are heavy, and they don’t want to carry them very far. Most maniacal, chainsaw wielding psychopaths will show up at a remote cabin, according to the horror films I’ve seen, but they won’t hike in twelve miles. Chainsaws are also heavy.
My gist is that I’m not really afraid in the wilderness. There are dangers and risks, but they should not be unknown. Virtually nothing in the North American wild actively wants to eat you, except mosquitoes. Our greatest risk, anywhere on the planet, remains ourselves and our fellow humans, and clowns.
I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods before I hiked the AT. In it, he discusses the dangers and describes the incident when two female hikers went missing from Darlington shelter and were never found. I rarely stayed in shelters….that whole avoiding people thing. Even more rare was when I was alone in one. I happened to stay at Darlington shelter and didn’t recall that event until I was unpacked and settled in. Of course, that night nobody else hiked in.
As the darkness began to press in, I peered into the gloom listening to cracks and creaks and rustles. They were the same noises I heard every night. The darkness was the same that falls on every forest. It gets really dark in a forest. Still, I was on edge simply because of an event that had happened there. So, I put on my headphones and played Abba’s Dancing Queen and danced and sang in the dark. It’s hard to be too afraid when disco’ing in the woods. If there had been a homicidal maniac lurking in the dark, I would have totally out crazied him. He’d have gone, “Shit! That guy is nuts. I need to get out of here.”
What scares you out there in the wild? I mean, besides clowns.