Since we have moved here, Derek has hiked this peak in the pre-dawn hours numerous times, so I had thought this would be a reasonable goal for myself. But as I approach the trail head, I am struck by some major differences between Derek and me. Primarily, Derek doesn't get scared unless there is a reason to be scared. And second, Derek doesn't have night-blindness.
Despite the icky feelings building in the pit of my stomach, I start my hike. I can only see within a circle of grayish light cast by my headlamp, but it is just enough for me to see where the trail goes and to avoid stumbling on any rocks. As I follow this circle of light, the open trail progresses into a steeper wooded area. In my peripheral vision, I see a tall figure ahead. Startled, I look up, expecting to see a hiker in front of me. It is only the trail though, dark dirt against the lighter outline of trees around it.
I try to calm my pounding heart. As I continue to walk, two different voices begin arguing in my head: the Wimpy-Susan voice and the Bad-Ass-Susan voice.
Wimpy-Susan points out that I forgot to bring a back-up headlamp and if my current headlamp fails I could become completely lost, as I am literally blind in the dark. Bad-Ass-Susan reminds us that dawn is only an hour away, so surely if my (brand-freaking-new) headlamp fails we could just hang out until it lightens up enough to see.
Wimpy-Susan points out that I also failed to bring my pepper spray or a knife or anything really to defend myself against predators like mountain lions and sleazy old men. Bad-Ass-Susan reminds us that mountain lions don’t eat people and, for goodness sake, it is before dawn and below freezing, all the sleazy old men are home in their warm beds. Nobody is lying in wait to ambush me. No one was out here at all.
I ignore both my alter egos for a minute and continue walking, thinking for a bit about fear and anxiety. I wonder if Derek is ever scared of running into other men on the trail, and I suspect not. However, I also realize that there are people who would never hike alone during the day, much less in the dark. And here I am, doing just that.
Logically, I know that it is perfectly safe for me to be doing so. I have my headlamp, the right clothes, plenty of water, and a cell phone with service. I've hiked this trail before, Derek knows exactly where I am, it’s too cold for snakes, too populated for mountain lions, and too early for creepy old men. Yes, it is okay to be afraid. Many people would be. But yes, it is also safe to continue.
I felt a blissful moment of peace at this realization and stop to savor the moment before I start into a particularly dark, deep section of the canyon hike. When I stop, I hear what I couldn't hear when I had been walking and talking to myself. Footsteps behind me.
I freeze for one panicked second, picturing a crouching mountain lion, ready to eat me. The footsteps stop behind me. Human footsteps. I almost giggle I am so giddy with relief and a small bit of embarrassment. I turn, excited to have another hiker to walk through the dark with and hope they are going to the top of Malan’s as well.
My headlamp hits an empty trail. There is no one there. My anxiety rebounds, hitting me hard in the gut. I am certain there was someone behind me. I had heard them walking. I glance around the trail, looking for maybe a hiker who has stopped to pee and is sheepishly hiding from me or maybe the green glowing eyes of an innocent mule deer. Nothing.
“Hello?” I call out, my voice unsure. Still, nothing.
“Hey!” I call out, annoyed now because I am certain someone is there and just not responding. I had heard them behind me.
Wimpy-Susan is ready to start walking, no – running – back to the car. I wait for Bad-Ass-Susan’s opinion. She is mulling it over. Finally, she say f*** this, Malan’s isn't that cool anyway. Wimpy-Susan thanks the good Lord but then freaks out more because if Bad-Ass-Susan says it’s time to go home then there really might be a reason to be scared. Bad-Ass-Susan just rolls her eyes.
I resist the urge to run. I don’t really think there is a mountain kitty nearby, but IF there is then running would only incite it to chase me. Plus, I can't see well enough to run without tripping anyway. I stomp my feet as I walk to make myself sound as big and mean as possible.
I cross a trail intersection and take the lower path. I call out greetings a couple more times just in case there was a friendly human nearby. I get no responses and see no headlamps anywhere but I do still hear the occasional shuffle of someone else’s footsteps. There is someone or something on the trail with me. If it’s a person, they aren't responding to my greetings. If it’s a creature, it’s clearly not afraid of me. So, I do the only logical thing I can think of: I start making growling noises at my possible mountain kitty.
“Graaarrrr Mountain Kitty! I am big enough to eat you! BRAawwwwrrrrrrrr!” Yes. I really say that. Quite loudly too.
Shortly after, I hear laughter. A lot of laughter. Mother f***ers. There were at least two hikers somewhere on the trail above me now. Older women from the sound of their voices. I hear them mutter something to each other as they continue along the upper trail. They aren't using headlamps, so I can’t see them despite the lack of trees here. If I didn't have night blindness, I probably could see them.
I sigh. I debate telling them thanks so much for scaring the shit of out me (cause really? They couldn't just say hello back when I called to them?!), but I continue stomping my way back to the car instead. So much for facing my fears. I know, as I think about confessing to Derek why I'm home early, that I'll need to come back and try this again. Just... not today.