If a woman screams in a forest, and there is no one there to hear her, does she make a sound?
There’s a beautiful stretch of woods adjacent to my father-in-law’s tree farm that my husband and I like to walk through. It’s mostly town-owned private property that leads to a reservoir. In 26 years, I have never walked these woods alone. I’m too afraid a bear, coyote or human predator will kill me. Yesterday, however, my husband wasn’t in the mood to go and I, feeling reckless, decided to walk alone.
My father-in-law, as usual, was up at the farm sitting in his car when I drove up. He likes to do that in winter, and will sometimes sit there for hours. I guess he’s watching over the place, since no one lives in the old, uninhabitable house anymore, though an occasional bum likes to trespass. I chatted with him for a few minutes, then set off in the woods, taking the walking stick I leave leaning against a tree with me.
I’d been walking for about a minute when a man in a turquoise blue running suit came charging toward me on the trail. He looked to be in his early 30s, dark hair, olive skin, a complete stranger. For a moment, I panicked. I had walked these woods at least a hundred times with my husband and had rarely seen another person. How had he bypassed the no trespassing signs and limited access? Could my father-in-law see him through the leafless trees? Should I turn and run back to the farm?
He ran by me without saying a word. I kept walking. At one point, I turned and looked back. He had stopped short of the farm’s driveway. It kind of looked like he was getting ready to run back my way. Again, I panicked. Should I run to the safety of my father-in-law? Stop it, I told myself. How are you ever going to conquer your fear of walking in the woods alone if some guy in a turquoise running suit is making you paranoid? He’s probably some harmless dude trying to get exercise.
I kept going, back straight, head high, stick in one hand, phone in the other. I called my husband. He didn’t answer, so I couldn’t tell him that he’d been wrong, that I wasn’t safe in these woods alone, that some strange man was running loose in them. I kept going, occasionally checking behind me for a flash of turquoise.
I continued on, past the reservoir, down the steep hill, and through the trail that led to a pond. I stopped at the pond and took a couple of photos with my IPhone. That’s when I saw the deer, a herd of six. They saw me too, stopped, ran a little ways, stopped again as I started walking, and then took off in the opposite direction. It occurred to me that I knew how they felt – unsafe, like at any moment a predator might attack. Poor, beautiful, hunted deer.
With the pond behind me, I started on a trail that led back to the farm. On the right was a hill that looked like the perfect place to stage an ambush. Alert again, I took off my hood because it limited my line of vision. This action made me think how my husband never wears a hood when we walk in the woods, no matter how cold it is. I’ll pull it up over his head and within a minute, he takes it off. Was he maybe on alert when he did this, trying to protect his family?
I couldn’t help but wonder if the man in the turquoise running suit was lying in wait for me, either over the hill or around the bend. I thought long and hard about this, and realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. If he was waiting, I’d be ready for him. Which turned out to be a good thing because sure enough, when I rounded the bend, there he was, running toward me. I didn’t panic this time. Progress! He ran by me, again without saying a word, which really was rude. I mean, how do you run right by someone in the middle of the woods and not even acknowledge her?
Soon I reached the clearing that led to the farm. I laid my walking stick against the tree and glanced about for my father-in-law, who was no longer sitting in his car. I figured he must have gone into the garage to warm up by the wood stove. I thought to go in and tell him about the man, but decided to leave instead. I got into my car, feeling strangely empowered. I’d done it. I’d conquered my fear of walking in the woods alone, with a strange man running around in them no less.
We can overcome our fears by taking one giant leap or we can do so by taking smaller steps that slowly embolden us over time. For now, I choose the latter.