The Day of Bear Shit, Wobbly Knees, and Getting Lost in the Woods

Hiking is great. I never thought I would say that until Mark pointed out to me that “hiking” is really just “walking.” I remind myself of that in certain situations. “I’m an excellent New York hiker. I can hike from one side of the city to the other!” But it usually doesn’t get me very far in the wilderness.

 

Mark is an avid hiker, camper, fisherman, etc. You’d think he was born of Grizzly Adams right in the middle of Yellowstone–not that he grew up in suburbs of Chicago and Wisconsin. I’m thankful to have him as a guide, except when I’m yammering about the discomfort of mosquitoes, the lack of French press coffee, or the general tendency of getting dirty while outside.

 

We decided to do a short hike and camping expedition on Cinco de Mayo this year in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. While I sat on google, looking at the different elements of scenery and getting excited about going out to see the “supermoon” in the wild, Mark was looking at hiking guides and maps. Looking at the campsites, I found an alarming note from the forestry service on one of them. I didn’t tell Mark about it. I figured I’d marinate it over in my mind, and eventually the answer would come to me. That lasted about 45 minutes, and while we were sitting and watching television, I asked him about it:

 

“Mark, why would a person tie a dead horse to a tree?”

“What?”

“Well, in the notes from the forestry service for that campsite, it said, ‘Do not tie horses to trees, dead or living.’ I can’t figure out why you’d tie a dead horse to a tree… Because of predators dragging them off?”

“They mean the TREE–dead or living TREES.”

“Oh… I guess that makes sense…”

 

I sat, dumbfounded that I could have thought otherwise. That I had been ruminating silently over dead horses tied up to trees for close to an hour before I knew what an idiot I was. I mean, I write for a living–one would think I could have discerned the comma usage. But that was before we even departed, and given my capacity for misunderstanding the world of nature (and sometimes even of commas), I expected (and always expect) some interesting times on our trip. I was not disappointed.

 

Usually, the problems with our excursions start in the car. Having spent the majority of my adult life in somewhat incapacitating fear of being a passenger in a vehicle, I’m not a pleasant person to ride with. I’m a harpy. “Slow dowwnnn, please!” “God, do you have to take EVERY turn so fast??!” I’ve become, over the years, the embodiment of my grandmother, whom I hate to drive down the block with because 5 mph can startle her. But, that’s the way it is, and I accept it more or less. Until we leave the house in the car, at least.

 

After 5 minutes on the road, I’m usually at a peak level of anxiety. If you can last out the first hour, I generally calm down enough to make it through 5-minute-long intervals between outbursts. It’s fun. Ask Mark. Regardless, we drove through the curvy, terror inducing mountain roads for a couple of hours before finding a suitable campsite by the trails. I was surprised there was absolutely no one there on a beautiful spring Saturday, but then I’m often astounded at how sparsely populated northern California is sometimes—making rural Arkansas appear like New Jersey. You can drive for hours in the National Forests or Wildlife areas in the mountains and see no cars at all. It just depends on where you go and when.

 

Our camping area was further down the mountain from the two we had thought of staying at. Those, we soon discovered, were beyond our reach—hemmed in by fallen trees and ice patches still solid from the mild winter. I was somewhat relieved, because I kept imagining Denali sliding on ice and falling off the side of a cliff. Still, we had to back down one of the roads—this one-lane gravel road with an incline you can’t imagine. Thankfully, of course, there were no cars for miles. Going downhill backward on a cliff edge over ice patches is something that even those not faint of heart in cars might balk at.

 

After successfully maneuvering backwards down part of the mountain, we drove back to a camp where we decided to stay. It was a horse camp, but thankfully, there were no dead horses tied up to the trees. We loosed the wild beasts from the backseat and began our hike. The dogs, and especially Denali, were exuberant and enjoying the freedom to run about and sniff everything. I kept saying that I was only going a short way on the hike, and then would likely come back to the car while Mark took the dogs further. But, wimp that I am, I hung on for some time.

 

The hike itself was quite lovely. It wasn’t too hard, and although the uphill parts taxed my aging self, I enjoyed it. We crossed many little mountain streams gushing toward a waterfall. The dogs frolicked. I was holding up the rear and trying to keep up, mostly. After about an hour or so, we stopped to take a break, and I decided to go back to the car. Mark was urging me to keep going another hour, but I was pretty much done. After all, I’d exerted myself at this point more than I do in most months, including the anxiety trip of being a passenger in the car. So we agreed to part ways, with Mark keeping the dogs and me traveling back alone. He gave me the bear spray to carry and asked if I remembered how to get back.

 

“What?”

“You know how to get back to the car, right? At that intersection, go straight across and that’s the path.”

“What intersection?”

“Where we saw the trail sign.”

“The what?”

“Just go straight across. If you get lost, go back to the intersection and wait for me.”

“Ok…”

 

I sincerely could not remember an intersection, but that’s part of the problem of holding up the rear of the group… and being a completely untrained hiker. Were this New York, I could have navigated. I would have remembered intersections. But here, I was just blindly following along, staring more at the trees than the path we were on. But I figured, and because he said it so plainly, that I would know what to do when I got there.

 

It was less than 5 minutes from Mark’s and my parting on the trail that I encountered the bear shit. I knew what it was, because neither of my dogs, big as they are, could possibly create that much excrement. It was a little runny, and it was steaming. STEAMING. We had passed this point on the trail not more than 15 minutes ago, and this shit was not there. And it was STEAMING. If I thought I was scared of hairpin curves in the car, I did not know what fear was. At that point, every hair on my freaking body was standing on end. Every “Man versus Wild” episode played simultaneously through my brain, and my knees almost buckled underneath me. I grabbed the bottle of bear spray and put my finger on the safety cap trigger. There was a GIANT BEAR somewhere within my immediate vicinity. And while my immediate reaction was losing all the color in my face and almost fainting, there was an inner voice that said, “WALK. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. WALK.” My knees, almost unable to comprehend, attempted forward motion. I looked, most likely, like some drunk with jake leg, stumbling from a bar at 3 a.m. My legs would literally not cooperate with my brain. And in this one particular case, my brain knew more than my legs.

 

In the moments that passed, I moved forward, but my head was on a 360-degree trajectory. I was looking behind me, in front of me, up the mountain, down the mountain. Anywhere that this giant bear might be—or any others, because now that I had been within moments of meeting one on the path, I was sure there were hundreds sitting in the bushes. Really, I did—or started doing—what I should have been doing all along: paying attention. Theorizing that being in the wild is similar to walking through a crime-laden Brooklyn ghetto, I understand this concept. But mostly just in the ghettoes, where keeping an eye behind you and an awareness of all goings on in your vicinity keeps you from being mugged by men. Not bears. Or cougars.

 

I thought so many thoughts in the next half-mile I can’t remember them all. I contemplated every different possibility for where the bear had come from and where it had gone. I worried about Mark, who had given me the only can of bear spray that I was now aiming at every snapping tree branch like a trigger-happy paranoid schizophrenic.

“At least he has the dogs,” I’d think. “Tenaya will fight to the death for him. Denali… well, Denali will run like mad and make things even worse. God… I hope they don’t cross that bear.”

 

And then, there it was: the intersection. I did remember being here, because I read the Bear Warning signs when we passed.

“Fuck. Go straight, he says… There are two straights. The straight that goes left and the straight that goes right. Which ‘straight ahead’ did he mean?”

 

So, wheeling around in every direction, arm extended with the bear spray ready to shoot, I decided the “right straight” option. It went ok for a few minutes, until I started to doubt myself. I saw a log off the path that I thought I’d seen from a different angle before. Maybe it really was the left-straight path. So I turned around, went back to the intersection, which incidentally had 5 different paths in each angle, and rethought my situation. I didn’t mind being at the crossroads, because at least I could see in every direction in case a bear or lion were coming for me, so long as I kept turning in a slow circle. But then, that didn’t help my sense of direction much, so I decided to go on the other path and see if that were right.

 

All this while, nature kept being nature. Twigs would snap and I would jump from my skin, aiming wildly in the direction of the sound. Birds, deer, hell—even butterflies were on the verge of being blasted with cayenne pepper (or whatever is in bear spray) at every second. And I had already decided that I would not feel guilty if I shot Bambi with the spray by mistake. At this point, I was Ted Nugent, believing wholeheartedly in a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. I’d shoot a forest ranger, but I wouldn’t care. At least I would not be eaten by a bear.

 

On the second path I chose, nothing seemed familiar, but against all judgment whatsoever, I kept going. Really, I just wanted to put as much distance between me and the bear shit as possible. Although it seemed I was going the wrong way, and uphill, it was still further from the bear shit. I left Mark on the path because I was tired. Now I was on an uphill climb that I did not remember, but I couldn’t stop. Finally, near the complete end of exhaustion, I sat down in the middle of the road, took off my jacket because I was covered in sweat, and looked around me. This was decidedly not the path we had been on. But at this point, I was so worn out I felt like the Donner Party and was willing to sacrifice myself to the bear just to stop moving. What finally got me up was a stump in the woods that looked exactly like a wolf stalking me. We don’t even have wolves in California (except maybe one), and I own a part-wolf dog. I love wolves. But at this point, feeling like an injured and easy prey for almost anything, I was not taking chances. Yes, it was a stump, but that stump got me moving again. I thank that stump.

 

At least walking back to the intersection was all downhill, even if it were closer to the bear shit. My mind had cleared somewhat, and I realized that this was the best thing to do. Mark would either be coming back to that point by now, or he would get to the car and realize that I was lost. I also had the keys, though they did me little good. He had the headlamp, and I worried that I’d be lost and it would get dark. Then, I would be easy prey.

 

Fortunately, Mark met me at the intersection just as I had hoped.

“Did you see any bears?” he asked.

“OH MY GOD. I’m so happy to see you! No, but I saw the shit and I’ve been lost and…” I didn’t shut up for hours. We walked back to camp and shared our tales. It was the best hike I’ve ever been on. It was like being in an action movie—or better yet, a well-made drama. Every human emotion was encompassed in a period of 2 hours, and afterward, I felt cathartic. I at least felt like I’d had a near-brush with a big bear, and I realized that I hadn’t felt that much adrenalin in ages. Not even in the car.

 

Our trip was not over, but more on the rest in another post. Hiking: what a fun activity. Bear shit and all.

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1 Comment

  1. […] As promised, I will now complete the story of my Grand Hiking Adventure, first begun here. […]


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