I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too.
–Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
This is my story of hiking the Fisher Towers Trail.
This is not the story of the trail, how it was created, what kind of rock or vegetation you will see, or when it became a public trail. It’s not the story of our family vacation, who came with us, everywhere we went, or the retelling of events in order. Those are good stories, beautiful stories. But those are not this story.
This is my story of hiking the Fisher Towers Trail.
You see, a few years earlier, I hiked most of the Angel’s Landing trail with mostly the same group of people. On that first trip to Utah, I discovered just how real and present a fear of heights could be. I found that fear could actually stop me from doing what I really want to do. I experienced that fear could make me miss out on an irreplicable moment.
On this trip, in August 2014, I was pretty determined to crack the code to my fear, to find a way to defeat it. I wasn’t expecting to not feel fear. But I wanted to be able to do things and have adventures and cherish them without fear getting in the way.
The night before our Fisher Towers hike, we had talked about the trail extensively. A couple of people in the group had hiked this trail before, and they spoke of a spot where you had to climb a ladder down into a small canyon and go up on the other side. I had seen a picture of my brother-in-law sitting on an outcropping off the overlook point, and he said he had “hopped across the ravine” to get there. You can’t know an experience from a description, and you can’t see everything in a photo. But my imagination was not interested in this logic. I was imagining coming to the top of the ladder and being in tears, unable to continue. I was imagining getting to the overlook and sitting alone, far away from the edge, while everyone else enjoyed the experience together. I spent much of the evening looking online for pictures and descriptions, thinking that knowing was the way to defeat the fear.
Finally, after so much perusing and not feeling any better, I made a decision. I would go first, as much as possible. I wouldn’t say anything to the group; I would just lead the way. When we got to the ladder, I wouldn’t hang back and let someone else go first; I would just put one foot on the top rung, and then step to the next rung, and go. I would just keep moving. I couldn’t freeze if I kept moving forward.
I also had this instinct that the way to defeat the fear was to do the exact opposite of what I felt like doing. Fear said, watch other people do it first. Fear said, sit still, don’t move. Something deep in my adventurous soul said, push back. Push directly into those forces.
I didn’t tell anyone about my thoughts.
By the time we reached the overlook at the trail end, I had done quite a bit of internal, unspoken fear-conquering. I did, indeed, do the ladder first. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the situation my imagination had created, maybe 8-10 feet down the ladder then up a steep switchback, but that doesn’t matter. What mattered, for me, was that I kept moving forward when I knew this unknown ladder situation was somewhere in front of me. When it arrived, I put one foot on the ladder and just kept going from there. Before the group had completely caught up, I was down the ladder, and up the other side of the ravine.
Shortly after the ladder, I was again leading the way, and the trail seemed to end at a wall. When we got close, we saw a small opening in the wall, about the size of a large doorway, and I moved forward into that opening — and found myself looking out at a steep drop-off and a huge landscape view. My heart jumped into my throat, my veins felt like they were buzzing, and my hands were shaking. I sucked in a sharp breath and took a step backwards. I couldn’t even tell if it was still trail on the other side of this opening, or if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
While I recovered myself, my brother-in-law went through the opening and found the trail alongside the cliff. My sisters offered to go next, but I recited my “one foot in front of the other; keep moving forward” mantra and stepped through the opening again.
“The very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear.”
–Shonda Rhimes, TED Talk
At the end of the trail, I spent some time on those rock outcroppings. There was a light buzzing in my veins, but it was nothing compared to the view. And if you can believe it, the feeling of satisfaction was even better than the view.
It was somewhere along the trail that day that I realized I might like come back someday and hike Fisher Towers alone.
No Sarah or Megan to hold my hand when my heart jumped into my throat. No Jon to confirm that we are still on the trail. No Dan toggling between light-hearted banter and reciting bible verses. No Amy chatting and getting to know each other better along the trail.
It was like something inside me bloomed to life, something that was strength of my own, something I didn’t realize was missing. Or maybe I didn’t quite realize that it was something that was possible to have.
In fact, almost two years later, I can see a trajectory that I think began that day. I do hike alone now. Better than that, my inner conversation is less and less wanting to find someone to imitate, and more and more knowing who I am.
But that day, I also felt solidarity with my fellow hikers. Giving in to my fear would have meant that I didn’t get to be on the trail with them. It would have meant that they wouldn’t have been there to witness my accomplishment, and I wouldn’t have had the joy of the adventure.
Instead, we enjoyed the accomplishment and adventure together.
And that steep drop-off right before we went back through the opening in the rock? I knew I could walk right past it, or stop and enjoy the view for a moment. Fearless is a powerful semantic, but courage is much more empowering to an experience. Fear would come with me. But the doing undid the fear a little bit. And exploration and adventure were leading the way.