The dune was a few dozen yards from the beach. The locals call it “The Big Hill” as it is the largest sand dune along the shore of Lake Michigan near St Joseph.
The water of the lake was crystal blue and I had trekked about three-quarters of a mile north of my bed and breakfast. I had started out looking for beach glass.
“If you go up that way, you can climb The Big Hill,” the inn keeper had told me with a twinkle in her voice, as if not that many of her guests attempt it.
I looked up to the top and it seemed like a long way. I wondered if my sixty-three year old legs could handle it. What the heck, I thought, and started off.
By the time I found the beaten path through the weeds to the start of the slope, I had been slogging through loose sand awhile and was having second thoughts.
I started to climb. After maybe a hundred feet, I was huffing and puffing and thinking it was not just my legs that were getting a work out.
About half way up, I decided to rest and have some water. As I looked back over the lake, it occurred to me that if I had a heart attack on this secluded dune, it could be days before anyone found me. I hadn’t told anyone I was headed here. I felt a mild anxiety.
Fear of being lost is a primal childhood fear. It is akin to the fear of abandonment. Any first year psychology student knows these things. I tossed this off with a laugh.
My heart gradually slowed down and I turned to look at the top of the dune. It didn’t seem any closer. I plodded on, pushing one foot sideways and then the other to maintain balance in the shifting sand.
Twenty-five feet further, I took a second rest stop and looked up again at the summit. I was beginning to feel a nagging fear in my stomach. I interpreted it as concern about my physical safety — would my knees hold out — was I aggravating the disk in my lower back?
When I don’t know what is causing fear, I just fill in the blanks. Freud called that “projection.”
I started up again.
My legs were talking to me and I was breathing hard. I stopped for a moment and looked at the top again. Then the strangest thought slithered out of my unconscious.
What if I get up there and can’t get down?
When I was a kid, I used to climb on the roof of my family home. I would get up on main roof and sit there feeling like the king of all creation. There was a gable on the roof and I would look at it thinking it would be cool to climb that gable. It had steep sides and little to hold on to. I was sure I could climb it.
But what if I couldn’t get down?
I would have to call for help; how humiliating. Besides, my mother was not aware that I climbed up there. I was pretty sure I knew how she would feel about it.
No, better skip the gable.
Strange how a childhood fear can intrude itself into the present.
I started climbing again. It took several more rest stops but finally I stood on the highest crest of the gable, I mean, The Big Hill. I would later receive accolades from the innkeeper and other guests.
I sat catching my breath and feeling pretty good. I knew that I would pay a price for this. The difference between being sixty-three and twenty-three is not in what we can do, but how we feel the next morning.
The walk-slide down the dune was easy. Soon I was hiking back along Lake Michigan, looking for beach glass and feeling like the king of all creation.
Plane and Simple Advice
Next time you’re afraid, ask yourself when in childhood you experienced something similar. While we usually explain our fears by events in the present (rationalization), most of what we’re afraid of comes from childhood.
Basic childhood fears such as being lost, abandonment, engulfment, or the world running out of ice cream, affect us in the present.