Phobias (Chris Buck)

What Scares Me

Thirteen otherwise courageous writers reveal their deepest, darkest fears in our homage to the creepy, crawly, menacing world of phobias. Prepare to squirm.


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The 13 Biggest Outdoor Phobias

Sure, fear itself has plenty of fans—people with the good sense to be terrified when the rope snaps, the elephant charges, or the boat capsizes. But what about PHOBIAS, those singular, irrational, often inexplicable anxieties that lurk even in nature’s happiest scenes, waiting to creep you out and propel you into the panic zone? In the confessions that follow, our 13 unlucky writers reveal the things that give them the waking nightmares—from time-tested classics like snakes and vertigo to oddities like engorged ticks and beady-eyed armadillos. But don’t fret! There’s nothing like the shivery pinprick of dread to make you feel truly alive.


After one traumatic day at the pool, a lifelong dread

Hydrophobia (Chris Buck; Prop styling by Sandra Swieder)

HYDROPHOBIA NAMES NOT ONLY A FEAR but a disease—a generally fatal one, rabies, whose agonies of swallowing are stimulated by the sight of water, hence the name. Of course most phobias have at their root a fear of death, and my fear of water began, I believe, when my father, treading water in a swimming pool, invited me to jump from the tile edge into his arms; I did, and slipped from his grasp, and sank, and inhaled water for a few seconds. It felt, when I gasped, as if a fist had been shoved into my throat; I saw bubbles rising in front of my face as I sank down into a blue-green darkness.

Then my father seized me and lifted me back into the air. I coughed up water for some minutes, and my mother was very angry with my father for his mistake. Even then, it seems to me in the wavery warps of this memory, I took my father’s side; he was, after all, trying to teach me to swim, a paternal duty, and it was just bad luck, a second’s slip-up, that in fact he delayed my learning for several decades. Part of our problem, that traumatic summer day, was that we had little experience of swimming pools; not only did we have no pool ourselves, but no one in our neighborhood or circle of acquaintance did, in that blue-collar Depression world. We were not country-club people. It is a mystery to me how we found ourselves at that particular pool, in bathing suits. Nor do I know exactly how old I was—small enough to be trusting but big enough to surprise my father with my sudden weight.

Henceforth I knew what it was like to look through a chain-link fence at a public pool, its seethe of naked bodies in the sunshine, and inhale its sharp scent of chlorine, but not to swim in one. At the local YMCA, the pool was a roofed-in monster whose chlorinated dragon-breath, amplified by the same acoustics that made voices echo, nearly asphyxiated me with fear. Aged twelve or thirteen now, I tried to immerse my face in the water as the instructor directed, but it was like sticking my hand into fire; nothing could override my knowledge that water was not my element and would kill me if it could. At college five years later, where one had to pass a swimming test to graduate, I managed a froggy backstroke the length of the pool, my face straining upward out of the water while a worried-looking instructor kept pace at the poolside with a pole for me to grab in case I started to sink. I think I did sink, once or twice, but eventually passed the test, and stayed dry for years.

In the movies of my adolescence, Esther Williams smiled through the hateful element, using it to display her rotating body, but other movies, glorifying our wartime navy, showed sinking ships and sputtering submarines. One of my nightmares was of being trapped belowdecks and needing to force myself through adamant darkness toward air and light. My lungs felt flooded at the thought; my hydrophobia extended to a fear of choking, of breathlessness. Life seemed a tight passageway, a slippery path between volumes of unbreathable earth and water.

And yet, graduating from college, I took the Coronia to England, and contemplated the ocean calmly from the height of the deck, and slept behind a sealed porthole. Adulthood strives to right the imbalance of childhood, and to soothe its terrors. My fear of water eased as, in my mid-twenties, I moved with my wife and children to a seaside town. Paternity itself, with its vicarious dip into the amniotic fluids, made me braver, and the salty buoyance and the shoreward push of seawater were marked improvements over perilously thin fresh water. We bought a house by a saltwater creek in the marshes, and that was better yet; I plunged into our private piece of creek as if I were one with the grasses, the muddy banks, the drifting current, the overhead vapory clouds—one with the water, my body mostly water. By middle age I had learned to swim and take pleasure in it, but still tended to float on my back, and to keep my face averted from the murky, suffocating depths beneath me.


First comes uncontrollable shaking, then a numb, frosty doom

Cryophobia (Chris Buck)

BECAUSE I WAS THE GOALIE, when I fell through the ice it wasn’t simple. My homemade foam rubber pads became two huge sponges. That it happened in a cemetery didn’t help, or that I was at an age when I pointedly ignored things even if they could hurt me. We were there because we didn’t fear death, nonchalantly tromping between the headstones and over the snowy hills into the far heart of the place and down into the bowl that held the pond. In summer, fat goldfish slid under the lily pads, but now it was solid—or so we thought.

I screamed before I realized I was standing on the bottom. The water barely came to my waist. I still needed help getting out, and then the wind hit my wet clothes and skin and I began to shiver.

I had to get inside and get dry, but first I had to take my skates off. The laces seemed tighter now that they were wet, and my fingers didn’t work. A friend had to help. I didn’t think to peel my wet tube socks off (cotton, worthless), just jammed on my Pumas and ran.

The running was uncool, and if I’d been out in the middle of nowhere it would have been dumb. Fortunately, my friend Smedley’s house was only a couple blocks away, and I made it easily.

But in my worst nightmare, I don’t. I’m out in the woods by myself. The shivering turns to even larger involuntary contractions as my body tries to create heat through muscle friction. I lose control of my hands. I stumble like a drunk, my speech slurred, muscles stiffening. The initial pain gives way to numbness. I get foggy and make poor decisions, like walking the wrong way or sitting down at the base of a tree and going to sleep. In the end, I pass out and die in the snow without a struggle, frozen solid, my skin hard as wood.

It didn’t happen—it couldn’t have—but I still have trouble walking on ponds, and forget about hauling a bobhouse out and then sitting in it waiting for a nibble. On shore, I can hear the ice creak, and know that someone’s going in. Not me, I’ll think. No way.

Sleeping Bags

There’s a reason they’re called mummy sacks

Claustrophobia (Chris Buck)

ON THE WHOLE, I love sleeping bags. When I got my first, a slippery orange thing lined with images of ducks and shotguns, I quickly discovered that no matter where I slept—the haymow, the back forty, the living room—I felt like I was lighting out for the territory. I took immediately to that snug, toasty, flannelly embryo feeling. You know the one: After a long day of hiking, you crawl in the bag and give out an involuntary little happy-shiver and hug yourself. And yet, a claustrophobic bugaboo lurks in the coziness. As a child, I once wound up head-down in my sleeping bag and went frantic, crazy-ape bonkers trying to escape. Later, I slid from the top bunk in my orange bag, panicked because I was unable to throw out my arms. Even now, I find myself opening the bag before I push my legs in, just to check for teensy wolverines hidden in the toe end. I think of bears arriving, and me unable to escape. Freud would draw conclusions based on the male preoccupation with issues of zippers and entrapment.

After years of cheapo bags, I treated myself to a military-issue mummy sack. “FOR EMERGENCY EXIT,” read a tag sewn inside, “grasp each side of the opening above the slider and spread apart quickly, forcing the slider downward.” Sweet reassurance for the claustrophobe. That night I slept in a farmhouse owned by a pair of photographers. Not wanting to muss the vintage quilts, I unrolled my new sleeping bag, slid in, zipped to chin level, hugged myself with the happy-shiver, and dozed off. It was July, and I woke up 15 minutes later drenched in sweat. Grasped each side of the opening above the slider and spread apart quickly. Nothing. The zipper was jammed. Be calm, I thought, and commenced thrashing on the bed like a prodigious eel. I jammed an arm out the face hole and, with one particularly contorted bounce, wrenched into a sitting position. Deep breath. Think. With one hand waving uselessly at the sky, I grabbed the interior zipper pull with the other. Bit down hard on the liner. Yanked and yanked. When the zipper finally gave way, cool air rushed across my skin.

Love your sleeping bag, I say, but do not trust it.


Here’s hoping it never strikes twice

Electrophobia (Chris Buck)

I HAVE A DEEP, incapacitating fear of lightning. On occasions too numerous to count I’ve actually, involuntarily, shrieked aloud at the terror of being struck down by a shimmering electric bolt from the sky.

The first such instance occurred the summer I was eight. My sister, grandmother, and I were alone at our cottage on a lake in Ontario. It’s a great old wooden barn of a place, a hundred years old and drafty, surrounded by pines and junipers and blueberry bushes. It could burn down easily—the cottage and the whole island with it.

One night it decided to storm. My sister and I crawled into bed with Granny while long, terrible spears of lightning lit up the sky like daylight, one after another. The thunder was deafening and constant. Through a screen door that opened onto a veranda, we watched a boathouse on the opposite shore take a bolt to the roof and catch fire. I was speechless with horror, envisioning our doomed evacuation should our cottage go up in flames. Outside, a solid crash of thunder shook the house. Then someone screamed, a long, fearsome howl. It was me.

In the morning, we inspected the damage. A 60-foot white pine, with a fresh smoldering scar through the bark, lay wedged between the kitchen and the laundry shed, having barely missed both.

Twenty-two years later, lightning no longer scares me when I’m safe inside four walls (cars count), but catch me outside as a storm moves in and the reflexive terror is always the same. With the first fork comes a silent dread, then a panicky, futile attempt to plot my getaway, followed by the grand finale: my scream.


Sometimes the scariest thing isn’t out there, it’s inside you

IT’S NOT THAT I’M AFRAID OF FALLING; it’s that I’m tempted—unbearably, almost irresistibly, tempted—to take a leap. I don’t know how or where this developed, but at some point I realized that, whenever I was on a rooftop, all I wanted to do was take a run and then a jump, and feel myself sailing through empty space. I’m not afraid of the emptiness below; I’m afraid of my lack of fear. Some necessary inhibition that most children acquire never seemed to take hold in me.

Fear is, of course, the most irrational, even unreasonable of impulses: Heights and depths are what I tell myself I crave. I grew up in a house on a lonely mountain ridge. I drive, by choice, along ill-paved mountain roads in Ethiopia, Bhutan, Big Sur—a huge drop, and certain death, on one side of me. Yet none of that unnerves me like a hotel room with a terrace, which invites me to go out and look over the wall, see the cars down below, and imagine how I could turn my life around (and the lives of those around me) with a single radical act.

It’s bewildering to me that what I fear is entirely within my control. A few months ago, I gave myself up to fate by driving through the pitch-black mountains of Yemen, a precipice on one side, the man at the wheel furiously chewing qat to keep himself awake. Kidnappers prey on foreigners in those peaks, and teenagers waving large guns occasionally loomed out of the dark to flaunt their power at us. I was ready to surrender. But put me on a rock, a ledge, and all I want to do is act, irreversibly. I’m torn the way you are torn when drawn to a woman you know will undo you. I don’t want to get too close because I want to get close too much. I feel, I suppose, something of what an addict feels.

My phobia of heights is inherently different from the fear of spiders, or of cats or crowds, because what I’m afraid of is not what some malign outside threat will do to me; it’s what I will do to it. What fear can be so abject, and so impossible to cure, as the fear of who you really are, deep down?


Some say they’re cute. I say they’re evil.

THEY COME IN THE NIGHT, up from their burrows, out of prehistory, little sinister dinosaurs from South America. Across Mexican arroyo and Louisiana swamp they’ve traveled, out of the woods and into our Florida backyard, where they dig divots in the lawn, scuffing, snuffling, poking, as if looking for lost change. Genetic freaks—all born in sets of identical quadruplets, and highly susceptible to leprosy—they look half insect, half humanoid. Body of a pill bug, head of one of those poor kids who age too fast. They give my wife, H.B., the creeps.

For me the repugnance is more personal. Back in my single days as a nightlife reporter in Tallahassee I was “Barmadillo,” my byline appearing under a cartoon rendering of an inebriated armadillo. Now I’m just a totem assassin. A typical armadillo whack goes like this: I’m in my pj’s and rubber boots, down on my hands and knees under our deck. My right arm is thrust to the shoulder into a freshly dug burrow. I have a nine-banded armadillo by the tail.

It chirrups and grunts—”Nyuck nyuck, nyuck nyuck“—ratcheting itself deeper into the earth. In its element, the beast is immensely strong, like a rototiller run amok, headed for China.

“Golf club!” I say to H.B., who’s standing by with varmint tools.

I shove the club blade underneath the ‘dillo, then twist and pull. Out it comes like a bad tooth.

And it is hideous, writhing in the flashlight beam, a wizened Piglet far gone into leather and S&M. It scrabbles at my arm with its claws—the horror!—and I let go.

Breaking cover, it corners the house at a gallop, then cowers under H.B.’s car in the gravel drive. H.B. fetches her keys, starts the car, and begins to back up. Alas for Dasypus novemcinctus, its tendency to leap straight up when startled makes it synonymous with roadkill. There’s a clunk and a crunch, and the stricken ‘dillo makes one last dash, trailing viscera.

Suddenly one of our four dogs swoops in and snatches it up in a great mouthful and lopes off into the woods. Silence, and then the terrible scraping of tooth on nubby bone. In the morning, cranky with lack of sleep, we find the armadillo half buried atop a heaped-up ziggurat of dirt like a Lord of the Flies idol, the dogs arrayed in attitudes of worship. Damn. It didn’t have to go down like that.

Lima Beans

Is there anything more sinister than this hateful legume?

IT’S EASY TO BE TERRIFIED OF SPIDERS and dizzying heights and getting lost in a guano-filled cave, but it takes a certain neurotic genius, I submit, to be brought to clammy fear by the genus Phaseolus, that leguminous plant species commonly known as the lima bean.

My lima bean phobia dates back to a family dinner in my very early youth. That greasy little veggie looked to me like some slippery bivalve from under the sea, of an unhealthy gray-green color at that, and was therefore almost certain to be just as strange-tasting.

Still, I might have managed to choke my portion down as I obediently did the fried liver and other disgusting substances that every kid must learn to live with, were it not for the emotional vortex in which I was first forced to deal with the challenge of the lima bean. That dinner was presided over by my father, just home for the weekend from his job a hundred miles away in Toronto. Our attendance was mandatory, in the way of a roll call. But as we kids dutifully assembled in our places at the dining table, my oldest brother, Mike, was missing.

This threw my father, never exactly serene, into a rage. Half an hour later Mike finally straggled in from whatever diversion had warped his sense of time. Dad banished him from the dinner table amid a fusillade of threats and general contumely, followed by the sickening silence that always settles over the scene of a public execution. I stared down, head bowed, at my plate, and sublimated my roiling emotions onto my lima beans.

Mastodons in the root cellar, fire, heartburn 40,000 years before Pepto-Bismol—primitive man had much to be afraid of. But primitive man probably never came face to face with an ominous kidney-shaped legume. If he had, I bet he’d have developed a fluttery stomach and a desire to flee the vicinity, like me. After all these decades, a lima bean has never passed my lips. But I know what they taste like, without ever having tasted one. They taste like fear.


They’ve come to suck your blood—and that’s not the worst of it

Tickophobia (Chris Buck)

NOT TOO LONG AGO, I picked an engorged tick up off the floor of my kitchen, thinking it was a stray chocolate chip. It only took a moment for me to see more clearly the minuscule legs and the hideous crease down the underside, but the idea that I had mistaken a tick for something edible freaked me out for days. Because now that I’ve had my midlife mortality crisis and come to terms with just about every fear I used to have (and they were legion), the only one left is ticks.

I have dogs, the best of which is, unfortunately, a golden retriever. A golden retriever is a paradise for ticks—lots of hair to hide in. During tick season here in California, sometimes we see two or three dark-brown ticks crawling around the top of the dog’s head looking for a place to attach. That’s repulsive enough, but it’s the ones who found a spot, ate their fill, and dropped off that I worry about, lying there in the pattern of an oriental rug, waiting to be stepped on.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to find anyone who defends ticks. Spiders and houseflies and rattlesnakes and killer bees and even maggots and leeches have their fans, who inform the rest of us about how useful, well adapted, or beautifully designed their preferred creature actually is—but the only thing you ever hear about ticks is that they carry Lyme disease. It is typical of the malevolence of ticks that the carrier is too small to notice until after she has delivered her insidious message.

Ticks seem to exist for themselves alone. They are ugly as nymphs and grossly disgusting as engorged adults. They live only to reproduce, which females do by dropping thousands of larvae and then dying. They don’t take a meal and move on, like mosquitoes; they dangle by their mouths and get intimate. When feeding, they are motionless and passive. The worst thought when you find a tick in your hair is that it’s been there awhile, that it drank your blood without your even realizing it. You have to ask, in the parade of extinctions, why can’t we trade ticks for something we prefer, like black rhinos or snow leopards?

It happens to be summer now in California, too dry for ticks. I have some breathing room. I might even go for a walk one of these days. While I’m out there, I will visualize a world without ticks. It will be just like our world, only better.


Just because the boat floats doesn’t mean you will

AFTER YEARS OF TAKING FAST WATER FOR GRANTED, I learned to fear the ironic power of river rapids early last spring. The red inflatable kayak I was paddling caught a sharp rock at the top of a sizable and noisy chute coursing through the middle of an Oregon stretch of the Owyhee River, and began to sink.

In an instant I was sucked under the rock and shot over the waterfall, well beneath the surface. The shock of being pulled so quickly under the water precluded taking a decent breath, so by the time I felt the bottom of the Owyhee beneath my feet, I was already hurting for air. I looked around and realized that I was actually standing on the bottom of the river, surrounded by a surreal volume of luminous and silvery fat bubbles. I looked up to see the surface and the churning whitewater five feet above my head. I was being pummeled by a variety of powerful hits from each side and felt a consistent downward pressure on my helmet. Though I was wearing a life preserver and trying to swim, I realized that I was not rising to the surface.

Everything about the experience was dreamlike. The situation conjured no panic, and even the realization that the air-fat kayak was also being held down beside me, even the strange recall of interviews with people who’d come back from near-drowning episodes to report that the experience was not unlike going to sleep, caused a sensation beyond an abiding wonderment. I just stood there, thinking that here, beneath a river in Oregon most people had never heard of, a hundred miles from anything much more than a few earmarked steers—surrounded by the irony of gigantic white balls full of air—I would die.

I was egested from the hole as powerfully as I’d been swallowed. I bounced off six or seven rocks as I rode the rapids on my back, and I began to hear calls of concern from the others. I eventually found a conical rock I could hug downriver, and I remember thinking that no matter what, I would never let it go.

After I was helped onto the bank, I tried to imagine getting back into the red kayak. The thought sent a reverberating sensation that rattled the backs of my shaking legs. I’d once considered river whitewater no more treacherous than a roller coaster—but that had all changed now: I was afraid.


They may be worth protecting, but they can still creep you out

MAYBE YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE bat-loving types who lectures people that bats are actually very clean animals and they eat half their weight in insects every sundown and it’s a false slander that they get tangled in women’s hair. Batophilia is not that uncommon these days, as evidenced by all the people heading into the flying mammals’ very lairs: high-tech cavers armed with headlamps, special caving ropes, and the ability to use the word spelunk without laughing.

But back in that stone age when all outdoor equipment was bought at the Army Navy store, caving was an amateur’s game. I was introduced to it in the late sixties by my friend Donald, whose grandmother had a house in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau. T-ma, as the grand dame was known, was happy to share her equipment, mostly a pile of old dented lanterns that dated, probably, from the Civil War. You filled the lantern’s bottom with carbide and added water, and once it began to make a certain unmistakable sizzle, the resulting gas—as redolent as boiling ore—was flammable.

In most Tennessee caves there are several fairly unavoidable features—the big cathedral space, the mud room, the fat man’s squeeze. On one occasion, Donald’s father, a noted heart surgeon, was struggling through a fat man’s squeeze. Dr. Eddie was also bald, and every time he’d lift his head, he’d howl as a tiny stalactite dart punctured his scalp. He exited looking like a middle-aged messiah who’d just removed a crown of thorns.

I was next in the squeeze, grinding on my elbows across a gravel floor made more comfortable by a freezing stream of cave water trickling through. The spare plastic bag of carbide I kept in my pants pocket had rubbed open from all the wiggling, and my hip began to sizzle, then to warm up, and finally to burn hot as fire. I’d begun to hump pretty damn fast, squirming in a panic, as my mind foresaw a suffocating gas buildup—or, more likely, a Jerry Bruckheimer-like explosion—when a concerned Dr. Eddie bent down to shine his flame into the tunnel. “Hey, Jack, are you having any—” Boom!

Turns out there was a lot more air in the tunnel than I thought, because right then and there, ten cave bats decided to flutter through on their way out. The sudden chaos of fur—when I think about it, there must have been a hundred bats—encouraged me to discover the virgin pleasure of pressing one’s face into frigid gravel water. Fortunately, bats have that radar thing, so all one thousand of them easily found the space above my prostrate body, although it must have been difficult scrambling down my back given the vibrations caused by all the subaqueous screaming.

When I finally got out, everyone was tending to his own suffering. Dr. Eddie was stanching his head with a rag. No one cared about my encounter with ten thousand bats. Donald’s brother accused me of exaggerating. He said he’d seen only a couple of bats. I don’t know. In my mind—then and now—my ordeal resembled that encyclopedia picture of Carlsbad Caverns at dusk when a million bats roar out like demonic nuncios in a funnel of black terror.

And yet, I still cave. Because even though I fear bats, mine is an exquisitely nuanced phobia. It’s not truly activated unless I’m in a cave and I see a bunch of bats, and then my pants catch on fire.

Being Buried Alive

A convincing case that it’s the worst way to go

Vivisepulturophobia (Chris Buck)

VIVISEPULTUROPHOBIA—the fear of being buried alive—is more sophisticated, more existentially bleak, than claustrophobia. It nullifies the most basic human egocentrism—that the universe gives a damn about our whereabouts. Rest assured: You will never be found, certainly not in this lifetime.

As a 15-year-old, camping near the Dead Sea, I blithely explored a series of caves, some natural, some clandestine cisterns carved out by Israelite zealots 2,000 years ago. More than two decades later, my throat closes up in panic at the memory of crawling on my stomach through lightless, birth-canal-narrow sandstone tunnels.

A cave is all well and good, but it still gives you room to flail, scream, and claw with bloody fingers on the rock walls. How much worse to be immobilized? Hemmed in by rock or sand—or even ice. Apparently, glaciologists in Norway have come up with a novel way to gather data: They carve tunnels into the core of a glacier using hot water, then climb through this frigid warren—hundreds and hundreds of feet down—amassing information. They have to work fast; in short order, the enormous pressure of the glacial mass overhead reduces each capacious passage to walkway to crawl space to eventually nothing at all.

Pressure is the force that separates the men from the boys, phobiawise. Think about the cumulative weight of that sand, earth, ice, what have you. It only starts with suffocation: the slow, inexorable squeezing of air from your lungs. Take it to the next level by contemplating the uncomfortable constriction of the thorax, the rush of blood out to the extremities, your hands and feet swollen and full to bursting. And what is that sound? Why, it’s the groan of your pelvis buckling under. See it all clearly as your eyes emerge Marty Feldman-like from their sockets, the lids pried open like the gaps in a fat man’s shirt. And there you are, marking each torment as it comes. A martyrdom too gruesome even for the most devout saints.

But that’s just me.


They lurk, they bite, they haunt your picnics forever

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1972, rural Illinois. A picnic along the banks of the Mississippi. My friend Elizabeth and I, both 17, were forced to attend as a disciplinary measure. We were wearing gauzy peasant shirts and sullen expressions, and were nursing stupendous, temple-clutching hangovers. While the rest of my family bustled around lighting grills and slapping hamburger into patties, Elizabeth and I winced our way barefoot down to the water’s edge to plunk stones into the current and say scathing things about my mother.

“She ought to try drinking a pint of lime vodka,” Elizabeth said darkly, “and see how it feels.” Behind her, at head height, something shifted on the low-hanging branch of a desiccated tree.

One of the worst sounds a person can hear is the heavy thump of a big snake dropping to the ground at her feet. One of the worst sights? Same snake, churning around in a wide circle, opening its mouth to reveal a pale-white interior, vaguely plush, like upholstery.

Our loyalty to each other was such that we engaged in a brief but violent shoving match, cartoon characters trying to get through a doorway. The cottonmouth unfurled itself and wound past us—four feet long and stout as a man’s wrist, but oddly flattened, like something molded out of clay and pressed into the ground. It slithered down the bank and into the river, lickety-split, like a strand of spaghetti pulled into a mouth.

Thirty years later, I experience startle responses not only to snakes but to lengths of rope, suspicious-looking sticks, and garden hoses, especially black ones draped over a fence or log. I am also spooked by snakish areas, including but not limited to grass, warm roads, stone walls, dirt paths, fields, old barns, sidewalks (trust me), tree branches, and, of course, water.

Being vigilant has worked pretty well, although not perfectly. Once I picked up a garden hose, after carefully making sure it actually was a garden hose, and there was a snake underneath. Elizabeth, on the other hand, recovered just fine and even went on to touch some kind of constrictor with a forefinger during a college biology class. Her professor said we couldn’t have seen a cottonmouth that day; too far north.

That’s what my father said, too, when we came racing up to the picnic table, hysterical and shuddering.

“Oh, boy,” he said agreeably. “Water snakes are big buggers. Scare a guy half to death.”

My mother, squinting as she flipped the burgers, cigarette corked in her mouth, turned to consider us, green-gilled and sweaty.

“People who drink too much see snakes,” she said.


There’s nothing like the universe to make you feel puny and afraid

INSIDE THE CITY, the night sky is more or less a backdrop, benign and one-dimensional. It comes on predictably, like the streetlights, and I pretty much ignore it. There is the moon. Some planets. That spread-eagled hunter who likes to show off his “belt.”

Then I go backpacking. Without warning, the stars go thick as gnats and the blackness has ominous depth. You can see the other side of our galaxy. The sudden hugeness overhead unhinges me. I’ll look up and practically drop my ramen. It’s The Universe. What frightens me, I think, is the abrupt, mind-slamming shift in scale. Like Alice after the “EAT ME” cake, I am instantly, alarmingly diminished—tiny to the point of disappearing. The longer I look up, the smaller and more vulnerable I feel, dwarfed by something huge and unknowable: God, the evil in men’s hearts, infinity. I suppose, on some level, that the fear I feel is a fear of death, of insignificance and nonexistence. Or else I’m just a sissy.

Falling stars in particular unnerve me. Forces are at work out there, and they are not human. If there’s that kind of weirdness in space, God only knows what’s in the woods ten feet away. I spook easily in the wilderness, and I blame the stars.

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