I was one mile into a two-mile hiking trail when it first occurred to me that I’d done a very, very foolish thing. I hadn’t told a single soul where I was going, what I was doing, or when I would be back.
There was no one else on the trail, which surprised me. I was expecting to see at least a few others along the way. This didn’t help with my fears. I started running down the list of people that might think to come looking for me. I had stopped at the ranger station earlier to get the guide map and ask about the trails, but we hadn’t discussed the trail to Lost Lake at all, so even if she remembered me she wouldn’t think to look for me there. My parents and boyfriend both had access to my regularly updated spreadsheet of sleeping locations, but I didn’t know I’d be staying in the park until long after I’d lost internet access. My spreadsheet for that night indicated I was “camping in Northern Michigan,” so that would be less than helpful. The trailhead parking lot was right next to the main park road, so in theory someone might see my car there after dark and wonder. However the trail I was on had designated areas for backcountry camping, so there were probably vehicles in that lot overnight on a regular basis.
In short, I was confident it would be quite a while before anyone started to look for me, and much longer before they found me.
I didn’t have enough daylight left to get to the ranger station and then back to finish the hike, so I kept going. What was I afraid might happen? Bears, mostly. Ever since Crater Lake I’d had this sinking feeling in my heart that I was going to have to fight a bear. Not be killed by a bear, not just be mauled, but that I was going to be in a position to fight an actual bear. It’s not completely unrealistic. There are certain circumstances when encountering a black bear in which fighting would be your best option. They’re not common of course. But neither are bears.
I encountered a small stream and took some photos. It was beautiful, like something out of a fantasy novel. Perhaps I would be bitten by a snake. Were there venomous snakes in Michigan? I couldn’t remember. It seemed like the kind of injury that could be slowly fatal. Those were the only ones worth worrying about, after all. Those would be the only ones whose fatality could have been prevented. It’s always possible to have a lethal animal attack in the woods, and no amount of telling the rangers where you’re going will fix that. But you could have an injurious incident – the kind that leaves you incapacitated but alive. That’s when the rangers could have helped you out. That’s what I was normally so prepared for.
I wallowed in my own frighteningly specific imagination for 40 minutes before I decided I was doing more harm than good. I tried to think about other things. I tried to enjoy the scenery. I tried to listen to podcasts or music. Nothing helped. I couldn’t focus on other things because the story I was telling in my head was far more intriguing. That’s when I began to talk to myself.
“It’s This American Life, I’m Katrina Hamilton. Each week we pick a theme, and bring you a variety of stories on that theme. This week’s theme: dying alone in the woods.”
When I write fiction I tend to replay the scenes over and over again in my head before I write them down. I’m very good at imagining every aspect of a pretend event. So instead of playing the animal attack over in my head, I decided to play the result. I imagined myself in the woods, hurt, and struggling to make it back to the road. I imagined my mind becoming fuzzy from the venom or the blood loss. I imagined that I would only be able to make it so far before I had to take a break. I imagined being worried I would fall asleep on my break and never wake up. I imagined I took out my phone and starting talking to keep myself awake. I imagined doing my best Ira Glass impersonation and recording a story for the radio.
It would be a great story, too. A sort of narrative Last Will & Testament. I would talk about how I ended up where I was, but I would start at the beginning. I would talk about the whole trip. I would talk about where the idea first came from. I would talk about camping as a child and loving to travel. And the whole thing would feel so hauntingly immediate, because you were never sure when the recording would cut out, and an announcer would come on. Perhaps it would be Katrina, explaining how she passed out in the woods but was fortunately found only a few minutes later by some passing hikers. Or maybe it would be Ira, explaining that the rangers found Katrina’s body alone in the woods several days later, her phone at her side, the battery dead.
Now that’s good radio.
The answer of course is that everything turned out fine. I made it to Lost Lake, and found the act of looking at a lake by myself to be incredibly calming. The entire hike I was alone – no humans, no snakes, no bears.
When I tell people I traveled alone, they often ask, “Were you ever scared?” The answer is yes, I was scared. But not of the things they’re thinking. Not when I went home with strangers. Not when I drove through the wrong side of town. Not in New York City traffic or at night on the lonely highway. I wasn’t scared of the people and the places that I didn’t know. These things weren’t scary. They were wonderful.
I was scared when I gave myself the opportunity to consider the limitless possibilities. I was scared when I thought too much, when I pondered all that could go wrong. I was scared preparing for the Grand Canyon, but I was never scared during the hike. I was scared sitting outside the Westboro Baptist Church, but I wasn’t scared sitting in the pews. The greatest fears I ever experience come from my own dreadful imagination. I can work myself into a frenzy if given the time.
The best cure for asking what could happen is to consider what did happen. There are a lot of things that could have happened to me on my trip. I considered them, I was prepared for them, and I didn’t experience any of them. I used to be pretty uncomfortable around strangers, but I’ve spent too much time with too many strangers to still feel that way. My experience can go toe-to-toe with my imagination, and experience will win.
Was I ever scared?
But that was before I left.