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How I Conquered My Anxiety of Hiking Alone

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I have always referred to myself as a city slicker, despite never wanting to be. I grew up in a medium-sized city and, after high school, enrolled in the local community college. I got married in my hometown, too, and we bought a house 15 minutes from my parents. Despite my dreams of moving high up the Appalachian Mountains, or to some coastal California retreat, I became the adult I swore I never would be.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to explore. Backpack through Europe, hitchhike the Midwest, explore volcanic islands in the Pacific. All the clichés, I know. The idea of living in the same city in the same house, going to the same boring job sounded like a death sentence to me when I was 16. Four years later, realizing that this was my reality and most likely my future, I decided I needed to take back my life.

When I was a kid, I loved going when my parents took us hiking on weekends and breaks in the foothills of North Carolina. We went mostly on easy day hikes, short two to four-mile hikes, only very occasionally camping in our pop-up camper at popular campsites, never backpacking. I credit my parents for my love of exploration and nature. So, this is where my journey began. I started dragging my husband along to short loops on crowded trails in the state parks closer to my house. As Noelle, my husband, is not an avid exerciser as myself, he dropped out after the third hike or so. This created a dilemma for me. I was terrified of hiking alone. What if I got lost? What if I had to go to the bathroom and no one was there to spot for me? What if I got tired and couldn’t hike back to the car?

With just a few easy to moderate hikes under my belt, I had already fallen back in love with hiking. I loved the stretch in my legs as I dug my trekking poles deep into the North Carolina clay and pulled myself up steep trails. I loved the views at outlooks and summits. I also loved the hunger and the great meals that came after the sweaty and calorie-burning day trips. This all being said, the decision was easy — I was going to conquer my fear of hiking alone head-on.

The next week, I filled my Swiss Gear backpack with two bottles of water from the gas station and some goldfish, grabbed my boots and poles, and drove to the state park closest to my house. It was only a 40-minute drive, but I was shaking like a leaf the whole time. Scenarios kept flashing through my head. I reasoned that my love for nature and exercise trumped my fear. After parking in the mostly empty lot, I tied my boots tight enough that I couldn’t wiggle my toes, swung my pack over my shoulder and examined the trail map. I saw a trail that was a point-to-point three-mile climb up the side of a small mountain. This looked doable, I thought, of course not yet understanding to look for a difficulty rating. Reluctant but satisfied with my selection, I set out.

The great thing about the North Carolina state trail system is that most trails inside it seem to be pretty well-maintained and marked. I was relieved to quickly to discover that every quarter mile or less along the trail was marked with a large trailblaze and inside the trailblaze was the park name. Despite this constant reminder that I was walking in exactly the direction I needed to be, I was still sure I was lost or on the wrong trail. Every half-mile for the first half of the hike, I would pull my paper copy of the trail map and trace my thumb along the roads, trails and campgrounds until I found where I might be. It was no surprise that every time, I came to the conclusion that I was following the right trailblaze on the right trail, going the right direction.

Once I had relaxed enough to trust the trail markers and my decent sense of direction, I was struck by how quiet my surroundings were. It was so quiet even in the warm-yet-muggy August air, that I kept thinking someone was walking behind me every time I made a step along the rocks and roots on the forest floor with my thick boots. I had a good laugh once I figured out it was just me. Feeling even more at ease and enjoying my beautiful surroundings, I took a moment to retrieve a water bottle from my bag and, whilst opening it, gazed at leafy treetops above that partially shielded the blazing sun and clear blue sky. I noticed how much of my fear was gone as I began to hike again. I still didn’t pass another person along the trail; in fact, I didn’t pass another person until I intersected another trail high up on the mountain and saw hikers about a football field away on the perpendicular trail.

After 45 minutes or so, the trail began to climb. The narrow dirt path abruptly pitched in a sharp angle up; thankfully stone steps were in place to help aid those who were as inexperienced as myself. After the first very steep section, I took my first real break. I had hiked less than two miles but, after my short climb, I was now exhausted. I considered my options. I was still a little worried of hiking alone, despite the trail markers and map. If I stopped now I wouldn’t be a “total failure” because I was at least less scared than when I first started out. In a way, I had conquered my fear. On the other hand, I felt I would fall short of my goal if I didn’t complete the trail. I was two-thirds of the way up, but of course I would have to hike back down, too. Weighing my options, I decided I should press on, maybe just another half mile or so, and see how I felt.

Even though I was still unsure of my decision, I hiked higher and higher up towards the 1,300-foot summit. The trail continued to pitch more and more upwards, but it was OK. I felt a new burst of energy, knowing that I was closing in on my destination. It didn’t take long for me to reach the approach to the top of the mountain. I noticed that the wind had picked up just a little and the air felt just a tad cooler. Obviously, this wasn’t Everest; in fact, as far as mountains go, the one I was climbing was closer to a steep hill than anything else. Despite knowing that I wasn’t a world-class alpinist, I was relieved and excited to reach the top. I took the last few big steps up the incline, feeling the full extent of my inexperience in hiking in my knees and hips.

Then I was there. I couldn’t believe it. It had taken me longer than I hoped, but I made it. I had done it alone. What I thought would be the end to my passion for hiking had actually had the opposite effect. I loved hiking alone. I loved the eerie quiet. I loved that I could pick my own pace. I loved that for once in my life I had no choice but to tough it out and, no matter the circumstances, carry myself home. The view was amazing. It was the only notable mountain in the area, so the view was pretty spectacular, all things considered. The clear blue sky capped off where the green rolling hills and neat farms ended in the distance. I was overcome with joy and pride in myself and in my surroundings. It wasn’t long before I decided I better start, what felt at the time, like a long journey down. I was exhausted. Realizing that maybe I had bit off more than I could chew for a first hike alone, I surmised the faster I got down, the better I would feel.

Swiftly, I hiked back down the trail I had fought so hard to climb. I used my trekking poles to slow my gait, my boots not fully slowing me down as gravity thrust me forward. It wasn’t long before I was almost at my destination: this time, the parking lot and my car with air conditioning. I was drenched in sweat and little black bugs were buzzing incessantly in my ears, no matter how many times I swatted at them. Then it struck me. This was the change I so craved in my life. Hiking was an escape from the everyday rut that was my daily routine. Hiking alone was something so new and spectacular and so beyond my comfort zone that it forced me to grow. By conquering my fears of the solitude and the outdoors, I was now able to experience a grand silence and sublime views in my own time and in my own space, not having to worry about others or anything else, for that matter. As I blissfully sat in my car, the air conditioning blowing cold on my face, I relished in my many accomplishments in the last couple of hours. I reached for my water and my granola bar, and right then and there, in Crowders Mountain State Park, I knew this was only the start of a lifetime of conquering mountains.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Originally published: February 3, 2021
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