by Jess Everett
In the past year, it has seemed that the universe has been dead set on teaching me the power of suggestion. The latest episode was a water bottle kerfuffle on the trail.
In need of a rest while hiking downhill, I found a large stair where I could sit and rest my backpack on the ledge above. I took a swig from my Nalgene, then put the bottle aside on the ledge so I could rifle for a snack. I had left the top unscrewed, and I sat contemplating the precarious placement of the bottle while I munched my granola bar. I gauged the temperature: perhaps high eighties, humid. It would be highly unfortunate if my water bottle spilled in this moment, miles from a water source. As I sat musing, perhaps an imperceptible breath of wind or a slight give in rock particles disturbed the water bottle, sent careening across the forest floor, spilling most of its contents. Was it pre-sentience or had my thoughts created this catastrophe? In either case, I had failed to honor my intuition; I consciously recognized of the possibility yet did not intercede, replacing the cap.
I constantly feel the power of suggestion while hiking. A hike is a constant dance amongst tree roots, protruding boulders, and loose rock, especially in the White Mountains, where steep trails are subject to erosion. Just walking necessitates a sustained mindfulness, which, over the course of hours is mentally exhausting. As a solo hiker, to break a limb in the wilderness would be grave. However, I have found that as long as stay focused (step, step, rock, step, rock, step, highstep, step, hop, step, step, loose rock, step) I am successful. If I allow my mind to negatively frame the challenge (what if I roll my ankle here?) I will do so in a matter of seconds. The speed at which these negative thoughts manifest themselves in the physical world shocks me every time. In addition, if I take mind away from the challenge (step, step, rock, step) to a higher level of abstraction (I need to stay focused on my footing), I seem more likely to stumble than if I stay present with the challenge. Sometimes my mind wanders, but step, step, rock, step carries on subconsciously. I have discovered, however, that when I reflect upon this mental process it seems to cease, leaving me vulnerable to injury. In the Nature, it feels as if the universe can be read more simply.
Last summer, I became aware that this phenomenon functions at a meta-level. I was living in Berkeley at the time, preparing for a month of hiking in the Sierras. This was the first expedition I had undertaken alone, and I was receiving frequent phone calls from my mother begging me not to go. My mom believed I would be eaten by a black bear. This seemed my certain fate that rocked her dreams. I would also be raped. I must assume that this would happen sometime before the bear attack. I would be alone, the whole world seemed to warn. They were never able to articulate precisely the danger of my aloneness, but it seems to be a danger in itself. I am not sure what the hypothetical other would do during the bear attack, when we got lost, or run out of food, but somehow his presence would be a savior in itself, as if my selfhood was insufficient. Beneath these notions lurked the unspoken danger, that I am a woman. I began to absorb the world’s doubts, making them my own.
Two days before my expected departure I was cruising down Virginia Ave. on a borrowed bike. As I rode I wondered why I would want to leave my job as an urban farmer, to thrust myself into the unknown, against blisters, asthma, rolled ankles, and exhaustion? I was frightened, I admitted to myself. I was more at risk biking in the city than on the trail, I remembered, but I did not feel at risk. I was whipping down the hill, wings outstretched like an eagle, rounding the corner onto Martin Luther King Jr Way. Why didn’t I have a helmet on? I resolved that the next day I would scold my friend Andy for not owning a helmet. I had been hit once, just a grazing. Really, I reflected, it was a miracle I felt as safe on the road as I did. I entered the line of traffic. I did not slip onto the sidewalk as I came to the red light, but waited patiently at the University Ave junction, breathing exhaust. My mind a thousand miles away, I was thinking about death, its reality emerging through the spider cracks in my invincibility, as I mindlessly followed the traffic down MLK.
My macabre thoughts were interrupted by a flash of motion. The blur of scenery solidified into a slow motion film. A white commercial van was turning left, across my lane. We were separated from collision by an instant. The giant white monster had not seen me, was barreling forward with no regard. Adrenaline surged, but I had no time to react, only time for the anticipation of pain as the front of the fender connected with my side. I flew like a rag doll across the lane, spinning in the air, rolling, rolling across the pavement, my body absorbing the force, shedding skin from my elbow, my legs, like sacrificial offerings to the predator. The white beast, surprised by the ease by which my body yielded, stopped in its tracks. I sat up quickly, collapsing back to the pavement in pain, confusion, and surrender. My sobs erased time. A paramedic’s hand slid down my back, assessing my vertebrae. As long as I can still carry my backpack, I prayed. Tears of shock ruddied my face, washing away the disbelief. Despite the pain, I could not ignore this aggressively blunt message from the universe. I knew I would be safe in the mountains, but that I must never cease to respect my surroundings. After the police officer dropped me off at home I finished packing my backpack.
And of course, I completed the John Muir Trail without being eaten by a black bear.