When I was little, I used to spider-climb the hallways of my house. This meant scrambling up to the ceiling with one bare foot on either wall, and it required fearlessness that only a kid could possess, especially for a kid as small as I was. It meant a complete disregard for the potential consequences – you could fall and get hurt, or you could get into trouble for doing something you weren't supposed to. None of this had occurred to me at the time, not even when my aunt came around the corner and nearly had a heart attack when she saw my feet at her eye level. She'd screamed and I'd laughed, shimmying my way back down to the floor and running off to find more dangerous things to do.
I'd been reckless, then, but I'd also been carefree in a way I haven't been in a long time. Somewhere between then and now, I lost that childish fearlessness.
I realized this in Cinque Torri, a trail in the Dolomites southwest of Corina d'Ampezzo. A few members of my group had stopped to look out over the edge of a cliff, where a grassy edge gave way to a terrifyingly sheer drop, so I left them behind to catch up with the rest of the group who'd already made it to the rifugio. The path narrowed out a bit, or at least I think it had, and I remember the way breathing was getting harder – could've been physical strain or fear, I don't know. I tried to stick as close to the center of the path as I could, but it didn't really matter; the wind was strong enough that no matter where I stood, I somehow found myself getting pushed or pulled towards one of the edges. Even though I knew it would be better to keep my gaze on the ground in front of me, on where I was putting my feet, I couldn't stop risking glances at the green ground so, so far below me. It was so far away that it just looked like a blurry green patch lingering on the outside of my vision. At some point, the panic escalated. I kept walking, and the only thing that kept me moving was pure terror – I was convinced that if I stayed outside I'd end up falling off the edge. All I wanted to do was get to the rifiguo, where I could sit down somewhere and hide from the wind, where I wouldn't have to feel this way anymore.
This wasn't the first time I had a panic attack in a really, really bad place to have one – the only way to get down was back the way I'd come, which meant facing the same trail that had me sobbing on the way up – but it struck me as worse than most of the other places I've had them because that mountain was a place where that fearless kid I'd once been wouldn't have even been fazed. She would've had no trouble sprinting from the bottom of the mountain straight to the top. She'd have been reckless, but she'd have also been carefree, and I wanted more than anything to be like that again. She probably would've had a better time than I had, because she'd have been able to look at the view without it making her knees shake. Instead, I'd spent my time at the top of the mountain hunched over on a bench, hyperventilating, while the staff working at the rifugio threw questions at me in Italian. When had I turned into someone who has panic attacks? When did I stop being that fearless kid who was ready to take on the world?
I wanted, more than anything, to be as brave as I'd been when I was little. I realized, though, that bravery isn't what I was when I'd climbed the walls of my house without fear.
The only time I can remember someone calling me "brave" was in class, when I shared the story of the first time I'd left the country, which had also happened to be the first time I traveled alone. Two or three people said it was a brave thing to do, because traveling alone can be scary. I'd smiled, nodded along, but in my head I was cringing because they wouldn't be calling me brave if they knew just how terrified I'd been the entire flight. How could I be brave if I was always terrified?
That next day, on that new part of the Dolomites, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, I chose to climb up a narrow trail similar to the one that I'd had a panic attack on the day before. It was probably even a little narrower, and definitely less like a path than that one had been. Though I don't remember it being as high up as the other one, some people I talked to said it was much taller, and that it was described as a "spine" trail, which I guess meant it was small and narrow and winding. Thinking back, I don't really know why I'd decided to take that trail, other than that I saw two people from the group branch off to go climb up it and that I wanted to do the same. Maybe I'd wanted to make up for the fact that yesterday everyone had seen me in such a vulnerable moment of weakness, and I wanted to prove that I wasn't as scared as I really was. Or maybe it was because I wanted to prove to myself that my anxieties didn't control me. Whatever it was, I'd known from the very beginning that it was going to be terrifying but I followed them all the same. It was windy like the other trail from the day before, but there were more rocks for me to hold on to when my legs started shaking. This second time, I think I felt more prepared; I kept my gaze on the trail in front of me and took it slow. I had to sit down a few times. I could've turned around and gone back to the other people in the group, but I kept climbing. In that moment, I was pushed forward by the same fear I'd felt the day before – but this time, I wasn't trying to get somewhere where I could hide. Instead of trying to get somewhere where I wouldn't have to feel the fear anymore, I kept moving in order to face the fear. If I turned back, I thought, I might never be able to go hiking again.
As we climbed, I noticed a small rectangle cut into the rocks. The people climbing in front of me were a little farther ahead than I was, but I called, "Look! What's that?" I remember my voice came out higher than I'd expected it to, which had startled me a little. I hoped no one had heard that.
One of them called back, "I think it's a bunker!"
It was a bunker. The Dolomites have a dark history in terms of war, and it had once been used as a place where soldiers would hide from the fighting and bombing all around them. And, at that moment, it was easy to see just how common it would've been for people to slip and slide right off the edge.
I didn't want to keep moving, then, so I leaned against a rock and said, "I'm just going to stay here! I don't think I want to risk that!" I was trying to sound light but I don't think I succeeded because one of the girls turned around and worriedly asked, "You good?" The wind snatched up her words so she gave me a thumbs up and a questioning look.
"Yup," I'd said, flashing a thumbs up back. I remember feeling shaky, but in a way that wasn't entirely bad. I was terrified, of course, but there was something good there, too. It was so peaceful and the wind was more playful than forceful, so it was hard to imagine the war that had taken place there. From where I was sitting, I could see so far. Down below, there was a green lake - because the water in Italy is green rather than dark blue - and a house no bigger than my thumb from that view. I saw trails criss-crossing the hills around me, and small smudges, people, edging along them. In that moment, I knew I'd done an amazing thing by climbing up this far. Even though I was terrified, I'd climbed up anyway and I got to see this beautiful view because of it. I turned to look at the bunker and knew I'd be dissapointed if I missed out on something just as cool as this view just because I was scared.
I forced myself to keep moving, and, even though my heart was in my throat the entire time, and even though all I could think was I could slip right now and everything would be over, I climbed into the bunker. It was really, really cool.
When we got to a restaurant in Pieve di Cadore, the town where we were staying for a few days, one of my classmates approached me and said that they were proud of what I'd done. I smiled and nodded because I was proud too.
"You just zoomed up there!" Another classmate said and, though I wasn't really sure what that meant, I was happy. "You were so brave!" In that moment, I believed them. I'd climbed up a trail people called a spine, so how could I not be? I'd done something that was so far outside my comfort zone and I'd made it back okay.
When I was in middle school, I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It was a book that terrified me then (and still does now, even as an adult), but there's a great quote that I have saved in my phone. Coraline says, "When you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave." It was in the Dolomites that I learned that the two – bravery and fear – aren't mutually exclusive. In order to be brave, you have to be afraid.
Someone in my class had called me brave, and until then I hadn't believed them because I'd been so convinced that the two couldn't exist together, and that in order to be brave, I had to be unafraid like I'd been when I was little. That's not true. Children aren't brave, they're fearless. It's those of us who are constantly fighting the uphill climb, who are coming out on the other side okay, are brave.