What is there to fear?

There are few terms that mark more privilege or a self-indulgent lifestyle than the phrase ‘taking a vacation from your vacation.’  It’s a phrase I don’t use very often as it holds a mirror up to the largesse to which we have become accustomed.  But in this case it is very appropriate.  Visiting my parents in Arizona was a vacation from our vacation.

A vacation can come in many forms, but the chief aim is to create a psycho-physical break from day to day life.  It can be restful, or it can scare the beejesus out of you and in rare cases it can be both.  Such was the case for me while visiting my parents in Arizona.

We took four days off from our sail down the coast to go inland 600 miles to the aridity of the Sonoran desert.  We were at first nervous about leaving our beloved home unattended for such a period, but as soon as we disembarked, all but forgot about her.  My parents spend much of the year traveling.  Like many baby-boomers in their Golden Years, unencumbered by children, jobs or the erroneous compulsion to prove themselves in society, they are free to explore and play.  Two years ago they bought a large travel trailer and spend much of the winter touring the warm, southwestern states.  When we arrived in San Diego, they had just returned from South Africa and were staying near Sedona, Arizona.

There are few places in our lives where we feel completely comfortable.  The rest of the time we have the feeling of pressure that perhaps we should be doing something else; or we have a mild, unassignable sense of foreboding.  We call it free-floating anxiety.  But on rare occasions we can relax completely and let somebody else take care of the worrying.  For me, staying with my parents is such a place.  It is a vestige of my wonderful childhood, where my sister and I felt entirely safe.  Visiting them is like a reset button.

My parents are avid hikers, as are we, and as a result much of the trip was based around interesting places to walk.  Sedona has become, over the last decade, a centre for new-age, occult activity.  The guidebook proudly details the number of energetic vortices to be found in the surrounding area.  A website provides the GPS location of each vortex.  My parents, on another trip, loaded their GPS with the coordinates and set off in search of enlightenment.  They returned disappointed.  The GPS compass just kept spinning in a circle, my dad joked.  The experience is different for everybody, the guidebook states.

The reason for Sedona’s ascendance in the ascendant world is owable, in part, to its surrealist landscape.  One cannot help but feel a little like they are in a Dr. Seuss book when looking at the gravity defying landforms and vibrant colour of the surrounding hills.  The rock is primarily composed of sandstone and each grain of sand has a micro-thin coating of ferrous oxide which gives it a bright red hue.  Yucca plants, prickly pear cactus, agave stalks and palo verde add to the surreality of the scene.

The red rocks of Sedona, AZ


Yucca Plant

Our plan was to hike up to a prominent sandstone pillar.  A clearly marked trail wound its way through the cacti, juniper and creosote bush.  Feeling energetic, I struck off to find an alternate route up the sandstone apron to the base of the pillar.  I told my parents and Fiona that I would meet them farther along the trail.  It felt good to be moving at my own pace, hopping from rock to rock and dodging the threatening spines of multitudinous cacti.

The pillar is surrounded by four or five jumbly tiers of sandstone, each about 30-60 feet high.  I followed the curve of the lowest tier for a few hundred feet, searching for a crack in its armour and a way up to the next tier.  Spotting an area of discoloration I found a place where water flowed down the rock and had worn indentations into its surface.  Unfortunately, the smooth crevice was only accessed via a ten foot vertical wall. It didn’t look too challenging so I thought I would try to climb it.

It was a fun boulder problem.  My right hand starting on a large jug, I pulled up to a slabby friction hold with my left hand, feet smearing.  A small roof provided an undercling for my right hand, while my right foot moved up to the jug on which my hand had started.  The roof wouldn’t allow me to go directly higher, so switching my left hand to a reverse Gaston, I brought my left leg up behind me to stand on the rounded sandstone slab.  For a brief moment I was frozen like some rock art depiction of a running ancient Egyptian, before shimmying over a couple of feet to a ledge on which I could stand upright.

rock art climbing

Feeling chuffed, I looked to the next section of route.  Upon closer inspection it appeared much steeper than I had previously thought.  Reversing the boulder-problem, while not entirely impossible, would have been very difficult.  Jumping down from the ledge risked a broken ankle.  Still feeling confident and not wanting to have to retrace my steps I decided to try it anyway.  As soon as I started up the sandstone wash I realized I had made a huge mistake.

What ensued was the sketchiest, scrabbliest, scariest climbing of my entire life.  The sandstone was steeper and slicker than I expected and once I had begun, I could not turn around.  At one point, forty feet off the ground, I could go neither up nor down.  My legs started shaking uncontrollably from strain and nerves.  “It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok…” I chanted softly to myself.  A small crimpy handhold was a couple of feet above my right hand.  I tapped with my knuckles below the hold, listening for a hollow sound that would indicate if it is bonded to the surrounding rock.  I didn’t have a choice so I reached up for it.  My right foot slipped out and I grabbed onto the crimp, which thankfully held me.  Another 15 feet of sweat-drenched, shaky climbing and I reached the top of the wash.

There was no elation or sense of accomplishment.  I felt stunned and slightly nauseated and was shaking all over.  I looked down at the route, it was pure foolishness.  In the span of a few short minutes I had managed to put myself in more danger than our entire sail down the coast, perhaps more danger than I had ever been in in my whole life.  I was shocked.  It happened so quickly and was entirely of my own doing.  My family came around the corner.  I was very glad to see them.

In our society we are taught to resist the feelings of apprehension, nervousness or fear.  We are always trying to overcome these emotions as if they are the wrong ones to be having.  We tout pithy phrases like ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself,’ and ‘fear is the real enemy,’ and we don’t give it much more thought than that.  Fear is something to be abolished, or at least, denied.  The most popular clothing brand during my high-school career was ‘No Fear.’

But fear is a very natural feeling.  I think of a deer in the forest.  A deer starts at any provocation; a loud sound, a blur of movement, a bird call.  It often starts when there is no provocation at all except maybe its own thoughts.  In a sense it is always on edge.  It is deeply attuned to its environment so that it can recognize a threat at the earliest moment and avoid it.  Its fear is what keeps it alive.  Somehow we think it natural for a deer to be anxious, but we admonish the same reaction in ourselves.

I often resist the fear I feel while we are sailing.  I chastise myself for the anxious thoughts and emotions that surface as the sun sets or the wind starts to pick up.  Adrenaline begins to course through my body and I feel slightly ashamed.  Am I a coward?  Shouldn’t I be more confident?  Then I remember a quote from Robin Knox-Johnston, of solo-circumnavigating fame.  He said in an interview when asked if he experienced any fear during his circumnavigation; “of course I was afraid, everybody who sets sail on the open ocean is afraid, only fools aren’t afraid.”  It makes me feel a bit better.

Robin Knox-Johnston
Robin Knox-Johnston returning from his circumnavigation

Fear, when taken to the extreme, can be detrimental.  There is no question of this.  Panicked behavior that is out of step with reality, or that places one at more risk, is a negative.  But otherwise, anxiety and fear are natural and necessary.  Had I not been so comfortable, so care-free, visiting my parents, perhaps I would not have begun that climb.  Half-way up that climb I was definitely afraid.  And the fear lent me an acute focus and strength.  It was a help, not a hindrance.

I know that I will become more comfortable in 30 knot winds and 15 foot seas.  I know that I will be afraid during our first experience in a storm.  I know that I am not the fearless superhero I thought I would be when I was five.  And rather than send the fear away to the deep recesses of my psyche I will embrace it for what it is.


Lunch under the pillar



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