I hugged a tree today. It was a giant, old ponderosa pine with a burn scar at the base, peeling, multi-hued bark, and bear scratches. The branches, way up above me, were loaded with neon-green lichens that glowed against the blue sky and the billowing thunderclouds.
A couple of days ago I camped on a forest service road above the Cascade River. As I followed the river back to the highway a shiny black bear strolled into the road ahead of me. His belly was so big that his legs looked short and only a tiny curve of his ears stood above the great, round head. He stopped broadside to me; like a child crossing the road, he looked to his right and then to his left. He hesitated when he saw me then bolted over the side of the road, down the bank to the river. Gone.
Yesterday I saw a mama bear with a second-year cub. I heard them all afternoon on the slope above the camper, branches breaking, leaves rustling, now and then chuffing. Finally, after several hours, a scruffy-looking, milk chocolate-colored cub rambled into sight. He sauntered past, only 60 feet from the camper, confident in his youthful long-legged-ness. A minute or so later, the dark chocolate-colored mama bear followed. Apparently, they were on a mission, neither so much as looked at the camper.
Today, there was the bear scratching-tree. It’s been years since I last saw a bear; now three bears and a bear tree in three days. What gives?
Two weeks later: I dreamed about grizzly bears last night. I camped on a slope in a sea of sagebrush with a 360º view of hills and a handful of rocky peaks standing above the rim. I awoke just before moonrise while the sky was still awash with stars, the Milky Way a full arc across the sky. Big Bear, Ursa major, was vivid. When I returned to sleep I dreamed of a grizzly sow with two cubs. I’m not sure what happened but, in the end, the sow had me pinned and was roaring with a mouthful of teeth in my face. I know not to run from a grizzly; it is better to play dead. Instead, I looked at the fury in her face and the power in her jaw with awe and I invited her to lunch. Not on me, obviously, but, you know, a civilized sit-down lunch with the ladies, sort of thing.
Bears symbolize introspection. The bears had no agenda for me, of course; they were just doing their own bear things. Nonetheless, I am on The Road not Taken Enough, that includes the mental and emotional journeys that tend to be neglected and avoided. Taking time out of my regularly scheduled life to reflect on what was, what is, and what will be, seems like the ultimate in introspection. I may, like a child or a bear crossing the road, look right, look left, and bolt, but I don’t think so. Not this time. You definitely don’t recant once you have invited a grizzly bear to lunch.
Desperately replacing $5,000 worth of stuff stolen out of your truck … and then selling your house and giving everything away eight months later.
Winter wrens are the tiniest little forest birds yet they have a huge, crazy-long song. They throw their heads back and put their whole body, heart, and soul into each note. They barely weigh a third of an ounce (~9g) but their song resonates throughout the deep forest.
I doubt any human has as much heart or soul as a winter wren, but being about 7,000 times heavier, I hope to make that up through sheer mass.
I want to sing like a winter wren.
A few weeks ago in a random historic-site parking lot in far-flung western Colorado I met a 60-something woman from Atlanta. “You’re traveling alone? Well good for you. I always wanted to do that but I just don’t have the courage. Some day I will. You’ve never had any problems?”
This is a common question when people see me alone. A few variables in wording, some more direct language about scary people and places to avoid, but the sentiment is the same.
I’ve worked alone in many remote places over the years. I have occasionally stepped out of sight when I felt unsure about what was coming my way. I’m more often worried about destroying an axle, not finding my way out of a random maze of canyons, or falling off a cliff than about other people.
A few years ago while traveling in Scotland with an old friend, we were ready to stop for the night; we needed food, Scotch whisky, and a place to stay. We found a pub with a few rooms for let on the second floor but they were already full for the night.
Explaining that we would like to have dinner and a wee dram or two of whisky, we asked for a recommendation on a B&B within walking distance. Oh, well, sit, eat, we’ll call around and see what we can find.
We sat, we drank, we ate.
“So, I found a place for you to stay,” the owner, a rather burly Scotsman, told us. “At ten o’clock I’ll take you out back to the walking bridge over the river. You can take your bags across with you; a man will meet you on the other side with his car, and take you to his B&B for the night.”
My friend and I looked at each other. In the US, this is a set up for an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
He continued, “There’s only one problem.”
We looked at each other again, clearly thinking the same thing: there’s only one problem with a man transferring two American women across a Scottish river to another unknown man in the middle of the night?
“The breakfast is vegetarian.”
Of course, we should have thought of that. A vegetarian breakfast could be a problem; those tempeh sausages just don’t set well with many.
Bad things can happen to men and women. Sometimes they happen in remote places, sometimes not, occasionally to people traveling alone, sometimes not. Obviously, some places are inherently more dangerous, more restrictive, or more stressful. Being open to situations as they unfold and using common sense go a long way toward staying safe.
Every culture, every country, has its idea of what is safe and what is acceptable for women to do. Pushing the envelope with vegetarian sausage is not exactly ground breaking. But being able to travel freely, especially in your own country and specifically in one that prides itself on individual freedom, must not be a privilege.
I am not completely foolhardy. I carry bear spray, not mace but real bear spray, as in, for grizzly bears. I keep it in the truck and take it into the tent/camper with me each night.
Last summer while camping alone in Oklahoma I had the sudden thought that I should check the new canister. It was already late and dark and I was cozy in my tent but had some odd feeling that made me want to be sure it was good to go. Apparently, it was more than good to go. Before I fully removed the glow-in-the-dark safety clip the canister discharged, just a small blast, in the tent.
The tent is pretty roomy for one person – it is, after all, a 2-3-person tent. But no tent of any size is sufficient to escape bear spray. I closed my eyes and gulped spray-free air as soon as I heard the spray escape. Unzipping the tent and staggering outside I could feel the pepper burning into my nose and eyes. Cursing, and laughing at my own stupidity (once again!), with my eyes still shut I wandered the 50 meters to the truck, found the spare key, unlocked the door, found the water containers, and tipping my head sideways, poured two gallons of water across my face.
Eventually I was able to breath freely again and my eyes stopped burning and watering but the tent took much longer to air (think: weeks) and every time I turned in my sleeping bag a little puff of pepper spray would hit me. There is still a cayenne-red stain on the tent wall.
Now, when I am asked about camping alone I think of this incident. The fears we may have about stepping into the world like this are mostly unfounded. And, I am here to tell you: we are mostly our own worst enemies.