My current address is Sharp Creek Campground, site #9. It’s about 11:30 pm. I’m situated in the heart of large pine trees. It’s hard to believe that I’m in the Arizona high desert, but here I am. The campground is empty during the week and may stay that way on the account of campfire restrictions set by the National Forest Service.
I turn off my flashlight and walk through the vacant campground. I crunch and crush pine cones as I make my way to the luxurious pit toilets. The coyotes are howling in full bloom nearby as I glance at a dark dancing cloud passing the half-moon. The only guiding light I can see is the dim flicker of the bathroom a few hundred yards in front. I am temporarily taken back to elementary school.
It was the Fall of 1996, and I had just been selected as part of E.Ruth Sheldon’s Elementary elite team of burgeoning scientists to go on an expedition to Point Reyes. Our project was to observe and document the movement of sea creatures.
It was a perk of getting good marks.
It was my first trip away from home.
On the first evening, San Francisco shed its typical evening haze. Mists from the cold Pacific touched our lips ever so gently, but enough to taste a tinge of oceanic salt water. The stars were scattered haphazardly as the clouds rolled by playing their own game of hide and seek with the sky.
Mrs. Donaldson asked the class if we wanted to go for an evening walk. The majority of the class declined because s’mores were in order.
However my curiosity and a girl that I had a crush on led me to go on the short journey.
About ten brave souls and I followed Mrs. Donaldson. We came up to a long tunnel, and she decided to give us an impromptu pop quiz.
“Class, I am giving you all a task. Each of you will walk through the tunnel alone, one by one. Please don’t feel pressured. If you’re not up to it, you can go back to the bunks.”
Sixth grade can be brutal. We don’t have the slightest clue of what it means to have a reputation, yet unconsciously we are trying to build one. We were all chicken shit, but none of us backed down. Facing the students back at camp and having them learn that you wussed out is worse than going head-on with fear.
I can recall going through that tunnel as if it was yesterday.
Everyone formed a line behind me. I wasn’t a leader by any stretch of the imagination, but that day, my peers looked to me for guidance. I was the first to enter the dark gauntlet of the unknown. Something inside of me relished this predicament.
The walls looked slick, white, and dirty. The moon’s reflection kissed the edges of the tunnel and my shadow was twice my size but still trailed me in anticipation, acting much smaller. I recognized the graffitied gang signs as a few classmates of Hispanic descent would draw them on their folders during lunch. It was comforting knowing others had been here even if it was due to vandalism.
I held my breath, only to let out a whiff in-between steps so I could hear my heartbeat. The beats made me feel less alone in that moment. I eventually got to Mrs. Donaldson.
The full moon let only a fraction of light into the tunnel and I could only see her half-smile. There was approval in her beyond good grades. She gifted me with a smile a parent would give a child when they learned a valuable life lesson. It was a smile that I still carry with me today.
That’s when one of the many faces of fear left me.
As I approach the dim flickering light in the campground bathroom area, I am reminded of Mrs. Donaldson.
Fear is just that, a tunnel we have to eventually go through. Once we pass, we realize, it wasn’t so bad. I’ve gone through my share and will go through plenty more.
You will too.
There is light at the end.