I wake in the night to a sound like a bear maybe and I hold my breath in the warmth of my bag, waiting. It is rarely a bear but even after 5 years of sleeping mostly in the wild I am afraid of the dark and the things my imagination creates within it. I turn the rustling mice into shapes like bears and I see mountain lions in the shadows thrown by tree branches in the moonlight. It’s like that game you play with floral wallpaper at the doctor’s office - finding shapes like human faces, coyotes, birthday cakes and champagne flutes in the patterns of flowers on a wall. These things aren’t real. But I would craft a mountain lion out of the sound of wind in the trees and I would hear the footsteps of a bear in the pounding of my own heart. I have held my breath in the night only to realize that the rustling that made my heart sink heavy into the pit of my stomach was the sound of my sleeping bag moving to the rhythm of my own breathing. Which is appropriate, somehow, that my greatest fears in the wild would most often be myself. Because in 1,000 nights slept in a tent or under the stars I have never once been eaten by a bear. I have watched and been watched by mountain lions, but never been hurt by them. And the greatest injuries I have sustained have been self inflicted - missteps that morphed into sprained ankles, poorly swung tools that lead to scrapes and bruises and not a little blood loss. I have been preyed upon by beasts in the backcountry, but they were small and gossamer-winged, and they left itchy bumps when they bled me instead of claw-marks.
I have woken in the night to bears and never seen more than their hulking back-ends retreating into the dark. But I am scared still, of the dark maybe more so than what it holds. I feel it as a heavy, malevelent presence in the air around me, licking at the edges of my fear and forcing my breath to catch, my heartbeat to quicken until I cannot hear anything but the panicked battering of my own fearful heart. I have woken in a soft bed in a 4th story apartment bedroom frozen and silent in the imagining of large, furred predators transported out of the wilderness of my dreams into the glass and steel-grated windows of Brooklyn, into pavement-tamed San Francisco. I would wake wrapped in 800 thread-count sheets and I would listen to the echoes of my heartbeat in a dark room and I would imagine long-toothed beasts hiding beneath bed frames or creeping in from suburban basements. Fear. So many nights of it I have weathered now and it has not changed much in having survived them. But I still hike along moonlit trail and I still sleep under the stars alone in the wilderness with a 3 inch folding knife and my wits and my fear. Because what else is there? Bravery cannot exist without this fear that rides me and I would call myself brave because I need to know this about myself when there is no moon, and I saw bear scat not far from where I am now laying quiet in the dark, and there is a cracking of branches in the night. I would rather die here in the clutches of some peak predator than bleed out on the concrete beneath the metal body of some vehicle of death, but not tonight. Tonight I sleep fitfully, as I always do in the woods, and call myself brave, and feel nothing like it.