Where most people see peace, I feel fear. My heartbeat, pulsing in my ears, is deafening. The hair on the back of my neck stands at attention as a shiver runs down my spine. Sweat collects in the folds of my clenched palms and adrenaline floods my veins, making my breath short and my legs weak.
Some people walk in the woods to clear their minds. They hike for days, months even, and come away from their solo adventure in the woods a changed person. But for me, a solo walk in the woods feels anything but a peaceful soul-searching adventure. Instead, it’s the start to a gory horror film – one where the protagonist doesn’t survive the bloody assault, finding solace in her existence or strength.
While I don’t necessarily enjoy walking or running along busy roads, I find comfort knowing that my main risk is being steamrolled by a passing motorist. I prefer the comfort in breathing in the exhaust from the old pick-up that definitely won’t pass an upcoming emissions test. I find comfort in the noise. While running on a busy road, I don’t fear being abducted, raped, and murdered.
The silence in the woods along the trail is terrifying. Crickets chirping and birds singing are hardly enough to mask the deafening silence. And when the silence is broken by the snap of a twig, my heart catches in my throat and my body tenses as it waits for the impending assault.
Despite the anguish I feel walking along wooded trails, last week, I found myself facing my fears. I could have skipped my cardio workout for the day, but if there is one thing that could possibly be more powerful than my fear of walking alone in the woods, it’s my external accountability to a checkmark. On Tuesday, should I finish the workout, it would have been the 12th consecutive day of a cardio workout, thus the 12th checkmark. And I know myself enough to know that if I break the trend, I risk losing the habit I am trying to form. I risk falling into a slump that could last weeks, months, or like this last slump: YEARS.
And so there I was, standing in a gravel parking lot littered with potholes filled with muddy rainwater. That familiar rush of fear ran through my veins.
I was struggling because this wasn’t the trail I typically use. Instead, I needed to fit my walk/run in during a short 45-minute window between dropping N at school and meeting with my first client. This trail was around the corner from where I needed to be. But again, walking in unfamiliar territory is usually how the horror film starts, right? This trail is typically well-populated – it’s paved, well-kept, and part of a bigger trail system in the area.
It’s not like you’re walking on the path less traveled through the woods, Melendez.
But on this particular day, it was a cold, dark, dreary day, leaving the trail deserted. Not a soul in sight. The trail runs only a few yards from a road, which should be of some comfort, but at this time of the year, the trees are still thick with foliage. It would be difficult for a distracted morning commuter to notice any distress, should there be any, especially since I was dressed in dark colors.
You didn’t plan this out very well, Melendez.
It looks like it is going to rain, I pleaded with myself. You should skip today. It’s so cold.
The excuses started flowing.
No. I will walk. I will breathe, and I will walk.
And so I started to walk.
One foot in front of the other.
I could hear the quiet hum of the morning rush hour traffic along the Interstate overpass ahead. I could hear the audible walk signal of a cross-walk off to my left. And then I could hear nothing except for the sound of my heart beating.
Focus on your breathing. In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four, five, six. In …
And then, suddenly, there it was:
That fear I was holding back with my focused breathing rushed over my body. My fingers went numb, my legs nearly buckled under my body. Tears welled in my eyes.
Turn around. Now. Turn. The. Fuck. Around.
“No!” I said aloud – so sharply even I startled myself. “No.”
I will walk. It is broad daylight. I will walk.
I took a cautious step in the direction toward the dark underpass. My fists were clenched and my heart racing.
OK, jackass. This is how women get killed. If you’re going to do this, be prepared.
I took my keys from my pocket and positioned the sharpest of keys between my pointer and middle finger of my right hand. I unclenched and re-clenched my left hand multiple times, shaking my arms out between each squeeze.
Deep breath. You can do this. Broad daylight. Deep breath.
As I turned the corner and the underpass came into view, I was both relieved and still panicked. It wasn’t as dark as I anticipated – in fact, it seems that the trail committee installed lights in the underpass. But there were still dark corners. There were still dangerous blind spots where any type of predator could be lying in wait.
And then I heard it. The sound. Softly, at a distant, at first. But quickly getting closer and louder. The sound of feet. Running feet. And I froze. My feet were cemented to the pavement.
In my head, the feet were wearing boots. Heavy, clunky, standard issue military-style boots. I could picture them. Assault boots. Black leather, with breathable fabric sides, laced up over the ankle.
The stomping was getting closer, and just as the sound was upon me, I turned my head, expecting to be clocked in the face.
And then she ran past.
A small, tiny woman, no taller than 4’6”, no younger than 65, wearing running sneakers. She smiled, gave a polite wave, and continued on into the dark underpass.
I breathed a sigh of relief – both for myself being safe and for the woman’s safety, because maybe had I released my fear a moment earlier, perhaps I would have attacked her. Wouldn’t that be difficult to explain.
I stood for a few moments longer, breathing deep, rolling my shoulders and releasing the tension in the back of my neck.
You still have to move forward, Melendez.
I still had to move forward. As much as I wanted to turn around, to accept that I could only go as far as the bridge that day, I needed to finish. I needed to walk under that bridge. Not so I could get my full 30-minute walk in, but because I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. That a walk in the woods, on a perfectly paved trail, in a well-populated (usually) area, was not going to kill me.
And so I walked. One foot in front of the other, fighting back the tears as I crossed slowly into the dark underpass. My eyes scanned the dark corners of the inclines where the abutment meets the underside of the bridge. I scanned for danger on either side, in front of me, behind me. I moved myself to the left side of the trail, away from the danger of the blind spot just outside the underpass to the right. And when I made it through and realized that the trail led to a busy intersection, I ran, perhaps the fastest I’ve ever run, to the intersection.
As I stood at the corner of the intersection, I debated whether or not I was going to go back the same way I came. I looked left, where the trail continued on through the woods along the road. I looked right, where the road took me back towards the parking lot, to the safe confines of my car. And I looked behind me, where I could see the top of the bridge I just crossed under, full with morning traffic.
That morning, I chose to cross the seven-lane road and walk back to my car alongside the road. I risked being sideswiped by distracted morning commuters as I walked precariously along the solid white line, the trail just a few yards to my left. But I felt safe. I felt as though I had taken enough steps towards overcoming my fear. And I felt accomplished.
It feels silly to write this. My fear seems irrational. While the actual risk to my life was non-existent, the perceived risk had me paralyzed – often has me paralyzed. Perhaps one day I will feel comfortable – excited even – to go for a solo walk through the woods. But for now, I’ll stick to the populated trails during broad daylight. For now, I will continue to take baby steps towards overcoming my fears.
What is your biggest fear? How does it affect your life? Are there any steps you could take today to help you overcome that fear?