August 18, 2012

Fight or Flight

In the decision-making process of fight or flight, I have always chosen the fight.

While my sister cowered from my mother's clutches and threatening screams, crying and begging for forgiveness, I screamed back in her face, presenting mine for slapping, and once even slapping her back.

When my favorite teacher was being let go from my high school for lack of tenure, I created a petition which I presented to the school board in order to save his job.

When I was grabbed in the park by a stranger, I made my appearance as large as I could - as though confronting a coyote or mountain lion - and, though unarmed, screamed and swore until I scared him off.

When a client refused to pay me $3000 in unpaid wages, I sued them, without legal representation, and seized the money they owed me (plus reimbursement for legal processing fees, plus interest) from their bank account with the aid of a sheriff.

When I found myself led by Google Maps and my GPS onto a dirt road that my passenger car had no business being on while driving to Big Bear, I kept driving. I didn't turn back. I didn't stop. I just kept driving.

It takes a lot to make me flee a situation, if I know where I'm going and have a goal I've set out to accomplish. Unless I encounter a swarm of bees, if I say I'm hiking to Suicide Rock and know how to find it, I'm going to push through heat and fatigue until I get there.

But on my way back to LA yesterday, when I stopped in Idyllwild in the San Bernardino National Forest for some hiking at a more reasonable temperature than the desert, I was plagued by constant thunder on the Deer Springs Trail. And I couldn't stop thinking about turning back, from the moment I hit the trailhead.

I'd already stopped into the Idyllwild ranger station to get my Wilderness hiking permit and a map, and had asked the ranger, "Are we worried about storms?"

"Well, it's a 40% chance. They didn't come through til about 3:30 yesterday. Just be careful out there." She didn't seem worried at all.

The sky directly above the trailhead was partly cloudy, with plenty of blue showing through, but to the north, a blanket of gray hung overhead. Storms were predicted for after 11 a.m., and although I'd tried to get an early start, I didn't actually arrive to the trailhead until 11:30. At that point, encountering an August storm - the kind that had produced wildfire-igniting lightning over the past week - seemed inevitable. It had hailed in Idyllwild the day before.

But in typical fashion, I decided to try anyway. I would see how far I could go. As long as the storm was over there, I'd be OK.

As I starting climbing the 1700 feet to the summit, the thunder intensified. The clouds advanced toward me - or I hiked towards them. And although I felt no rain - YET - it seemed as though I was surrounded.

I looked down at the eroded trail and imagined it disappearing altogether under running water, stranding me. I did not want to be on that trail in the rain. I am not experienced enough of a mountain and forest hiker to know what to do, and although I'd filled out a permit at the ranger station, I was alone, and had passed no one yet on the way up.

I kept stopping and surveying the sky. I listened for thunder, and never had to wait long for the next rumble, with its increasing urgency.

I was afraid, but I was inclined to fight. I'd embarked on a 6.5 mile hike, something I knew I could finish in good weather.

But I remembered the traumatic, destructive drive I'd just been on, when I kept driving, and I should've listened to my fear and turned back. Up until that point, I always thought fear was a bad thing - something to overcome. I forgot - or maybe never knew - that my fear arises in certain circumstances to protect me. My fear is not always something for me to run away from. Sometimes, I have to embrace my fear and run away from whatever brought it on: in this case, the storm.

Forty minutes in, after stopping and checking in on the situation several times, I had to stop and turn back.

My legs weren't tired.

I wasn't injured.

I wasn't lost.

I didn't run out of water.

But I could not escape the impending doom of the thunder.

So I went back down.

It's hard for me not to kick myself for it, but right around the time that I would've been returning down the trail, the sky finally did open up and release a rain with a fury - so much so that it somewhat imperiled my drive out of town, creating several deep puddles within 10 minutes of the storm's onset.

I tell myself I did the right thing.

I wasn't getting paid to climb that trail. I wasn't going to disappoint anyone but myself if I didn't do it.

And Suicide Rock will be there for a while, I hope, so I can always go back to it.

There is no need to make it live up to its name by climbing to it under dangerous conditions.

Related Post:
Knowing My Limits

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