The light faded quickly once the sun set; soon the world was cold and utterly dark. No sparks of urban electricity, no hazy glimmer in the clouds. Even the logs that were hissing and spitting with flame an hour ago were now mere embers, hot but dull. Their orange glow was strangled by a thick black crust and smothered by an even thicker black air.
This was the perfect dark of wilderness at night. I shivered.
Time to turn in: I tossed sand on the smoking remnants. All afternoon I’d set up camp, and by now I was familiar with the patch of hard-packed beach between the fire and my tent. I crossed it quickly, eyes wide but unseeing. My hand fumbled to grasp its flap. Zip—I was in. Zip—the world was out.
Except it wasn’t. No matter how deeply I burrowed into my sleeping bag, seemingly safe in my nest, I sensed how exposed I was. A wind rattled the tent’s synthetic fabric as if to remind me of its thinness. Through it I heard the scratch-scratch of a rodent scrounging for dropped crumbs. A harmless field mouse, I told myself. Still, I imagined a bear could barrel through the tent’s frame without a problem; any animal’s claws or gnawing teeth could shred a new entrance in the side. A tent is nothing, just a flimsy overgrown umbrella. Leaving the flap zipped or unzipped felt as inconsequential as opening or closing my eyes—the wilderness was just as overpowering regardless of what I did.
I took a shaky breath.
Why was I here?
I could’ve been safe behind walls, maybe curled up on the couch with a lamp at my elbow. So why did I choose to put myself out in the cold, gusty, lightless elements instead? Why did I choose risk?
As I lay in the night’s openness, heart hammering and fingers tingling, I considered this, and it led me to other questions: Why do I choose to take any risk at all? Why do I allow myself to love others when I know they can hurt me? Why do I trust and open up and let my heart be soft? Hell, why do I write so intimately and then send my words out into the world to be read and maybe ripped apart with criticism?
Rats, raccoons, and black bears aren’t the only mammals capable of inflicting pain. Most of my wounds have come from fellow humans.
Venturing out and being vulnerable is exhausting.
I shivered again and realized I was holding my breath. I released it just as shakily as I’d taken it.
Yes, vulnerability is exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Taking risks gives a rush of adrenaline that renders the present moment more vivid. When anything could happen next, you have to be ready to react. You have to pay attention. If life becomes so safe that the greatest choice you face is whether to change the channel, you might just lose interest in your days. But out in the wild—whether that’s the wild of a forested beach at night or the wild of a raw, honest relationship with another person—choices become consequential. They matter.
Vulnerability, exposure, risk… they make life more meaningful.
This is what I told myself as I shifted in my sleeping bag. I drew another breath of that impenetrably black air, more deeply this time. There were potential threats just outside the tent, yes, but so much more. Blind as I was in the black of night, I could still taste the sharp scent of salt and seaweed. I felt the grit of the sand that clung to my arms and ankles. I heard the rush of the ocean slowly breathing in and out on the shore, and I exhaled with the next wave, letting its rhythm slow my own breathing.
I’m exposed, and it’s exhausting, I thought, but if I want to feel the thrill of all this beauty, I’ll just have to live with risk. The soothing pulse of ocean waves helped me make peace with my vulnerability. My heart slowed. I drifted off.
When I awoke, the bleak white light of a cloudy dawn was creeping over the beach. I’d made it through the night unscathed, and I felt the good fortune of it as more than a normal morning; I wasn’t just waking up, I was awakening to the world. I unzipped the tent flap, bundled into a sweatshirt, and followed the dew-damp sand down to the water’s edge. Thank you for making this worth it, I whispered to the tide. It thrummed on indifferently, turning wave… then wave… then wave. I watched the glassy gray-green of their underbellies catch the light before they each plunged into rabid froth.
If I’d stayed behind my walls, the black of night would never have seeped deep into me, and the glint of dawn wouldn’t have softened me again. I’d have lived and died without that exhilaration. And I’d have been poorer for it. I stood smiling at the Pacific for some unmeasured time before turning back to the campsite for breakfast.
We humans can choose to spend our whole lives behind the walls we’ve built in our cities, in our relationships. We can choose safety; we can guard ourselves against fear and pain. But striving for invulnerability deprives us of rich experiences, and to me the trade-off isn’t worth it.
I chose to hike out there and put myself at the mercy of the wilderness for the same reason I choose to love and let myself be loved, the same reason I choose to write intimate prose and then publish it: to feel both exhausted and exhilarated. To feel that my choices are consequential and meaningful. To feel fully awake in my life.
To really know a deep love, you have to make yourself vulnerable.
“Becoming the All-Terrain Human”