The Lizard Brain and the Scottish Hilltop

15 Apr

The shadow of Arthur’s Seat looms over Edinburgh and calls to the avid hiker at from the moment she arrives. It catches the sparse light and glows at sunrise and sunset. The locals insist that it’s the very best possible view of the city. Having exhausted the better part of a decade and multiple pairs of hiking boots on the tierra alta of South America, there was no question. Of course I was going.

It’s an easy, though physical, climb with multiple routes to the top. A fit hiker can reach the summit in less than an hour. I had plenty of company—hundreds visit the defunct volcano each day. I moved more purposefully than some, sidestepping cruise ship softies, darting kids, and the inevitable woman wearing the Entirely Wrong Shoes for the Occasion. But I lingered in spots to savor the undulation of green turf and birds floating on North Sea air currents. It was soul-satisfying and, despite the crowds, serene…until I got to the top.

I’m still not entirely sure what happened. I navigated uneven stones on the last stretch, rounded a corner into a face full of buffeting wind, and utterly lost my nerve.

The city rings the hill, then fades into open country stretching for miles in every direction. Geese wheel over the loch far below. It’s amazing. But I saw none of it in that first moment. I just stood there and gaped in the wind, petrified out of my wits by the idea of a sudden gust blasting my body over the lip, into the open air, and a very long way down.

Around me, a group of French teens clowned around, shoving each other toward the edge, butting like young goats. Some flopped on their bellies to peer down the cliff face. Atop an outcrop of rocks rests a summit marker, a silver disk marked with the four cardinal directions and the elevation. Around it, boys jockeyed for position. I could see another group a few yards distant, playing king of the mountain on a graffiti-tagged stone plinth. The wind carried their voices away.

My mind darted to people who depended on me and would miss me if I never came home. What would my husband do? How would my parents cope, especially so soon after losing their only son? What would become of my elderly cat, which nobody else seemed to like? I wedged myself into an indentation, pressing as flat as possible to get away from battering crosswinds. My fun was done.

I’ve been a solo traveler for most of my adult life. I’ve taken my share of risks that seemed a little foolish on sober reflection. But I don’t think I’d ever really considered the fallout if I didn’t come back. This overpowering fear came less from the thought that I might lose my life up there, than the harm it might bring to people I love.

I watched the French kids horse around for a few minutes more, feeling sheepish, even a little ashamed. “Look,” I said to my limbic system, “Nobody else has been blown off the hillside. And some of them are actively tempting fate over there. It’s fine.” Eventually, I coaxed my amygdala to take the threat level down enough for me to scale the last few feet to the summit marker.

I got a white-knuckle grip on the marker’s cold, worn edges and took deep breaths. I made myself take in the view. After a few moments, I calmed enough to actually see the 360° spectacle and let its beauty sink in. Then I handed one of the French boys my camera and requested a photograph.

I had to pose sitting down.

The walk to the bottom of the hill helped to steady my nerves, but it didn’t diminish the sense of having let myself down somehow. In fact, I’ve rarely spoken about that part of the experience. I have never had the chance to discuss it with other female travelers. Was it a one-time thing linked to the realization that one’s mortality has consequences for others, too? Are flashes of death anxiety a standard part of the aging package?

I hiked Arthur’s Seat again two years later, this time with my sister. I felt no anxiety on the journey up. Though I still didn’t particularly like having my hair knotted by crosswinds, there was no panic at the summit. I didn’t worry that there would be.

I haven’t forgotten that my nerve deserted me once, though. I don’t dwell on whether it might happen again. I just trust that I will find a way to keep my lizard brain at bay if anxiety comes to call. The view is worth it.

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