Sometimes I like to sit down on a chair, find a splash of light on the ceiling, and follow it to the edge. There the shadow sits, a black cloud projected from a row of books that weigh down the bookcase. I look from right to left, from light to shadow, and see AMC’s White Mountain Guide, Burt’s The Story of Mount Washington, Nutting’s New Hampshire Beautiful, and Wilder’s Pioneer Girl leaning on an old lantern that acts as a bookend. It’s too dark in the corner behind the old lantern, but that’s where I go. Right into the wilderness, itself.

The cars were clogging the roads all through northern New Hampshire – cigarettes out the left side and cameras out the right – zoomed in on the oranges and reds. Where I was headed was grey and green and black. And I’d go on foot. Mt. Paugus is the stubborn little mountain in a range of legends – Chocorua, Passaconaway, Whiteface, the Sleepers, the Tripyramids. Paugus was an Abenaki sachem killed by white colonists, as were most of the other namesakes of those daunting rocks always just out of reach. His name means “oak” in Abenaki. Thoreau wrote that the oak “asks a clear sky,” but the shaggy, staunch Mt. Paugus seems to demand.

Paugus has always called to me, once just a plus-sign signifying a summit on a map. At 3100 feet, it’s a foothill in New Hampshire. Mt. Chocorua is perhaps the most-climbed mountain in the White Moutains, and it’s linked by one short trail to Mt. Paugus through the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Yet no one seems to want to go there. I felt compelled to find out why.

The trail begins in someone’s backyard. He stood on his land and pointed to the dark woods when I interrupted his work to ask where the trailhead was. It was a clearing at the end of a dirt driveway. I stepped out of the blue sky and into the shadows of the wilderness. The sound of passing cars on the highway faded away and the true, terrifying silence of the woods filled my ears. Wind-bent birches pointed up the trail and into the woods, like old porters showing me the way in.

My instincts told me to turn back now. Late autumn sun wasn’t being generous. For all its demanding, the cantankerous stump that is Paugus received little from the blue sky above. Leaves had fallen from the trees and covered the ground, trail and all. Evergreens and oaks above afforded the rocks some privacy. Everything about the woods this day smelled like sleep and waiting, like dirt and death. I felt, for the first time in a while, fear.


But I found myself at the mouth of a local curiosity known as Big Rock Cave. The cave “invites exploration,” according to the trail guide, so I couldn’t resist. I kept thinking of one thing, all the way up, however. Bears. Bears splaying out in the cave. Bears hiding in the trees behind the cave. Bears up in the trees, hanging down and reaching for me. Bears everywhere.

Stephen King, the horror writer, often explores the very real side of his chosen genre, as he did in his book Danse Macabre. “Terror,” he wrote:

…often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking. If that sense of unmaking is sudden and seems personal – if it hits you around the heart – then it lodges in the memory as a complete set.

Fear can feel very real and immediate, and for good reason — it’s often based in past experience. That everyone remembers where they were during Kennedy’s assassination is as interesting as the fact that someone managed to change world history from a book depository window with a mail-order rifle. The same can be said for the 9/11 attacks. Many people still freeze up with fear when that image of the smoking towers flashes in their mind.

Two years ago, I pitched a tent off the Appalachain Trail at the base of Mt. Garfield, after hiking almost twenty miles from Ethan Pond. I had peaked five summits on that hot and muggy Independence Day, with only a few small bottles of murky water to drink from Zealand Falls — and a few semi-frozen PBRs. I dozed off in the pitch black, enjoying the mild hallucinatory, dehydrated state I was in. At some point, I stepped out of my little scout tent to relieve myself, and within seconds of slipping back in feet-first, I felt a presence. It was standing right above me. My tent was suddenly very hot and still; I felt and smelled its musty breath on my face. Its paw pressed against my head through the screen of the tent – the soft leathery pad of a living animal on my head. Time passed as it pawed about the edges of the tent and I waited, finally deciding to scream and shine my flashlight on and off – too fearful to look while doing it. I felt the cool air creep back through the screen and listened to my visitor’s lazy thump-thump, softer and fainter as it wandered away, before falling back asleep. The next morning I found footprints and plenty of rocks up in the hills that provide housing for Ursa.

And so here I was, out in the woods, picking up a stick and crawling into Big Rock Cave. I knew my fears were unwarranted. A cave wouldn’t “invite exploration” if there was a threat of bears. An established trail wouldn’t wander right past a known bear clubhouse. Black bears are big scaredy cats, anyway. People are known to walk into caves and steal cubs from mothers, who do nothing. Bears survived natural selection by avoiding drama, choosing to hide in trees instead. I mean c’mon – they’re part of the pig family. I ran through my list of reasons not to be fearful, but my fight-or-flight remained in dominance.

Argumentum ad Metum. The Appeal to Fear. It’s not just something politicians use. People use it on themselves all the time, for many decisions that dictate their own lives. I’ve signed loans for things I didn’t want and avoided asking out girls I did want because I’d convinced myself that something bad would happen to me if I did or didn’t do those things. Recognizing this logical fallacy may be one of the most crucial steps to reaching emotional freedom.


Of course, the cave was empty, except for an abandoned campfire pit. I climbed through all the passages in this pile of rocks that Zeus, himself, dropped for me to explore. I climbed up top and back down and around. Now, only the silence scared me. But I kept on with my climb up Mt. Paugus, feeling invigorated.

But that’s when things got even weirder. Mt. Paugus is not an easy climb. It’s steep, and the trail winds unexpectedly. Occasionally, one must bushwack the trail. I found myself climbing an ever-more-sketchy ravine, surrounded by wet, moss-covered boulders and fallen trees, which appeared to have been artfully arranged there by a torrent no man could imagine. Not seeing any trail blazes or cairns, but not knowing where else to go, I climbed up.


Here my fear actually subsided, as I am experienced in this environment. The first time I hiked a mountain as a small child, I found myself separated from my father and other climbers. I knew enough to stay on trail, call out for help, and pay attention to where I was. I can navigate. I can make quick decisions to keep myself out of danger. I can climb. I knew I could only go up or down – I only made sure that every step up was on a spot that could accommodate a step back down. At the top of the ravine, after fifteen minutes of climbing, I reached a dead end. The faintest taunting of a footpath led to a patch of baby pines, but it was nothing but gnarl beyond. I sighed, confused as to where the damned trail was, and climbed back down.

All the way at the bottom of the ravine, I found where the trail turned, poorly marked. Beyond that, the trail picked right up, as easy as ever. Birds chirped and jumped from tree to tree at the appearance of a stranger, not aware that I was as frazzled as they were.


I was gifted with the pleasing view of Mt. Chocorua, before being filed into the darkest, quietest woods I’ve ever been. An intersection with an old wooden sign that hasn’t seen the sun since the beginning of time welcomed me – or did it warn me? To my left, and up, was Old Paugus Trail, leading to the summit, or somewhere near it. There is no trail to the true summit. That route was my planned ascent, leading back around the mountain to where I began. To my right, and down, was Beeline Trail, a path that led to Chocorua’s main network of trails, filled with soccer moms and golden retrievers and youth groups. A less daunting place to be than this ancient place, no doubt.

I continued up Old Paugus Trail. The path was less than a foot wide. Branches scraped my face. I began seeing piles of animal droppings. Fuck. Big piles. And there were big rocks all around me. Fuck, fuck. But I knew I was so close to the top that I’d have to continue.


I picked up another large branch and dragged it with me, in order to intimidate any bears I’d meet. I kept my eyes on the trail ahead of me, only peeking around sparingly, expecting to see a bear’s face turn in the woods towards me, like a velociraptor in the first Jurassic Park film. “Clever girl,” I’d say before raising the stick with my arms to scare it off.

That is what you’re supposed to do when you’re confronted by a bear, say the experts. Try to look larger than it, bang on pots and pans, talk and yell. The only thing that is incorrect in the literature is that bears are dangerous. There are very few, if any, recorded deaths by bear in New Hampshire. In fact, the last recorded death was in 1784. More black bears have died from eating chocolate left by campers than campers have died from black bears. After my encounter with the mysterious presence two years ago, I read online that the easiest way to get rid of a bear is to say, “Hi! I’m a human!” Off they lumber, timid and confused, while you relax from the comfort of your beach chair around a roaring campfire.

But with my back against the forest, and only more forest to plow ahead into, I was having none of that. I began to talk out loud to myself, to try and ease my beating heart. I tried to laugh, knowing that laughter and smiling will override the body’s fight-or-flight systems. I stepped over more scat, looking fresher and fresher as I climbed. Then I came to another dead end. That was the final straw. Towers of rock lorded over me, and the trail was legitimately finished. My map showed no clues as to where I was, as it was not supposed to end anywhere.

I paced up and down the last hundred yards of the trail and finally convinced myself to quit. I raced back down to Beeline Trail, and towards the road. I continued to carry my stick, stepping over more fresh animal droppings. I almost began begging for a bear to attack, so that I may finally rest in peace.

The trail ended in a parking lot filled with cars. I was at the trailhead for a very popular path up Chocorua. Desperate for some noise, human activity of any kind, I gladly walked the final mile along the road back to my car. I could hear the whispers of laughter in the rustling leaves and I wanted no part of it.


While walking along the road, someone’s vicious dog decided to trail me – barking and baring its teeth, only a foot away. I kicked dirt and rocks at it and it left me alone. I didn’t feel scared at all. I pondered my fear, and realized that all of it feels very unreal to me — from the hazy memories of 9/11, to the imagined uncomfortable laughter of the prettiest girl in sixth grade, to the dancing ghosts of bears in haunted woods. Perhaps my experiences were real before, but they are not now. In fact, I looked up at Mt. Paugus as I walked past, and it seemed to shrink just a bit, in recognizance of my discovery.

When I got home, I went online and typed in “Paugus” and “bear.” I found nothing. I typed in “bear scat” and found pictures. They did not match the scat I saw. I refined my search and found moose droppings that were identical to what I saw on the trail. A search of “Paugus” and “moose” turned up many sightings of moose right there on the Old Paugus Trail. I even read one account of a fellow who went up that ravine and bushwacked his way to the summit, quite easily. I was right there, I thought, scowling. If only I had known these things before I set foot onto the trail – I likely wouldn’t have panicked, at least not as much. But what can I do?

Stephen King, in his Danse, thinks that we embrace these artificial horrors and fears “to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools – to dismantle themselves.” Horror, he concludes, can be an “analyst’s couch.”

Much like that time I met a bear in the dark, I laugh about my scamper off the mysterious Mt. Paugus with a stick in hand. But it brings me to a dark place, beyond that last lantern on my library bookshelf, that I like to go now and then. It is a very real place, but it there that I dispel of the very unreal things like fear.

I look forward to the day I meet another bear face-to-face. I might just say “Hi! I’m a human!” If I’m trapped in my tent, even better.