Fear and loathing on the Foothills Trail

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Fear and Loathing on the Foothills Trail

A couple of months ago I set out on a solo journey on the Foothills Trail in upstate South Carolina. The trail is 77 miles long with several remote stretches, including a 34-mile section only accessible by boat. As luck would have it, the weekend I picked for my adventure brought heavy rain and tornado threats across the Southeast. Despite the weatherman’s warnings to “hunker down”, I stuck with my plan, hitting the trail in the predawn darkness.

For the first several hours of my run, I was terrified. Sure, many runs bring some degree of fear – can I go the distance? how much will it hurt? – but this was different. The first 9.7 miles of the trail circumnavigate Pinnacle Mountain and climb Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest peak. This is a rocky area and the heavy rainfall had created multiple mini waterfalls across the trail. Creek crossings that can usually be rock-hopped had turned into knee-high rivers. I typically don’t mind a little water, but I have to admit that I was terrified crossing many of these areas, knowing that one false move could send me slipping off into the dark abyss.

Long story short, I didn’t plummet to my death or even twist an ankle. Daylight brought an end to the storm and my nocturnal courage was rewarded with dazzling sunshine for the remainder of the run. What’s interesting, however, is that when I look back on the experience, the part I remember most fondly was the nighttime. Terrifying as it was, it was also the time in which I felt most alive.

At this point, you may be asking what is wrong with me. My family has often asked the same question. Do I have a secret death wish? Turns out that my craving for adventure – one could even say danger – could be an evolutionary trait inherited from distant ancestors. “Homo sapiens were the only group of early hominids to emigrate over the entire world, which entailed great risk, so I think humans as a species are characterized by novelty- and intensity-seeking,” says Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, arguing that this “must have been an adaptive trait.”

In some ways, the world we live in is more dangerous than ever, what with threats of terrorism, natural disasters and global warming, not to mention increasing rates of cancer and other disease, car accidents, and random acts of violence that occur on a daily basis. Yet for most of us, these dangers represent distant threats and it is often easy to adopt the “it can’t happen to me” attitude. Unlike our ancestors, for whom the next wooly mammoth attack was quite possibly right around the corner, we actually face very little imminent danger in our daily lives. So thrill-seeking individuals like me must find ways to create it.

Fortunately, in the Southeast we have lots of thrilling adventures to choose from. Whether it’s running a remote and isolated trail, climbing the Original Route at Whiteside Mountain, or BASE jumping over the New River, opportunities abound for the daring soul. What will your next quest be? I’m planning mine already.

 

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