1,000 Words on Fear

In the very small town of Greensboro Bend, Vermont there is a brewery named Hill Farmstead. It’s run by a man by the name of Shaun Hill. The beers are world-class offerings, highly sought-after, hard-to-get (unless you feel like taking an adventure into rural Vermont), and, in a word, delicious. Since Greensboro Bend is approximately three hours from me, I do have the luxury of making the trip there and back. It’s not an easy or desirable trip, but for special occasions, I do believe the quality of the beer and the ability to share it with people who can’t get it is worth the drive.

Hill Farmstead is a world-class brewery.
Hill Farmstead is a world-class brewery.

That being said, this isn’t about beer or rural Vermont. It’s about fear. Healthy fear.

Yesterday, as I began the arduous part of my drive – the 20 miles or so of windy country roads – it began to snow. It was nothing that would accumulate much in inches, but would make hills and roads wet. It would make driving my two-wheel drive vehicle tough to manage at points. Now, I’m a very good driver. And I don’t want to do the whole, “It’s not me I worry about, it’s the others” so I’m not going to. I do worry about going down a hill at even a manageable speed and my brakes giving out, sending me into traffic. This, even for good drivers, is a possibility. There are many steep hills in Vermont. On the roads leading to this brewery, too, are many hilly and curvy roads that were becoming icy and sloppy and wet as I waited in a two hour line for beer. At one point, I considered leaving and driving home before it got too bad.

I drove tight-fisted, highly-aware of speed and surrounding, conscious to every movement my car was making one way or another. Twenty miles of backroads, all unplowed, all some degree of slope. Accelerate the upslope of the hills, veeerrrry light brakes on the curves, slow down hills. Even on the highway, when I had to pass through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire (which I believe is the highest elevation on my drive) it was a snow globe. We were single file going down an unplowed hill. On false move – and it doesn’t even have to be anything I do wrong – could send me off the road, down a hill. Literally could be fatal. It’s the fear of the possibility, not a grave possibility, but a minor one.

This wasn’t the first time that weather has affected my ability to get to Hill Farmstead. In March, I came from the west – I was there for my bachelor party – and attempted to make the trip in the same car. We came to a hill about two miles from the brewery (it might even have been less than that). Impassable. We couldn’t make it. It was a one-car only road – yes, this is how rural this place is – packed with probably eight inches of snow, a 45 degree angle upward. Behind me, about 800 yards of a downslope; to my right, a hill that dropped 50 yards down. There was nowhere to go but backward. Would my brakes last? Would they help in the snow? Either way, I needed to get out of there. I needed to do it going backward and slow, slooooow. To further illustrate my situation and it’s seriousness, I did the entire hill in reverse with my driver’s side door open, left foot outside. If I lost control and was in serious danger, my intention was to yank the emergency brake and bail. I’d rather have my leg run over and be out of the car then going down a hill inside the car. I saw, at the time, the odds of me ditching my car in the middle of Vermont at about 50%. Thankfully, I made it down the hill. But it was terrifying.

I thought of this yesterday as I navigated my car home from Hill Farmstead. I began to think that maybe this tiny element of fear was a good thing. Maybe we need it in our lives. We spend so much time encouraging people to be safe. Paradoxically, we want people to step outside their comfort zone, but have made it harder to do so. We talk about ships in the harbor, but they were meant to sail, all those platitudes, but how often to people really take risks anymore where an outcome is unclear? How many people actually quit their jobs to pursue a dream, take off on a cross-country trip without a map or clear destination?

I didn't take this picture (my wife did on our last trip to HF). Same scene yesterday.
I didn’t take this picture (my wife did on our last trip to HF). Same scene yesterday.

Fear can be a good thing. It heightens the senses, reminds us of what it feels like to be alive. It didn’t matter that I was driving a small car or a big car (though I would’ve felt a bit safer in the latter). It mattered that I was in a situation where the odds on something going awry was vastly greater. And I do believe it’s experiences like these that give us a better sense of what we can accomplish, how incredibly resilient we are in spirit. Was I scared? Sure, but I also gained another small dose of confidence. When we talk of mindfulness, this is what we should be talking about.

I advocate for bringing a little bit of fear back into our lives. I’m not talking about doing things that are intentionally reckless, or putting yourself into dangerous situations. I guess what I mean is that it’s okay to include an element of the unknown, to test ourselves every once in a while. I wasn’t totally safe yesterday (and, I guess, we never are on the road) and I was faced with performing tasks that included a hefty amount of mental stability and stamina, acute awareness of mind, body, and mechanical performance. I am fortunate to come out unscathed, and I do realize that yesterday’s experience wasn’t as bad as my previous trip to Hill Farmstead, nor was that trip the most dangerous trip anyone has ever taken.

It’s small doses of fear that are good for us. I won’t be swimming with sharks or jumping out of planes. But I do have a strange confidence that, faced with harsh conditions, reduced levels of safety, and their ilk, I have the mental and physical ability to overcome. We spend so much time trying to reduce our time spent with our adrenaline pumping, our senses on high alert. I think it’s worth it to test ourselves some times.

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