When I was seven, my parents took us into Jester Caves in the Mangum Gypsum Hills region of southwestern Oklahoma. We roamed around above ground for a while exploring the dips and draws of the strange karst land, coming across several sinkholes and chimneys allowing sunlight to leak down into the dark caves below. We worried about my youngest brother stepping into one and disappearing before we could save him. So Mom and Dad kept us all close and were watchful for our safety.
Then we descended into the wondrous, water-carved caves penetrating gypsum beds deposited in an ancient inland sea. The fluted white walls of the caves sparked imagination of time and wild processes happening before people even existed. Here and there, a bat hung from the smoothed gypsum roof or walls, its wings wrapped around itself to conserve body heat in the cool, dank dark.
I didn't fear the caves while exploring them with my parents, knowing they wouldn't let anything bad happen to us. But later in teenage years after graduating from the deep, dull darkness of public schools, I ventured back down into the caves alone. That deep darkness was too frightening to be dull, but I kept going back and pushed farther into them each time until I finally became comfortable moving through the tunnels and chambers all by myself, sitting deep inside with the flashlight turned off for as long as I could bear to without leaping to my feet and running out screaming in terror at nonexistent monsters advancing from behind to get me.
The fear never subsided completely, tempering impulses to do stupid things beyond being there alone and I learned why my fear existed: to keep me safe. It has been like this in every lone wilderness trekking experience throughout life. At first every new environment triggers intense, elevated levels of fear–fear of the unknown, fear of my limitations, fear of unexpected perils. But repeated exposure to each new environment gradually instills confidence born out of prior experiences and knowledge of what is there, what dangers to be aware of and how to be prepared to avoid or deal with them.
Later on, I started taking photographs of the places I wandered into alone to remind myself that I had indeed been there, survived without critical injury and returned home safely to savor memory of the adventure.