A few weeks ago I went on one of my regular walks: up the hill through the residential area and to the forest trails beyond. I am extremely fortunate in where I live—twenty minutes of walking gets me on a trail that leaves the houses and streets behind in another fifteen. I head up here usually twice, sometimes three times a week depending on my schedule. From the trail head I can access several peaks or just enjoy a leisurely walk in amongst the alders, cedars and hemlocks. I am, I repeat, extremely fortunate.
I like to consider these trails as my own personal sanctuary. I seldom meet anyone. Sure, I come across the occasional dog walker but as I keep my sojourns to the weekdays my path is usually undisturbed by any of the two legged species. I’ve seen the occasional bear and a coyote but mostly it is just the squirrels and birds that keep me company.
A few weeks ago, however, my refuge was invaded. I had just crossed a narrow creek bed and climbed the short but steep path on the other side when I spotted some wads of toilet paper. I immediately tensed; I stopped and looked around. Who had done this? A few steps later I found an empty beer bottle, then a plastic bag and, incongruously, a tube of toothpaste. The tension became anger. I picked up the bag and stuffed within it the other pieces of debris. I continued on but was on high alert. I knew that anyone who denigrated nature would have no qualms against disrespecting a person. And although I always carry bear spray I am conscious that I am still a woman alone in the mountains. Bears may be unpredictable but humans, I have no doubt, trump their unpredictability in spades. Still I try to let caution rather than fear rule my path.
Walking slowly up the short rise just beyond the makeshift toilet and bottle dump I spied the campsite. It sprawled over the path and up the hill. I quickly stepped back below possible observation. For a brief moment I considered going forward and confronting these miscreants. I am a strong advocate of “taking back the night” and other such actions that challenge the philosophies that keep women tethered to the safe and known, but I am no fool either. I gathered what garbage I could (excluding the toilet paper) and retreated back the way I had come.
On the walk home and the days that followed it was interesting to note the degree of violation I felt. Not only had my sanctuary been treated with disdain but I felt sullied and, irritatingly so, afraid.
Fear is no stranger to me. In the past I’ve been afraid of the dark, of men and dogs, bears and a general assortment of authority figures including teachers, cops, and bosses. Over the years I have worked hard at creating a safe inner haven that defeats these fears while physically pushing my limits to challenge them. I have walked and hiked in the dark, camped in the wilderness on an overnight solo trip, and learned how to approach animals with cautious respect. Authority figures can still create an internal tremble but that, too, is far from the fear it was. I like to think I know my fears and can deal with them. So it was with surprise and eventual anger that fear dropped in on me in a place where I had done so much work in confronting my anxieties. I felt enraged that some disrespectful campers/partiers could disrupt my hard earned peace.
Although anger can be a great motivator it took me a while to take back to that trail. A few days lapsed with stewing over the audacity of these individuals. Then there was almost a week of days where I couldn’t return due to other commitments and several more days of just plain procrastinating. In all it took two weeks to go back and face my goblins.
I knew the campers wouldn’t be there on the day I went up but still I was far more wary than usual. Armed with plastic bags to pick up garbage I slowly hiked back into the hills. Autumn had fallen with alacrity and alder leaves strewed the pathway. Despite this the still air was quiet. Even the birds were silent as I walked through the windless trees and over the drought heavy creeks. As I approached the destination my pace slowed and my senses heightened. I stopped to listen. Silence greeted me. I moved on. With relief I noticed the toilet paper was gone and, clearing the small rise, saw nothing of the blue tarp that had called out like a beacon when the camp was still up. I walked on and saw how others had been there before me. It must have been a work party that descended on the camp as the ground showed the effects of rakes and shovels. I can only imagine what was there before that needed such a cleanup. I toured the area and picked up some missed over odds and ends: broken glass, torn pieces of foil wrappers, cigarette butts and bottle caps. I said a few words of thanks to nature for forgiving the trespass and to the folk for cleaning it up and carried on.
In writing this now I think not so much of the fear but of my arrogance in the surprise I felt when I fell into fear. I thought I had built up enough internal safety that an external event like that would not have disrupted me on such a level. For a few days I was even distrustful of others and cynical of people’s behaviour and motivations. True the denigration was in a place I consider a sanctuary. Also true was that the anxiety didn’t last but it is interesting the denial and self deception that we can fall into: I didn’t think my fears could ignite so quickly and, however temporary they were, be so inhibitive.
I was talking with a friend the other day about the parts of us we don’t show, even, sometimes, to those we know and trust on an intimate level. He was saying how his current partner wanted to know “all of him” and part of him was rebelling in revealing too much, too soon. I said, you can always tell her that she’ll never get bored with you because of the continuous new discoveries she’ll have each day. I guess the same goes with me: the fearful parts within me, the parts that seldom show their face even to me, can still hold too much sway in certain circumstances … and while that surprises me, it also confirms I’ll never be bored.