Notes on fear

The note read, “If I die.” Nothing else. There was no last will and testament. There were no instructions. There was only a flower blossom picked from somewhere else.

I was soaked with sweat and attached by a six-foot blue nylon leash to a 72-pound yellow lab puppy. We had hiked as far as we could on the Table Rock Trail before fear sent us back toward the trailhead, our figurative and literal tails tucked between our legs. We were three-quarters the way back to our car when the corner of my eye caught the flash of white on the ground. Next to a tree, written on the back of a trail registration form, were the words “If I die.” Whoever had written the note had found a white flower blossom and placed it atop the paper. The flower was a gift. The note was insurance. Against what, I had no idea. Table Rock is one of the tougher trails in the area. It climbs 2,000 feet in 3.6 miles and ends at a deadly drop off with an incredible view. It’s a place to find God or meet him. A hiker could fall. A hiker could jump. A hiker could be pushed.

If I die. Period.

I don’t know why it occurred to me, but my first thought was, “Whoever wrote that note is left-handed.”

A year or so before I moved to South Carolina, a student from nearby Clemson University stopped at Wendy’s in Seneca, and then drove the 45 minutes up to Table Rock. He parked his car near the place I’d park mine countless times over the next decade. Whatever happened next is the subject of a mystery that will likely never be solved. Jason disappeared. He fell. Or was kidnapped. Or was pushed. Or just disappeared. Nobody knows. I once spent an entire day with Jason’s mom, a psychic, and my late photographer friend Chris walking around Table Rock. There are people who believe Jason is still there. I am one of them. But we didn’t find him. No one has, and chances are, nobody ever will.

I thought about Jason when I looked down at the note on the ground.

If I die. A flower blossom. Nothing else.

It was more than Jason left, and yet, somehow less.

***

I was alone and felt every bit of it. It was a Sunday morning and the only other breathing thing in the house was the dog. I stared at the ceiling and realized no one knew where I was or where I intended to go. My head was a jumbled collection of mismatched thoughts, all of them tainted with an undefinable fear that everything was going to fall apart.

I had little reason to worry as a boy. We weren’t rich, but my father was driven, and my mother was a constant source of comfort. Worrying little meant any fear I had felt amplified. Like nature, fear abhors a vacuum, and any residual peace is sure to become scorched earth if your head works like mine. Hence, I fretted the most about my parents running out of money. Or my parents dying. Or the City Utilities worker who lived on Groton turning into a green-faced warlock and crawling through my window after midnight. None of those things happened. It was too much of a lesson in rationality, I think, because by the time I reached adulthood, I worried on nothing. The only time I got even vaguely concerned was when I thought I had cancer at age 25. It turned out to be a freckle. In my navel.

But now, at age 37, I had rediscovered fear, untouched by youthful exuberance, unmitigated by experience, uncomfortable in long stretches of sobriety. It was as paralyzing as any drug, any injury, or any external weight the world would ever push on me. I was afraid of something I couldn’t define, couldn’t vocalize, and couldn’t touch. And I was in my car with a giant puppy. We were driving to Table Rock.

***

It was nearing 90 degrees by the time we hit the trailhead. I had enough water to get us up and down the 2,000 feet. I had a camera. I had a backpack with a collapsible water bowl for the dog. I had everything I needed, with the notable exception of a plan. I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was going, or how long it would take. I had only hiked the full trail once before. That had been a decade earlier when I followed my friend Mike up Table Rock on a comfortable February morning.

Mike never showed any fear of the mountain or anything else. At age 35, he had decided to enter the armed forces. Though he had a good career as a photojournalist and had a woman he loved at home, he had every intention of making the age-limit cut to get into the Army Reserves. We all know what happened ten years ago next month. It was the one time in my life when our nation shivered together in terror. That day sent Mike on more tours of duty than I could count. While I drank beer, hung out with my wife, and had a son, Mike faced fear head-on in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Though I never bothered telling him before, he was one of my heroes before he ever donned a uniform. He remains so today, honorable discharge and all.

I was company for him on that day at Table Rock. He filled a backpack with socket wrenches and hammers to weigh him down on the climb. He hoped it would get his aging body ready for bootcamp, Now, I was two years older than he was at the time, climbing the same mountain, and wondering where the decade had gone.

***

There’s a point on the Table Rock trail at which the tougher hikers leave most people behind. The first couple hundred yards are paved and have nice decking that leads down to waterfalls and swimming holes. A mile or so into the hike, most everybody who isn’t intending on making the summit turns around. The climb is strenuous, no matter whether the air is 19 degrees or 90.

For reasons I can’t really explain, I didn’t bother filling out a trail registration form. I didn’t text my wife and tell her where I was going. When I thought to do so, I realized my phone signal had died. Without much regard for good sense or reason, I pushed past the stragglers at the first mile marker and headed up with as much speed as my legs would let me. Before long, the dog and I were alone on the trail. She climbed oblivious to where we were going or why. That much we had in common.

We stopped for water at an overlook. I looked over the edge of the rock and realized my big dog could pull me off the edge to nowhere if she got crazy. She was tired and collapsed onto the rock. I sat with my legs crossed and drank beside her.

I had spent the past nine months in a suspended state of panic. I knocked it down in whatever ways I could, but each time it climbed back with as much energy as any inspiration I’ve ever had. The more I fought it, the more I realized I was fighting myself. Even when I thought I’d beaten it, I realized I’d just found a new way to hide it from myself and everybody else. Its genesis, its energy, its engine, all of them were mysteries. It had become exhausting in ways that I could neither talk nor write about. I was again a child huddled under the covers and wondering if I would hear the monster before it made it to my pillow.

Oh, I make it sound sort of dramatic, I guess. In fact, it was anything but. Much like this missive, it was a slow, plodding, impossibly dull exercise to endure. But I’d finally admitted to myself that it was as real as anything else going on around me. Maybe even more so. Like love, fear’s power is in its ability to be irrational at all costs. Without the absence of reason and rationality, neither love nor fear can breathe. I am a man who loves from a part of his body he can’t hide. As it turned out, by the time I’d reached 37 years old, I was just as scared as I could be irrationally, senselessly in love. And I couldn’t hide it anymore. The only way to hide the fear, in fact, was to hide myself from everything. At one point, I’d been a man who could bounce from one place to another with nary a blink at the social tripwires around me. Now, I found it hard to be comfortable around anyone other than my dog.

I was on an edge in every literal and figurative sense I could conceive. Grandfather Rock was only around the bend. My dog and I were back on our feet and hiking higher.

***

I had only noticed that the air had gotten cooler. It was my dog that tipped me that we might be in trouble. At first she slowed her climb, and then she stopped entirely and cocked her head toward the North Carolina border. Thunder was rising up over the Blue Ridge Mountains and riding their waves in our direction. It was mid-afternoon and one of South Carolina’s signature pop-up storms was heading our direction. It would shoot lightning from its cloud-bottoms, blow fierce gusts of wind though the trees, and soak the trails in a matter of minutes. The storm was unlikely to be deadly, but it would be dangerous.

I dismissed my dog’s fear. She’s huge for a puppy, but she’s easily scared by storms. In my mind, we were making to Grandfather Rock, we were making the summit, and we were making it to the precipitous overlook before we made any more decisions. A breeze blew through and cooled us both. We hiked up another 200 yards before we heard the lightning crack. My dog stopped again.

I stood sweating, a mess inside and out. I was angry. I didn’t know what making it to the top of the mountain meant, but it made me furious that my dog had stopped in her tracks. She looked at me as if to say, “I will do this, but I don’t want to.”

I looked as far out over the hilltops as I could. The clouds had grown dark and I felt the first sprinkles of rain. I looked back down at my dog and I realized that she was afraid. She was purely, naturally, unashamedly afraid.

There aren’t a great many human phrases my dog recognizes, but when I say, “Do you want to go home?” she knows what I mean. We turned and started walking down.

***

Half a mile into our descent off Table Rock, I saw a flash of white in the middle of a trail. A crash of legs and hooves streaked off to our right and stopped dead thirty yards into the trees. I stopped and looked at the doe as she looked at me. The sprinkle had turned into a light rain, but it felt good after the long hike. The deer didn’t move, and neither did I.

For nearly five minutes, I held my spot in the middle of the trail and looked at the animal, her white tail still up from her frantic run for cover. She was alone, as near as I could tell. There was nothing there to tell her to be afraid. She simply was. She was scared enough to run into the trees and get away from my dog and me. She wasn’t scared enough to run farther. Maybe it was the constant traffic up the popular trail. Maybe it was something else. Regardless, her natural fear made her run, but only so far as to get away from the immediate danger. After that, she stood and looked on us with still wonder. She didn’t flinch. She sat silent and looked at me as I looked at her.

Honestly, I think there was a part of me that wanted her to run farther away. There was a part of me that wanted her to be so scared that she ran until her heart gave out. Yet, I did nothing to frighten her more. In fact, I stood as still as I could and hoped the moment could last forever. No matter how trite, overblown, or fictional it sounds, I, at long last, exhaled. After smothering in fear for nearly a year, I finally let go. Beside me on a leash and in front of me thirty yards into the woods were two living, breathing creatures that survived because their genes told them to be scared. They moved in peace with their fear. They didn’t fight it. It was as much a part of their survival as breathing. All of us evolve both to and because of fear. If it happened in reverse, we’d all be dead.

I blinked first, and the doe watched me walk away.

***

If I die. A white flower blossom. And nothing else.

We were nearly to the trailhead and the storm had already given up its weak effort. The air was already growing hot again, and I could head the children laughing in the swimming hole at the bottom of the trail.

I looked at the note and wondered if there was anything I should do with it. I wondered if it was just a joke laid there by someone who dreaded the 2,000-foot climb. I wondered if the note was meant for anybody in particular, or if it was meant for some random hiker like me. I kneeled down into the dirt and picked up the flower. It might have been a magnolia. It might have been something else. It was some sort of offering, even if the note was just a joke.

Or maybe one of those people I’d passed along the way toward the summit was actually afraid he would die on Table Rock. And maybe he wanted somebody to know he still thought the world was beautiful.