I dreamt of bears on Friday night, having read of a black bear on Camel’s Hump who’s not afraid of humans. A popular Long Trail campsite below the summit has been shut down for the summer, and hikers are encouraged not to take the Dean trail that leads through the site. In my dream, it was five bears, not one, and they were brown, not black, all after the food in my pack.
Despite this, I was on the trail the next morning at 8:30 with my dog, Pebble. My legs fell into a comfortable rhythm as Pebble pranced and snouted along the worn path of the Monroe Trail, 3.1 miles from parking lot to summit. It felt good to sweat, to fall back into a familiarity on this mountainside that my legs first learned when I was four years old and determined to hike “by own self.” Halfway up I stopped where water dropped off a rock and crossed the trail, and I cupped my hands to catch the water and splash my face, cool my neck and the pulse on my wrists while Pebble lapped at the stream.
Sweat returned quickly as we climbed higher toward the alpine tundra of the summit, but the winds on the exposed peak cooled me and whipped loosened hair from my ponytail across my face. As Pebble and I walked the rocky top a family came up from another trail.
“Zoe! Sit down! You’re making me nervous.” I looked up to see a smiling girl around 8 slow her pace and crouch down at her mother’s call. It made me think of my mom and all the times my brother and I pushed her limits of comfort as we explored the edges of summits. Zoe was no where near an edge, surrounded instead by rounded slabs and alpine plants that traced through cracks in the rock, and though the wind pressed her back and ballooned her jacket on one side, her feet were firmly on the ground, the risk of blowing away far less than the risk of tripping on a root when they got back on the trail.
It made me think of risk and what we learn of it as children, of what we teach our children as adults. It made me think of the difference between real and perceived risk, and how we learn to be alive.
My mom was raised with the phrase you can’t be too careful, but she traded this phrase for another when she raised me, saying the greatest longing of the soul is to be free. Though it was her voice that called me away from rocky edges, she brought me to the mountain.
It would be too easy and simplistic to say that my dad taught me risk and my mom taught me safety. The two are tied together. Without risk the vitality of the soul isn’t safe, and without safety–the safety of love and trust and a web of people who support you–risk becomes riddled with fear rather than aliveness.
I am after aliveness. I am after the vitality of soul, the exhilaration of exposure, the peace of solitude.
Hiking reminds me how to find all this, how to move with it and hold myself in its presence when I am not alone on a trail. When I am alone on a trail, it reminds me that the risk of running into a bear is worth each footstep that allows my mind to wander, my heart to center, and my spirit to become more alive.
The biggest risk to life, to the quality of being alive, is not going to the mountain, but rather never going to it at all.