Bear Country Discomfort
by Roland Goity
My friend Kirk and I were 30,000 feet up in the air, on our way to the Rockies. He was on vacation from his work with a beer distributorship; my time is always flexible. Our mutual friend Sal had arranged things one drunken night at our favorite bar when a bunch of us were consoling Kirk for his wife having left him for her golf instructor. So the poor bastard and I were on our way to what we hoped—and perhaps feared—would be an unforgettable adventure.
“How’s your book?” I asked.
We left the July heat and humidity after an early breakfast, taking off from Boston around nine. Then we switched planes in New York, and again in Minneapolis. Now off to Idaho Falls, I noticed that Kirk, silent for much of the day, had made significant headway into the book he’d started, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. My efforts had gone into scribbling story ideas on damp cocktail napkins which quickly became illegible. I’m a writer, you see. But like an idiot I’d stuffed my notebooks and micro cassette recorder into the nether reaches of the backpack I’d checked in at the baggage counter. And so, wet napkins were all I had.
Kirk took a break from his book once the drink cart came by and the flight attendant fixed his G and T. After giving it a sip, he said, “Hey Jon, you’ve heard of people wearing bells on their packs and clothing? You know, to alert bears of their approach.”
“Think so,” I said, half listening, mostly wondering why my order of bourbon and Coke required a commotion of flight staff in the aisle nearby, thinking straight bourbon’s fine if they’ve run out of Coke.
“Well, according to the author here, tinkling bells in grizzly country aren’t such a good idea. He calls them ‘dinner bells.’”
“Dinner bells. Get it?”
“Sure, because rather than warning bears, it simply attracts them. Then you become dinner on the table.”
He again opened his book and got reading. Minutes later he started moaning in fits and starts. I glanced over and watched him shudder. His balding pate was turning red. It looked radioactive.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, just reading about another bear encounter gone bad. This one’s about some kid whose face was ripped apart by a grizzly; he was practically beheaded.” Kirk thrust the splayed book in my face, open to a photo of a bear as big as a telephone pole. “We’re spending our vacation with this?!”
I winced at the picture, but sighed comfortably when the flight attendant delivered my drink. It was weak; I was nearly finished by the time Kirk returned to the book and started moaning again. “Listen, I don’t think it’s a big deal,” I said. “I’ve seen tons of black bears; they’re just big puppy dogs. And I’m pretty sure there aren’t any grizzlies where we’re going.”
“Oh yeah? That’s not what the Internet says.”
I handed my empty minutes later to the attendant coming through. The captain told all passengers and flight personnel to prepare for landing. Kirk sat rigid in his seat. His meaty hands became balled fists, perched on his thighs.
“Wonder if I brought enough Xanax,” he volunteered.
I shot him a quizzical look.
“That’s right, to combat my acute anxiety and depression. Started even before Karen began fooling around with Tiger Woods. Now that we’re kaput I gobble the stuff down like candy.”
Clearing my throat first, I asked: “How many backpacking trips have you taken again?”
“I told you this is my first.”
We started to drop and hit a pocket of turbulence. The plane rattled like a castanet.
* * *
Now we were traveling by car and Kirk was at it again.
“I thought you finished reading that?
“This is round two, Jon. Round two.”
“Forget the bears, look out to the left. Those are the Tetons in the distance.”
While I drove our rental, an aqua-green Pontiac Sunbird, Kirk obsessed over his Bear Attacks book. We’d crossed into Wyoming but were bypassing the Grand Tetons. When Sal booked us for high adventure there was no exact destination in mind. We were lucky, in fact, he’d sent us west to the Rockies and not to someplace like Darfur and a date with the Janjaweed. So I researched a place well off the beaten path. Somewhere cries for help would go unheard. I figured if we were “going wild,” why not do it right? After stopping in Pinedale for necessities like camping fuel, whiskey and toilet paper that we hadn’t already brought along, we ventured onward toward the Wind River Range. There mountains and valleys and lakes were named by their shapes, colors and locations.
Kirk finally gave the book a rest. “You know, Karen and I never camped. Not once. Don’t think I’ve slept in a tent since I was a boy scout, was maybe twelve or thirteen.”
Hands on the wheel, I looked over and saw Kirk’s eyes glisten with a blend of excitement and nostalgia. But I worried that the physicality of our proposition might overwhelm him; a weeklong backpacking trip is an ordeal. My pack, full of gear, weighed fifty-three pounds on the bathroom scale in my Beacon Hill apartment the night before we left. Kirk was softer than most, in both body and mind. Whether he could survive the wilderness was anyone’s guess.
“Plan to write on the trip?” Kirk asked.
“Sure. Get some ideas to paper.”
“Have a plot yet?”
“Not really. Any suggestions.”
“Me? I wouldn’t know what to offer. Besides—and no offense—but I’m not into your type of shtick. It’s Silence of the Lambs kind of shit, right?”
“More or less,” I said. I wrote horror novels, or more accurately, had written and published one and was on the hook soon for another. Both the agent and publisher were antsy to see its progress, but, in truth, I’d yet to start.
“So, tell me, Kirk. You didn’t like the book? Didn’t like Silence?”
“There was a book? I’m talking about the movie.” He picked up his grizzly bear bible, “This book? It’s more chilling than anything a creative writer can drum up. The way fate turns on people just like you and me, encountering bears by sheer chance, then getting torn limb from limb. It’s so…so…fucked up!”
“Hey! That’s it!” I said. “With some tweaking, that could be the storyline for the novel.”
* * *
Three days into our backpacking expedition and the trip actually was running like clockwork. We’d started at Green Lake and now were many miles into a network of trails, camping in the shadows of a rock formation aptly named Cathedral Spires. Since the trailhead we’d seen nary a soul. And aside from a brief afternoon thunderstorm, the weather had been a dream. Skies of baby blue and periwinkle dappled with cottony clouds where gods might sleep. But finally one morning we woke to a pewter sky with intentions of havoc. We’d barely downed our usual morning breakfast—NoDoz and Pop-Tarts (plus Xanax for Kirk)—when lightning struck in the distance. “Time to get moving,” I said.
Kirk was a much better companion than I’d feared. We’d been doing five to seven miles a day over as many hours, and Kirk was well up to the task. Breaking in new boots, he’d complained of blisters but I cut him moleskin for a needed buffer. Each day got a little easier as getting tan and fit and building muscle tone was a pleasant byproduct of our endeavor.
There were many time-outs for pumping stream water. And we’d stuck to a diet of mostly freeze-dried meals and whisky, but so far there’d been few complaints. In fact, Kirk liked the fact that the meals kept our bowel movement from moving. He wasn’t enamored with the idea of digging a grave and dropping trousers on dirt just to take a shit. He said he’d hold it in for the entire trip and so far was keeping his word.
We came across elk, white-tailed deer, a badger, and lots of grouse and pheasants, but had yet to encounter ursus horribilis. Still, Kirk frequently discussed bears while we hiked, or when we settled around our cold, dark camp (campfires being forbidden in the backcountry). His comments, though, were welcome and weren’t knee-jerk hyperbolic. Without my prompting he observed bear prints along trails and clearings, and claw marks on the trunks of aspens and lodgepole pines. Evidence of relatively innocuous black bears, even Kirk freely admitted. His voice occasionally sounded panic as he commented on surrounding trees, the primary escape route from a charging grizzly. Their trunks always appeared too thick to shimmy up, and rarely were there low-hanging boughs to climb. The few such branches we spotted appeared as brittle as dried fish bones; no way would they hold our weight. But Kirk’s anxiety lessened when discussing our other escape option: to go entirely lifeless, play dead while covering up. We’d likely get battered around like human beach balls, but according to his book we’d have reasonable odds of survival. However, I saw characters in my novel not faring so well, heads jangled loose by a bear’s swat like a piñata, bloody pulp instead of sugary treats rocketing out.
That morning we took on elevation, maybe seven-hundred feet over a few miles. It drizzled on and off and the sky darkened behind us. We soon topped 10,000 feet, a height we’d hover above all day. Snow lay in shadowy patches everywhere. Before long we reached a rocky pass above a river gorge. There we thrust our backpacks against oddly shaped granite boulders as big as pickups, as big as motor homes.
Kirk still huffed and puffed long after shedding his hefty pack. He angled his butt against the rock, hunching forward, hands on thighs. His wet hair had mottled in checkered fashion atop his thinning scalp.
“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.
“Just thinking how our luck’s run out with the weather.”
“Nah, man. I was wondering why we say we’ll give a penny for someone’s thoughts when we double the value of our own thinking. You know, like ‘Here’s my two cents.’”
“Never thought of that before.”
“Human nature, I guess.”
“Yeah, we’re all just a bunch of narcissists,” I said. “We take out loans we can’t pay back, take on wagers testing our skill or athleticism. We constantly overrate our own ability to succeed in life, but are more objective when it comes to the prospects of others.”
Lightning crackled to the south, then thunder struck. A billowy black cloud like soot from a steam engine was approaching.
“We’re not overselling our abilities out here are we, Jon?”
“No. At least I hope not.”
Kirk unzipped his pack’s top pocket. He pawed through it, placing withdrawn items on the boulder where it overhung the cliff.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I feel funny. Not just from hiking.”
He located his medication, popped a tablet, and put the prescription container back down on the rock’s edge next to a blue hand towel.
“It’s the altitude. You’ll get used to it.”
Right then the light drizzle turned to heavy rainfall. I flipped up the hood of my rain poncho and looked at my watch: 12:02. But the sky had grown so dark it was more like midnight than noon, and the lightning and thunder flashed and boomed nearly simultaneously. White blazes like strobe lights made Kirk look like Lon Chaney in a horror film. We were exposed to incoming bolts up there on the crags. There were few surrounding trees to take the hit, and most were charred like blackened catfish from previous strikes.
“Let’s get out of here!” I said.
Kirk packed up in a frenzy, and when he grabbed his soaked hand towel he accidentally slung it against his bottle of Xanax, sending it on a long plummet into the gorge. Kirk, head hanging and soaked like a sponge, looked like a pitcher who’d given up a walk-off homer in a game that should have been called for rain. “Fuck me! Fuck me!” he shouted.
In my head I was saying the same thing.
* * *
Eventually we camped under a canopy of Douglas fir. We stayed there for days as the rain never really let up, playing cards until every conceivable hand had been dealt and the cards had turned soggy from water trickling through the synthetic fiber seams of our two-man tent. I scribbled notes in my journal and chattered gibberish into my microcassette recorder, brain dumping ideas for my upcoming novel. My forte was horror scenes, and I could foresee plenty of grizzly attacks. The characters in my novel would endure situations that made those in Kirk’s book look like treehouse tea parties. I conceived of a high school football team on an “outward bound” bonding experience, their ample supply of steroids not making it into their bear-proof bags that hung high in trees. One night the grizzlies would invade their camp, get juiced, and go on roid rages like no other. Kirk thought the idea beyond ridiculous, as did I, but mentioned its sales potential. He offered up his soon-to-be ex-wife as a character model, said he’d fill me in on every one of Karen’s idiosyncrasies so readers would know and hate her by the time the bears mauled her to death. I discouraged that idea, but mentioned I’d set Kirk up with the sister of the elementary schoolteacher I’d been seeing if he stopped harping about Karen. Even in the gloom of the tent he smiled at the prospect, knowing the odds were that Erica’s sister, Raelene, was far more striking than his ex, which, of course, I knew to be true.
Finally we awoke to a cloudless sky, packed our gear, and traveled on for the first time in days. We took a shortcut on the map because of our delay, shaving off the loop I’d originally coursed. Soon we crossed paths with a long-haired fellow heading the other way. A Coloradan hiking the Rockies solo for more than a month already. Smelling of peppermint camp soap and patchouli oil, the guy, Farley, looked just out of college, if that. But he appeared wiry strong and bounded with energy and an expressive confidence. I figured he’d reach Banff in one piece by Halloween which was his goal.
Our new friend asked our origins after hearing Kirk’s still detectable south Boston dialect, thinking Kirk had complained how I made him carry all the cabbage, when, to my ears, he clearly said garbage. And my travel companion began nibbling on his nails as Farley explained seeing a black bear and her cubs a few miles back in the direction we were headed. “You sure they weren’t grizzlies?” Kirk kept pushing. “Dude, I’m sure,” was always the reply. Then, to put Kirk further at ease, I asked Farley to confirm that no grizzlies resided in the Wind River Range. “Oh no, they’re here. More and more sightings every month. You need to be careful.” Kirk literally doubled over, the words hitting him like a good punch in the stomach.
Farley inquired if we partied, sticking his fingers into the breast pocket of his ruby chamois shirt before we could even answer. Lighter in one hand, he pulled out a fat joint with the other. He lit up, enjoying a lengthy toke that crackled the paper and created a cherry tip the size of a gumball. He raised his eyes at Kirk and tapped his shoulder. Seconds later Kirk was taking a sizable hit and I wondered how he’d handle things. He’d been reasonably composed since he’d sent his medication off the cliff, but him being stoned worried me. However, after my turn when Farley offered it round the horn again, Kirk waved off seconds and I followed suit.
“For the road, then,” Farley said, snuffing out the joint with a pinch and offering what was left to us in his open palm. “Go on, dudes, I’ve got plenty.”
So I took it and thanked him, saying we’d save it for a rainy day, which would likely be that afternoon if the clouds were to be believed. We asked if he’d been to Summit Lake and Round Lake, where we were headed.
“Yes, and yes,” Farley said. “Hope you brought your fishing poles. If so, you’ll eat like kings. Fish at Summit, camp at Round.”
“Right on!” Kirk said, raising a comrade’s fist, completely out of character. We had poles—those telescopic, collapsible kind—and were dying to use them. The fishing licenses we’d purchased in Pinedale cost nearly as much as the air fare between Boston and Idaho Falls. We slapped skin with young Farley, agreeing to meet again someday, somewhere down the road.
Kirk and I moseyed though a purple wildflower-rimmed trail. He quietly whistled an AC/DC tune through his teeth, and I joined in on the refrain. It was so quaint. We were like Opie and Pa, or a pair of hikers in a Norman Rockwell painting. Only we were whistling our way through sheer, unbridled wilderness. Whistling through Mother Nature’s graveyard.
* * *
“Got another,” Kirk bragged, arching back in a sleeveless Red Sox tee, modest biceps showing definition as he reeled in a rare big one. These trout were like none I’d ever seen, glowing reddish copper, deep and rich.
We had scaled to the banks of Summit Lake within two hours of seeing Farley. He was right; it was a fisherman’s paradise. We hooked ones on our first casts, and rarely thereafter did our spinners reach shore without a hit. However, a good percentage of the fish weren’t keepers, and so we made innumerable split-second decisions over what was worthy of the frying pan.
Early evening, Kirk primed the stove and I cleaned fish with my buck knife, their smell all over me, scales flaking onto my body and clothes like tiny contact lenses. We’d enjoyed shirts-off weather that gave us lots of color despite the sunscreen. Now, long shadows like jail bars crossed the lake thanks to rows of towering pines behind us. We fried our catch, and the meat was a succulent cherry pink, almost as vibrant in as the fish’s skin. I shaved the cooked meat off the skeleton with my camping spork in one big piece. Best trout I ever tasted.
Round Lake was two miles away, mostly downhill. We made it in an hour to an overlook with a level clearing, its perimeter marked by boulder rock, spruce trees and juniper. A perfect place to camp. We hung our food bags high on a tree limb and then pitched the tent. Then we marked our territory, wandering down the trail in the direction of the lake. It was the biggest lake yet, and although it appeared not too far away, with each ensuing step we realized we wouldn’t make it there and back before darkness set, so we rested our bones on a fallen log, white pine, its smooth bark barrel-thick.
“Beautiful,” was all Kirk said, staring down, and it warmed me to think what a kickass trip he’d been having. Before my eyes he’d become toned and fit, exuded confidence and transcended the need to medicate. Before, Kirk was never at ease. We’d met through a rec league softball team six years earlier. I played short and he second; we were a double-play combo. Even then he was full of angst and wouldn’t let loose at the tavern after ballgames. There were worries of work the following day or who’d pick up the tab. Or he kept blaming himself for some stupid play, not even showing for the celebration when we won the league trophy because he’d fucked up on the base paths and almost cost us the game. Stress just flowed from Kirk in waves. It likely weighed high on the list of reasons his wife bolted. Among other things.
“Nice ain’t it? I said, trying to enter Kirk’s trance. Dusk’s shadows grew darker and the lake looked more and more like a giant hole in the earth rather than a body of water.
I fished my daypack and located Farley’s roach and a book of matches. “Care to join me and finish this thing?”
“Okay,” Kirk said rather absently, as if he was in a late-night diner and I was a waitress asking if he’d like more coffee.
I sparked it and passed it over. We managed three tokes each before killing it off. Soon we were nicely buzzed. Me thinking about what I’d tell Kevin Verlaine, my agent, about my book in the works, Kirk drawing swishy lines in the dirt with a stick, thinking about who knows what.
After a while I felt aimlessly through my backpack for my flashlight. “Got binoculars?” Kirk asked. “Something’s down at the lake.”
“What do you mean, something?”
“An animal, I guess. In the water. See?”
Kirk pointed to the nearest bank which was hundreds of yards away. Light was fading too fast to make out anything, but the air was still and I could indeed hear sounds of splashing water.
Intensity etched in the furrows of his face, Kirk took the binoculars and scanned below as if he were a military commander surveying the battlefield. “Holy fuck!” he exclaimed.
“What?” I shouted, ready to strangle him with the attached strap that wrapped around his neck. “Probably a moose.”
“Bear, bear, bear,” he said, bouncing on his toes. “Pretty sure it’s a grizzly.”
Kirk, ashen-faced, handed the binoculars over for confirmation. My heart pounded and my eyes wouldn’t focus. “See it? See it?” Kirk asked excitedly, under his breath, as if the bear might hear us.
At that moment I saw something all right. Bursting through water near the shore was a refrigerator-sized grizzly bear, a lunker clenched in his teeth. It had the markings: blond-caramel fur, dish-shaped facial profile, pronounced shoulder hump. He reared back and swallowed the fish whole, then tossed his head north and south, east and west; and pounded the water’s surface with his powerful paws, spraying water in every direction.
Night was falling fast so I wasn’t sure if I’d seen a grizzly bear, an image from a wildlife documentary, or an ingrained amalgamation of all those photos Kirk had shown me from the Bear Attacks book. Whatever the case, I too panicked. “What the fuck are we gonna do?” I plunged my hand back into my daypack. “Where’s that goddamn flashlight?”
“No lights. We can’t attract the bear.”
I gazed at Kirk, my arms out in supplication. I must have looked like a POW, so distraught and helpless.
“SHIT! We smell like fried fish!” he said. “That thing can’t get a whiff.”
He motioned to follow him and we climbed back up the hill towards our campsite, our footprints light but quick, leaving us breathless. We cast glances back at the lake but, in gray surroundings with a wind combing its way up the hill, couldn’t make sight or sound of the furry monster below.
“He must be coming,” I said, hoping Kirk would contradict me, but he didn’t.
“Take off your clothes, Jon.”
I discarded my jersey t-shirt, then unzipped and lowered my jeans. The tighty whities stayed on, but my pants rested around my ankles and upon my boots. Kirk stripped, too. “What the hell are we doing?” I wanted to know.
“The bear won’t sniff us out if we’re smart,” Kirk said. He kept bending over, picking up leaves. “Rub them on your body. It masks the smell of the fish. Pine needles are best.”
“Are you crazy?”
“C’mon. It’s all in the book. It helps avert bear attacks.”
It must have made quite a sight: two grown men, light years from civilization, acting like cast members in a Shakespearean comedy in hopes of saving themselves from life’s natural forces. However, it did rid us of a cooked-trout odor. My nose detected simply a sappy pine and mulchy fragrance.
Naked, cradling our clothes under our arms like footballs, we pressed the clothes into the wide crack of a pyramid-shaped boulder fifty yards past the clearing, returning to camp by a sliver of moonlight, my bare feet pained by sharp stick ends and jagged rocks. We entered the tent, zipped it up, and wiggled into our sleeping bags.
“Now what?” I whispered. Even without his anxiety medication, Kirk was the calmer, more resourceful one. On many camping trips I’d launched heavy stones into the solar plexuses of black bears and laughed while doing it. But this was a grizzly; it was different. And my psyche had spiraled into an abyss from all those pictures in the Bear Attacks book and all the gory novel scenes I’d scripted in my head.
“Now we wait the bear out, get some sleep. Hopefully he’ll scram. If not…”
“We’ll be fucked.”
And so we lay there in the dark, a light wind ruffling the tent’s sides, but no sound of the lethal intruder. A minute turned to five, ten turned to thirty. I kept peeking at my watch, shading its face with my palm when illuminating it for a reading. My breathing had gone shallow, nearly non-existent, but Kirk’s had settled down, steady and deep. One hour turned into two. Three hours became four. Eventually, Kirk snored like an electric chainsaw and it was clear I’d have to fight for both our lives should the bear come calling.
Fear overtook me. Had Kirk’s Xanax been around I’d have devoured the entire bottle. My breathing remained as shallow as a Petri dish; my tongue dryer than iguana hide. My open eyes glimpsed faint moonlit shadows across the tent but nothing else.
Before our trip, Erica gave her second-grade class an impromptu course on backpacking, explaining how her new boyfriend was going to survive the Wyoming wilderness like a true mountain man. The class ate it up, and dizzied her with questions. Erica showed the kids where Wyoming was on the map, and plotted the general whereabouts of our trip and what we’d be doing. She promised that upon my return I’d tell them all about the trip, show pictures, answer more questions. Now, holding my breath for whatever fate awaited, I wondered if she’d spare her class the details if I met my demise. Or would a graphic account serve as a word of warning, ensuring her school kids avoided parks altogether, except maybe Fenway.
Imagining the grizzly steps away from ripping apart our tent, I pledged to phone loved ones the moment I arrived back in Boston, three days away that seemed a lifetime. I’d greet Erica at the airport and do everything but propose marriage. I’d tell my folks in South Carolina that it’s true what they say about life being short, so how about a visit? And I’d do the same for my sister in Springfield, my brother in Baltimore. I’d ring Sal and the gang, tell them to meet me at the bar, the drinks were on me. My agent Kevin would never have a more dedicated and appreciative author for a client. I’d blow kisses left and right to my Japanese fighting fish, Bingo and Yahtzee, and then seal my lips to their tank. And Dinky Webster, a mangy soul and neighbor who was hopefully feeding my fish their pinch a day, would get a big man hug, a big bear hug, as long as I survived what might be the real thing.
Those were my thoughts as the rustling wind lulled me into a dreamy passage and the next sounds I heard were those of morning songbirds as Kirk tapped me awake in the cold morning light. Not long after, we unzipped the tent fly and made our way to freedom.
* * *
When our flight arrived at Logan, Erica was waiting for us at the gate. She was dressed for doing laundry, lime-green velour pants and a pink cotton top, hair wadded up in a rubber band. But when our lips met I pulled her so tight I surprised her. After nearly a fortnight in the wild, her spearmint-gummed breath and the fresh fragrance of her skin cream and shampoo was like manna from heaven. “Missed me, did you?” she murmured in my ear.
She greeted Kirk with a handshake and asked how everything went.
“Amazing!” Kirk said, widening his eyes. “I’m a changed man.”
Erica gave me a quizzical look, and I told her, “You’ll hear all about it, believe me.”
But she wouldn’t hear it all. Kirk and I made a pact not to discuss our discovery that dawn morning at Round Lake. Nearly choreographed in tandem, we hiked down to the lake with baby steps, peering about carefully as if soldiers on a recon mission, the enemy lurking somewhere in the shadows. But our enemy, the bear, was nowhere to be seen, and when we arrived on the muddy bank, beside the depressed reeds where the animal had writhed menacingly hours earlier, it hit us.
“These prints….” Kirk had said, “They’re…”
“Moose. Told you…”
Oh wilderness! Kirk and I had been victimized by coincidence, bad timing, and judgment founded on Murphy’s Law. It would always remain our little secret.