There’s an old saying that a picture paints a thousand words. I don’t necessarily think that’s true.
If you were asked to write a thousand words about the picture above, you’d likely include descriptions about how beautiful the scenery is, how refreshed and calm I appear, and how brave I was to climb to the top of a mountain. Yet none of those things would be true.
That’s the problem with photos. They don’t tell the full story. Sure, they’re fully capable of capturing a picture-perfect nanosecond in time, but they miss the pain and glory that occurs just before or just after. Which is to say, a picture’s not worth a thousand words. But a thousand assumptions? You bet.
We see a woman on the side of a mountain and say, “Wow! How courageous of her.” We see a picture-perfect family photo on social media and say, “Man, they really have their shit together.” Maybe she isn’t. And maybe they don’t.
In the picture above, I wasn’t being brave. I was terrified. Here’s why.
I took a trip with my parents to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to attend my first cousin’s wedding. Since I took a liking to hiking a year ago (after I finally got my head out of my career-driven ass), I longed to find a challenging hike that would showcase this gorgeous part of the country that I’d never seen. Little did I know that “challenging” would become the understatement of the year.
The hike’s trailhead was six miles from our condo, so I rented a bike and rode off to find my starting point to begin the hike up the mountain.
What I failed to consider is that I chose a path through the wilderness—complete with trees, brush, and wild animals. Now I’d seen a bear, bison, and handful of chipmunks the day before, but I saw those animals through the window and in the comfort of my rental car. And I was with my grizzly bear of an uncle at the time, who’d surely protect me if we were attacked.
The scene was very different the following day, however, when I found myself on that same road, alone and on a bike. Ten minutes into my ride, I was cruising along without a care in the world, until I suddenly heard an ear-piercing, screeching, holy-hell-what-is-that sound coming from the woods and just up ahead on the right.
Terrified, I slammed on the bike’s brakes and found myself eye-to-eye and almost toe-to-toe with a 6-foot tall elk. He stared me down while simultaneously spouting his aggressive mating call in my face.
I couldn’t move. My first thought? I was about to be eaten or romanced by the largest animal I’d ever seen—one that made a full-size buck look like a toy from my son’s Lincoln Log playset. After a six-second stare down, I recalled a brochure I read the day before that said one should never “make eye contact with a wild animal.” Apparently, animals consider it a sign of aggression and consequently attack. I decided to break eye contact with the beast and race off on my bike that was more a beach cruiser than a getaway vehicle.
With my heart thumping out of my body, I peddled furiously while continuing to hear elk mating calls for an entire mile. No eye contact ever again! During my race through the woods, I began to wonder why there were no cars around, no other bikers, and no strong uncles to protect me. Where did everyone go?
My question was quickly answered when I stumbled on a huge traffic jam caused by a bear climbing a tree, next to the road. Drivers hung outside their windows, snapping photos of the scene.
First an elk, now a goddamn bear. Bears are cute from cars. Not bikes.
Luckily, there were a half dozen park rangers following the bear on foot and keeping everyone safe, so I snapped a quick picture and got out of Dodge, or what the rangers referred to as a “bear jam.”
I considered turning back and heading home, but I wanted to be as far from that horny elk as I could be. I had to keep going. By the time I reached the trailhead, I felt better. I was still alive, but scared. Like, call-your-mama kind of scared.
So that is precisely what I did next.
I called my mother and told her I needed her and my dad to pick me up immediately after my hike because I was too scared to ride back to the condo down that dangerous road.
Mom: No problem, Honey. We’ll come get you. Me: Awesome. Thanks, Mom. Mom: What’s the name of the trail you’re about to hike? Me: Death Canyon. Mom: Jesus, Katherine.
I pulled my bear spray out of my backpack and began to climb. I held it at eye level, arms stretched out in front of me, with two fingers on the trigger at all times. I looked like an undercover cop raiding a drug den. Every time I heard leaves rustle, I pointed my spray in that direction and wrote headlines for the local paper back home.
“Richmond Mom and Former Christmas Mother Mauled to Death on Mountain.”
“Novice hiker Found Crushed Under Weight of Frisky Elk.”
I eventually made it to the mountaintop and took my pretty picture. It was my prize for putting one shaky boot in front of the other and making it to the top of the climb.
So about that picture. Does the scenery look beautiful? Sure, but it’s hard to notice when you’re convinced something inside it will kill you. Do I look calm and refreshed? Maybe to you, but I’m literally holding my insides together if you look close enough. Do I appear brave for climbing a mountain? Perhaps. But I felt totally and utterly afraid.
Thankfully, at the top, I realized I didn’t have to get down the same way I came up. I didn’t have to do it alone if I was just brave enough to ask for help.
I patiently scouted for potential Sherpas. I passed on the college kids who were busy taking selfies, because they didn’t seem like the wilderness type. I passed on the two brothers who ran to the top, because they seemed too athletic to understand my fears. And I passed on the cute young couple, because they were so blinded by love that they likely wouldn’t see a bear coming.
I knew my competent guides had arrived when I spied a couple who were both wearing pants that could be zipped off into shorts and between them both, they were carrying four walking sticks. These are my people, I thought.
I immediately approached the dynamic duo and confessed that I was in over my head, scared, and didn’t want to go back down the mountain alone. “Follow us!” They cheered, and off we went.
In these seasoned hikers’ company, I felt small and sometimes silly. But I did not feel scared. I felt safe.
And small and safe felt a whole lot better than brave and dead.
When we arrived at the bottom of the mountain, I ran into my parents’ arms like the scared child I was. So maybe a picture is worth a thousand words, but only if we’re open to telling the full story behind them.