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By Christine Baker
On the Trail, USA

Christine Baker and Jessie
on the trail in a heavy rainstorm

One hot summer day I was hiking alone in New Jersey. I was tired and borderline dehydrated. To be honest, I was having some trouble concentrating on the rocky trail ahead of me. I knew I needed to take a break soon. I stopped to drink the last of my water and I heard that unmistakable sound of a bear in the woods. I looked up and saw a black bear about 150 feet away. It stared at me and sniffed. I scrambled to blow my safety whistle and started singing "You Are My Sunshine." (Don't judge the song choice; it was the first song that popped into my head.) I was alone. No one else was on the trail. It was just a black bear and me. Within a few seconds, the bear turned and ran away. I never saw it, or another black bear, again. The entire scene lasted maybe 10 seconds but to me, it was an eternity. Afterwards I needed to sit down because I realized my knees were shaking and shaking hard.

Not too long ago, Jessie, my female yellow Labrador retriever, and I were hiking in New York on a very popular trail along the Hudson River. Jessie usually runs ahead of me on the trail, but she never runs so far ahead that I cannot see her, and she always comes on command. On this day, Jessie stayed glued to my side despite my prompting for her to go ahead and run. It was a clear, warm day. We had big plans for an 11-mile hike. We passed a group of bird-watchers on the top of Hook Mountain, took a break to have a snack and some water. So far, it was turning out to be a near-perfect day on the trail.

We walked another half-mile or so into the woods and then we both stopped in our tracks as we heard the crying and howling of coyotes. Two minutes later, we were confronted by a pack of seven coyotes. Once again we were completely alone in the woods. I banged my hiking sticks together and yelled. Jessie pushed against my left leg and began growling, the hair on her back standing up. The coyotes did not move an inch. I picked up a few rocks and threw them. They didn't budge. In fact the largest coyote began to approach us. Jessie and I did an about-face and began scrambling back up the trail. I knew the bird-watchers were less than a half-mile away. I ran as fast as I could, turning behind me every few seconds to see if we were being followed. We were not. Within a few minutes, we were back at the summit in the safety of the bird-watchers, who hadn't seen or heard a thing.

Christine with students, faculty and staff
(Archbishop Molloy HS - Queens, NY)
Annual 15+ Walk Queens-to-Ground Zero

In our day-to-day lives, we don't like being vulnerable. Because most of the time, we think that being vulnerable equates to being weak, and we never want to appear weak. When we take the subway at night or walk down a deserted side street at dusk, we want to appear strong and in control so no one hurts us. When we are at work, we act as if we have everything under control, even though we are crumbling inside from the pressure and from exhaustion. Let's face it: most of our lives are spent pretending to be stronger than we really are.

Jessie loves to roll over on her back so I can rub her belly and her neck. This position is extremely vulnerable for a dog. She is exposing her neck to me. She does this because she trusts me completely. She allows herself to be vulnerable because she knows the payoff is the best belly-scratch imaginable. We can learn a lot from dogs.

Hiking has taught me that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. When I was in those situations with the bear and the coyotes, I did not feel weak. I felt vulnerable. But afterwards, I felt stronger for handling those situations well. Hiking in the woods means I am at the mercy of Mother Nature and I must rely completely on myself. If there is a storm, I am vulnerable to it. There is no safety from rain, wind, darkness, and heat or cold except what I carry on my back. If something goes awry, I have no magic wand to make everything perfect. I must buckle down and figure out what to do next.

It takes great strength to let one's guard down. It takes courage to step into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations to test one's mettle. Writer Madeline L'Engle said, "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable."

Christine Baker, Margaret Masvidal
and Michele Phillips

The greater the risk, the greater is the reward. When we are vulnerable by choice, we don't just share the parts of us that are perfect and fun. Being truly vulnerable means revealing the not-so-perfect bits of us. It means sharing those parts of us that we normally keep hidden from other people. Most of us don't choose to be vulnerable because the stakes are too high. If we fail, if we lose, if we show our soft sides, we cannot control what happens next. Sometimes what happens next isn't always perfect. Sometimes we are hurt. We have our hearts broken. We feel the pain of loss or failure. But we go on and we are better for all of it.

We cannot move forward if we do not put ourselves out there. Sometimes we will fail. Sometimes we will get hurt. But we cannot go through life afraid of being hurt. We must take a deep breath and be vulnerable. We must go through life with our arms and our hearts wide open because that is exactly when we allow the light to shine in. When the light shines in, anything at all is possible and our dreams are once again within reach.

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Christine Baker is the founder of Walk4Good and president of CB Creative, Inc., an integrated communications consulting firm in Nyack, NY. She is the author of Why She Plays: The World of Women's Basketball (University of Nebraska Press 2008), and was inducted into the Middletown, Connecticut Sports Hall of Fame in January 2011.

All opinions expressed by Christine Baker are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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