Nothing in my life has ever sparked such overwhelming fear as sitting alone on a beach in the early, early morning, long before sunrise with intentions of paddling a kayak across an enormous body of water to a foreign island. There was lightning on the horizon, too distant and sparse to be a sure no go, but not clear enough to make me feel confident to paddle out. The wind was blowing from the north and would launch me down to Cay Sal on an open ocean kayaking voyage in under 12 hours. I would arrive there before dusk and set up camp on the uninhabited island in the Gulf of Mexico. I could see the tall palms swaying high overhead behind me and knew the wind coming from the other side of the island was strong. Within the first mile of paddling the wind would catch me and launch me faster and faster from the island until eventually I would not be able to paddle back. It was a commitment that gave me chills.
In the movie Interstellar, one of the crew expresses discomfort with being contained within aluminum walls with only millions of miles of empty space in any direction. I imagined the first Apollo astronauts leaving the comfort of earth to go explore our closest celestial neighbor. I could feel the anxiety they must have felt while looking back as the earth shrunk behind them. On that morning, standing on the beach looking out at the unknown, I do believe I felt some of what they must have felt, the overwhelming fear accompanied with sheer fascination and curiosity.
I remember calling my mom that morning. It was probably four o’ clock but she answered. I needed someone to talk to, even though I knew she would try to talk me out of it. I kept justifying my fear by telling her how scary the prospect of going to med school was, saying I couldn’t let fear dictate my decisions. But this was different. The consequences in this case were dire, the rewards intangible and seemingly irrational.
I did end up paddling across an equally daunting channel, just without thunderstorms and to an inhabited island, the Dry Tortugas, instead. But in some weird way, despite the nightmarish thoughts of being alone out at sea in a vessel no wider than my waist, I really miss it. I miss the physical challenge, the overwhelming joy replacing the absolute fear. But if you were to ask me what the most terrifying time of my life has been, it wouldn’t be getting caught alone on a mountain in a raging blizzard or being alone in a house that is being broken into. It would be that morning, sitting alone on a warm beach in Key West, not knowing whether in a few hours I would be back in bed or if I would be out in fierce winds launching me down to a desolate Bahamian island.