On a recent backpacking trip of a section of the Pacific Northwest Trail in the North Cascades of Washington, I came face to face with one of my biggest fears.
I first met Katy Stockinger in San Diego in early 2008, when she and my sister became roommates for a couple of months via craigslist. At the time, Katy worked for United Way and painted as a hobby. She and I became friends via parties, barbecues, beach volleyball, softball, late nights and girl camping (which we all like to call “gamping”) until later that summer when I left for Spain. While I was gone, Katy quit her job at United Way and started working at a fleet management software company while also getting more involved in art . When I finally returned to SD almost a year later, she was renting a space in an art studio and taking part in gallery events.
At the end of 2009, Katy decided to cut back her hours at the software company so that she could start focusing even more on art. I was still flat broke from Spain and on the brink of desperation. Katy was able to get me a job at the company to take over the hours of work she had just given up, and the next year, I believe, marked the real beginning of our friendship. As inside sales reps in an empty office, we most often saw no one but each other in our four hours of work each morning. We started our days with a walk to fetch coffee or breakfast sammies, and in between calls and emails, we talked over our cubicle walls about every detail of our lives, including our dreams. In those conversations, I realized the depth and complexity of Katy’s thoughts and feelings and actions.
Katy is a full package of a person. She’s one of the most pragmatic women I know, yet one of the most idealist all at the same time. She’s an artist by nature, and I don’t mean because she can paint or create or make. No, the art bubbles on the inside, regardless of whether or not she is making anything. Yet she has both vision and application, which I believe are the foundation of a person of action. This is not someone who will easily give her word to just anyone, but when she does, she is a woman of her word. She’s guided by both humility and truth. Oh, and she is one of the funniest people I know.
Katy inevitably quit the sales job and moved into her art full time (check her out). Afterward, I worked there for five more months before pulling the plug on that job and expanding into my current work, which I adore. Thus Katy once referred to that period of life for both of us as the dark ages before the renaissance. Yet in that dark age, seeds of friendship were planted. Now, exactly two years to the month since I quit that job, I feel like our friendship is only growing stronger despite the fact we don’t live in the same state any more.
On November 3rd of this past year, Katy made a last minute trip to visit. It was her first trip since I had moved to Seattle. I was in a small rut then, feeling like I wanted something more and that I was not living up to my full potential. Like something was missing. I had in fact felt that way for a long time, and the unfruitful search was getting old. Little did I know, that where I sat at the bottom of the basin of my frustration and despair is where I would find the wings to carry me to the top.
We spent a full day in my apartment, Katy painting and listening to me hash out my thoughts. I started to read her things I had written in my journals, things I had never read to anyone. She listened intently, and wanted me to read her more. I pulled up word documents that were never finished. I pulled out journals I had filled in the years since I was little. I opened my old blog that I had never told anyone about and kept private. I was sharing my art. It was terrifying yet exhilarating. One half of the equation for release had been in translating my soul to words, but they had always still been mine and only mine. In sharing those words with her, another person, I discovered a whole other half of the equation for release.
I will not ever forget when afterward she said, “That’s your thing. That’s your art. Writing. That’s what you have to do.”
A few days after she left, I came up with an idea. That idea became Journeyfoot. And journeyfoot has become a giant piece of my heart and life. There is a whole other side that readers don’t see. There is a whole other process that goes on behind the scenes. Anyone that publishes to a blog of their own can understand. Not a day goes by I don’t think of journeyfoot, thought my lack of posts might imply otherwise. I’m learning to find the balance of walking AND writing, which is the essence of journeyfoot. I find it is much easier to walk out into the world and keep walking than it is to clean up my seemingly endless ramble of thoughts I have spilled out onto paper. Often times editing feels like doing the dishes after a giant dinner party. Yet eventually, something forms that feels right.
Still, every single time I click that “publish” button and release a part of myself to the world, I have a feeling of fear. But instantly it turns to a feeling of elation. I did it. Slowly but surely, it gets easier. Slowly but surely, my posts change and evolve and are no longer so confined to the boundaries of my old fear. New fears form. Fears I never even considered before I conquered the original fear. Walking through one door of fear and closing it behind me leads me to another set of doors of fear that I never even considered. But then they, too, can be walked through and closed and conquered.
Our thresholds change. Our thresholds for fear. We challenge them and they expand, until we are no longer operating based on fear. Once we face the fear, then we can conquer the fear. Once we conquer the fear, we have grown ourselves. I don’t know what else brings forth more progress.
Two weeks ago, when the weatherman said temps would reach 80 over the weekend, I convinced Katy to again hop on a last minute flight from San Diego (although it didn’t take much convincing). She flew into Seattle at 1AM last Saturday morning. Seven hours later, we were on the road to the North Cascades with coffees in our hands.
The park rangers at the station in Marblemount issued our backcountry permits and let us know that bears were definitely out and about in the lower elevations. Instant fear boiled in me. Bears are my biggest fear in the woods. I am terrified of them. Nonetheless, we reached the trailhead, strapped on our packs and entered the wilderness.
It could not have been a more picturesque May day, with a bright sun in an azul sky and snowy mountain peaks surrounding the lake which we trailed high above. We didn’t encounter anyone on the eight mile trail, except for some swarming bees we had to maneuver around.
In late afternoon, we arrived to where we would camp: at the tree-lined edge of the lake, still low from winter and not yet filled with the icy water which cascaded down from the mountains above us. We enjoyed a picnic of summer sausage, cheese, bread, dried apricots and wine next to the water in a spot that would, in the months ahead, eventually be the bottom of the lake. The sun set early behind the mountain just to the west, extending the low light of dusk and letting it linger for some time. In its cusp, we set up camp, gathered dried wood, explored the river, started our fire and cooked our dinner of mac n cheese and sausage. Exhaustion settled quickly in both of us, and the slight fear that usually snakes itself around me in the wooded dark of night was no match for my tired mind and body. I fell into sleep quickly.
Few experiences rival the solitude of early morning, but the solitude of early morning in the outdoors is surely one of them. Once my eyes open and see any light in the sky, it is most difficult to even think of returning to sleep, for no dream could be better than the magic of the world in that moment. I was thankful that Katy needed more sleep because it allowed me the chance to be alone in one of my favorite times and settings. My cold fingers struggled to make a fire, until finally they were heated by the product of their work. Just as the mountain to the west had extended dusk the night before, the mountain to the east extended dawn that morning. I sat on the stump of a tree and wrote in my journal while watching the line of sunlight slowly move across the land, making its way toward me. Gold light spilled through the trees and I moved out onto the empty floor of the lake just as the sun rose over Jack Mountain and warmed my world. I moseyed down to the edge of the water, exploring. At one point I realized I didn’t have my journal with me anymore, and I found it again by following my own tracks through the sandy ground. The morning on that lake earned its place at the top of my favorite mornings list.
Once Katy rose, we collected water and made coffee and oatmeal. The sun heated up quickly and it wasn’t long before we were tanning in the sun in our underwear. A few different butterflies hung out with us there in the sunshine, resting on our skin and shoes. We were both apprehensive to leave the tranquility of our camp, and again, fears of encountering a bear worked their way into my thinking. But just before three o’clock, we began our trek back to the car.
I was a bit startled when we came across two beautiful deer no more than 15 yards away from us. Two humans stared wide eyed at two deer who stared wide eyed right back. We continued walking and they continued eating, as though we had just exchanged casual hellos. Coexistence. Katy and I pressed onward, crossing countless waterfalls and eventually the same group of bees. I began to think of the delicious meal we would eat upon our entrance back into civilization. I started to think of work the next day. We chit chatted about things of the past and things of the future.
There is nothing that brings you more quickly into “the now” than rounding a corner on a trail and coming face to face with a large bear. In that moment, time does not exist because there is no thought of time. There is no thought of anything. There was only one word that came out. “Bear, bear, bear.” And then, “There’s a fucking bear!” These words flowed out my mouth while my body was already turned and walking the other direction back towards, and then past, Katy. I could hear her saying, “I have to see it.” My mind was bent on getting the hell out of there. Behind me, I then heard her say, “okay. I saw it. I saw it.” And she was suddenly at my heels.
“You saw it? What was it doing katy?!”
“Um… it was.. walking… towards us.”
It was about that time that I became aware of the shaking that had taken over my body. My eyes scanned the ground for a stick or a rock, and I pulled out my knife.
“Make yourself big! Get sticks!” I commanded Katy.
All of the larger sticks were small and crumbly, the kind that would break in half with the slightest touch. I could feel panic as I glanced over and over again behind me while picking up sticks and tossing them when they didn’t meet my approval for protection. I looked to Katy, who had a long, thin branch with some leaves still attached at the top. It was puny and pathetic.
“No, we need something thicker that we can break over its head!” I told her.
She looked at me with confusion. “Ohhh Jayme, we are having two very different trains of thought. I’m not trying to find ways to defend myself. I’m trying to find ways to prevent anything from happening because…. Well… do you really think you are going to be able to hit that bear on the head with a stick?” And it was in that moment that I realized what she was implying. There would be no defense with a bear of that size. When I realized this, I grabbed the tallest branch I could find and held it in my left hand. In my right I tightly gripped my knife and another branch. We stood there, not knowing what to do.
What if? I started the what-if game. What if the cubs are nearby? What if the bear is still there? What if it starts chasing us? What if we die? But those were all unknowns, things that were not in our control. All we can do is what we know to do, and the rest is up to fate. To chance. We had to focus on what we did know, and what was in our control. So what did we know? We knew the sun was going down. We knew we were a mile or two from the Ross Lake Dam, and the car was only another mile or so after that. We knew behind us was open wilderness for days. Ultimately, we knew we had to continue on the trail and make our way out of the woods back to the car. This meant walking back towards where we had seen the bear.
It was the hardest decision I have had to make in a very long time. We had to move forward to the source of fear. There was no other option. We walked side by side on the narrow trail, large branches in front of our faces and above our heads. We raised our shaky voices to alert the bear of our presence so that it would not be startled. We started talking to the bear.
Bear, BEAR, we are COMING! We respect you. We think you are so cool. We don’t want to hurt you. We just want to go home. We would never think of harming you. Please just let us pass and we will be on our way. We LOVE you! We’re JUST – GOING – HOME! I would bow down and kiss your feet because I think you are the coolest, but I don’t really want to do that, so just know you are respected.
It became a game. Every corner brought another dose of fear, but every time we rounded a corner and didn’t come across a bear, we felt another dose of relief. The further we inched, the more I started to calm down. I even started laughing at the idea of someone hearing us screaming the things we were screaming. I don’t know how long it took to reach the dam because I had no concept of time, but the release when we reached the pavement and crossed over the dam in the setting sunshine, surrounded by snowy peaks and trees will stick with me. We had made it. We did it. Before long, we were sitting in a restaurant devouring burgers and baked potatoes in a dizzy spell of exhaustion that left us speechless. Sleep that night never felt so good.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Monday we met up with Jon for dinner and discussed topics that were unrelated to bears, though in retrospect, they seem to all relate to one another. All three of us agreed there really are no guarantees in life. We can’t guarantee a bear will or will not attack us. We can’t guarantee we will always have the same job we love. We can’t promise our heart will never be broken. As the Stoics would say, those are all externals. What we can control is our response and reaction to every single thing that happens. We can choose how we act and react. We can give the best of ourselves at all times. All we can do is this. All we can do is what we know. Whatever happens outside of that is external and out of our control, so to use those externals as a determinant of our happiness or satisfaction or content in life is to give up our personal power.
Am I not going to enter bear country again? This question challenges me, because my first response is still one of fear. I don’t want to encounter a bear again. I am still terrified of them. I’ve even thought, Oh, I can still find great hikes outside of bear country. Maybe I will just stick to those areas. But I would be denying myself all of the wonders that exist in that country. I would be denying myself a deep love. And I would be denying myself an opportunity for growth. And for what? A fear? A fear of the CHANCE that I may encounter a bear, and then the CHANCE that the bear I encounter decides to attack? This would mean my fear of something that is not certain would prevent me from doing something that I am certain brings me peace.
So will I see bears again? Probably. Will I be attacked and killed? Maybe. The answers to those questions are not certain and they are out of my control. But will I still go into bear country? Certainly. That is my choice, one that is fully in my control.
I dropped Katy off at Sea-Tac in the dark hours of a Wednesday morning, and returned home as the sun was just waking. I had thought I would return to bed, but I couldn’t neglect the magic of such an early morning, nor the parallels, full circles or epiphanies that were swimming loudly in my head. A walk to the water was the only way to first process the reflections of her visit, and afterward I spent many hours writing.
Without either of us knowing it, she had ironically arrived in Seattle exactly six months to the day since she had flown out in November. Much has happened in those six months for both of us. Careers have expanded, relationships have grown, discoveries have been made, new roads have been traveled…
Each challenge provides an opportunity to overcome fear and, thus, expand ourselves and our capabilities. I am grateful for Katy’s friendship. She has been present in one way or another as I have faced some of my greater fears. For this, she has been a catalyst in my personal growth.