What did it mean to say “as it’s beautiful?”

I’d heard a woman’s voice murmur behind me in a language I vaguely remembered.“Comme c’est beau,” she’d said.Her words allowed me to forget for a moment that we were at an Arizona pancake breakfast and that no one else at the campground’s popular morning cookout had understood her.Only I looked up from my plate of shortstacks.

There lay before us a petrified tree trunk, an ancient, formless hunk of wood I wouldn’t have labeled “beau” at all or in any form.At its base, a plaque proclaimed its age at a hundred million years, with the rings to prove it.

As I sat applying more maple syrup pretending that’s what cowboys used to do, language had suddenly caught up with me.I understood only then that, after all these achingly beau travels through the United States, I’d be returning to the same country she would.Having wandered this far west, all the way to a painted desert and a petrified national forest, I’d managed to overlook the fact that I was tourist.

To the Water

By Justin Daugherty

Essay

1.

The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.

At the beginning of Return of the Jedi, it’s like Luke Skywalker’s gone mad. He’s swinging that lightsaber around left and right, slicing here, dicing there–he’s killing up a storm with that thing!

Jabba’s friends and employees have no chance because–finally–Luke is a man!

He started out with a whiny voice, a need to get power converters at Tosche station, and absolutely no lightsaber. My how things change during the course of a trilogy.

Leave No Trace

By Slade Ham

Humor

We piled into two vehicles, loaded down with supplies and towing a trailer full of canoes. Six of us were headed across the state of Texas to spend a week paddling through Boquillas Canyon, hopping across rocks, and sleeping under the stars.

It was an eclectic group. I was traveling with two former Boy Scouts, a pothead, his girlfriend, and a hippie type named Allison. Allison was a friend of a friend. Formerly a waitress, she had just recently returned from a three month stint living in a forest. “Oh cool,” I said. “You stayed with a friend who has a house in the woods?”

“No. I actually lived in a forest,” she replied.

“Like a squirrel?”

“No. Like a person, just without a house.”

“So, like a squirrel.” I was very confused.

I was then given the canned anarchist speech about the shackles of societal life and the evils of government in general. I started to comment on the concept of social contract, but was met with the glazed-over eyes of someone that clearly had no interest in a real conversation. “All I know is that I don’t want to work anymore,” she said. “I just want to go back and live in Florida with the rest of the Rainbow Family.”

To be more specific, she meant The Rainbow Family of Living Light. It’s basically nothing more than a large group of homeless gypsies; think Burning Man without the burning man. In their own egalitarian way, they have removed any sense of lower, upper, and middle class, and instead all just choose to live in poverty. They build tent cities in the middle of our national forests, filled with beggars and runaways and, amazingly enough, families with children.

“Children?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And some of the children were so bad. It was unbelievable. One time a six year old called me a ‘fucking idiot’. At six!”

“Well, he was dragged into the woods to live with crazy people. I can see how he might have seen you that way. You’re a grown woman that lives in a forest.”

* * *

After ten hours on the road and a few hours of uncomfortable napping, we finally pushed the canoes into the current of the Rio Grande. Emery was the trip’s leader. He had been a Boy Scout for as long as they will let you be a Boy Scout and had brought another formerly dedicated Scout friend with him. Though I have grown to love the outdoors in my adult life, I never did any of that type of thing in my youth. I was a baseball and soccer player. I couldn’t build a fire with a flamethrower.

In Scouts they teach you a few core ideals. In addition to things like doing your best and being prepared, Scouts are taught to leave no trace when exploring our nation’s wilderness. This was a tradition that was briefly mentioned to me and one I agreed to casually.

“It’s a Leave No Trace trip,” Emery said to me over drinks a few days before we left. “You cool with that?”

“Sure,” I replied, and then took another shot of Jameson. I only admit to agreeing now because he told me that I did. Still, “no trace” sounded somewhat simple to me. We won’t leave any trash. Yay, look. No trace.

What I did not grasp was the fact that they intended to leave nothing whatsoever. Trash could not be burned; it had to be packed out. If you had to pee, you had to walk 200 feet away from the river and find a spot devoid of plant life. Fires had to be contained, and the ashes brought with us when we left. I couldn’t imagine being in possession of a sack of ashes. “What’s in the bag?” someone might ask.

“A phoenix,” I would be forced to reply.

There could be no leftover food either. If it was prepared, it must be eaten. I was having difficulty by the first night. “I’m not eating your stupid fucking pudding, Emery!”

“You have to. We all have to do our part. Those are the rules.”

“Those are your rules. I’m going to dump it in the river, Emery. I am. Watch me.”

“Dude, that’s not cool.”

“No. What’s not cool is making ten cups of vanilla pudding for six people that don’t like fucking pudding. This is gay.”

“Give it to me then,” Allison chimed in. “I’ll eat some of it.”

“Of course you will,” I fired back. “You’ve been homeless for the last three months.” We were not off to a good start, and there were still four days ahead of us.

* * *

Boquillas Canyon cuts its way through Big Bend National Park, winding some twenty miles as it separates Texas from Mexico. As you approach the canyon, its walls tower ahead of you. The rocky ledges are home to mules and semi-wild horses, as well as what the guidebook refers to as “both friendly and not-so-friendly Mexicans”. That is a direct quote.

The friendlier ones made our trip amazing. As our canoes drifted along the lazy river current, all sorts of characters surfaced. It was a very convincing recreation of Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but with less drinking pirates and more drunk Mexicans. Instead of “yo ho ho” a man wrapped in a poncho sang “ay ay ay,” and then peeled off the next few verses of Cielito Lindo. The sun hovered unthreateningly in a brilliant blue sky and for a moment I forgot that I wanted to drown the hippie girl.

The most wonderful part about camping for me has always been the sky at night. My fascination with the massive expanse of outer space is always amplified when I am removed from the constant glow of city lights. In the back country, the sky begins to resemble a ceiling. You don’t feel like you’re outside at all, but instead lying underneath some richly gilded canopy. The longer you stare at the sky, the more stars appear, and before long you almost become hypnotized.

After eating an entire gallon of lasagna against my will, I would pull my bag out of my tent and find a secluded spot away from everyone in which to gaze out into infinity. Sometimes at dusk bats would flit through the dimming sky, capturing the orange of the firelight on their wings and lighting up just briefly before fading away again. The water trickled and rushed off to one side of me and lured me to sleep in the perfect night air.

Each morning found us breaking down our campsite and piling everything back into the canoes. I was sharing paddling duties on mine with another of the former Boy Scouts named Walt. Walt proved to be an exceptional canoe mate and eventually my co-pilot on our trip back home, but he also was in possession of a lot of useless knowledge. He created crossword puzzles in his spare time and had thus come into contact with several facts that he was more than happy to share with anyone that had ears.

When Allison turned down seconds after a meal one night, she said, “I’m not used to eating this much. I usually eat like a bird.”

Walt saw an opening. “You know, technically a bird can eat more than half its body weight in a single day, which is due to its high rate of metabolism and the amount of energy it takes to fly. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that you ate the weight of a bird instead of like a bird. Some birds –”

“Walt?” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up, Walt.”

* * *

We carried on like this the entire week. Emery would prepare insane portions of food for the six of us, and then continue to dump it onto our plates until it was gone. Walt could explain the food’s origins. Allison thought it would be better if we grew it organically like they did in the forest. “Well, we grew the mushrooms and the pot,” she said. “We would beg or dumpster dive for the rest.”

The other tagalong on our journey was Von, and Von brought his girlfriend Ashley. Von was, unknown to me at the time, bringing a plastic container full of hash on the trip. His little foil pipe and Tupperware box made their appearance around the fire every night, unnoticed by me because I was busy fighting with his girlfriend, who stood in solidarity with Allison in their hatred for all things civilized. “Stupid fucking drug laws,” she said. “We live in a country that is set up to keep us down. Pot is not dangerous at all but the government hasn’t found a way to make money off of it yet so they keep it illegal. It’s all run by corporations and I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”

“What about things like schools and roads? You drive, right?” I asked.

“Only because I have to. There should be no laws at all, but the government should still have to take care of our basic needs.”

“Are you actually listening to your own words?” I tried.

“Whatever. I would happily live in the forest with you, Allison.”

“You know there are some trees right over there,” I said, pointing a mile off into the distance. “You two could go practice.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Ashley said.

“I know. But you’re a Communist.”

Their desire to take more than they gave weaved its way into our daily regimen. They were both conveniently absent when it came time to break down our camp in the morning, or to set up at night. They both sat in the front of their respective canoes and pretended to paddle, somehow still finding a way to point out that they thought my canoe was lighter than theirs.

“He’s not working as hard as us!” they yelled.

“What? How can I work less than zero?” I yelled back. “It’s impossible. I can’t negative paddle. Even if I were paddling backwards, I would still be doing more work.”

Had Von not been high, he might have felt the need to defend her. As it stood though, I just fell into synch with Walt’s paddling, and we drifted out ahead and away from them. Walt’s voice appeared behind me, “You know that in the Bushi region of the Congo women aren’t even allowed to speak at all in public and for that matter –“

“Hey, Walt?”

“Yeah?’

“Shut up, Walt.”

Despite my career standing in front of massive groups of people, I am not a social creature. I prefer isolation and time alone. I happily contribute my share to any group effort, but all in all, I am not a fan of communal living. I took every chance I could to scramble off amongst the boulders and cliffs along the way, losing myself in the sand and shadow along the river’s edge. It was cathartic and freeing, regardless of the tension between me and the girls on the trip. Night after night, a glimmering strip of sky hung between the canyon walls, daring me to reach up and run my fingers through the starlight. It was remarkable.

* * *

We packed up the trucks after the last day in the back country. Loaded down with equipment and canoes, we began the long trek home. We had left the river in immaculate condition, in some places even cleaner than when we had arrived. We were good little Scouts, all of us. No trace at all. Emery offered to drive first, and with Allison and Walt in the other vehicle, Tom and Ashley climbed in behind me. “I really have to pee,” I heard Ashley say as I drifted to sleep in the passenger seat.

“Too late now,” Emery told her. “You’ll have to wait until we stop.”

Sometime later, I heard a voice I didn’t quite recognize. How long had I been asleep? I cracked an eye open to see the fuzzy outline of a militant looking Border Patrol agent standing at the driver’s side window. I pulled myself up straight in my chair.

If Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglourious Basterds had a Latin cousin, I’d found him. Nothing was out of place on this man’s uniform. It was spotless and polished, and he carried one leather glove that he rhythmically slapped against his open hand. His accent was thick and cocky, but he still looked like a cartoon Mexican Nazi.

“I need zee four of you to step out of zee vehicle,” he said. We all complied, and then watched as Walt and Allison drove past us and on down the interstate. Certainly Walt was telling her all about the history of the United States border with Mexico, while she inquired about the right to live in the deserts on the other side of the Rio Grande.

“Zee reason I have detained you is because our dog has detected, how you say, zee smell of drugs in your vehicle. Now, vee can do this zee easy vay, or I can have my people take your entire car apart and go through all of zee contents until vee find vat vee are looking for.”

Ashley was doubled over as he spoke. “Sir, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“I’m so sorry. You vill have to vait until vee have sorted this out.” He smacked his gloved and paced in front of us, trying to determine who was responsible. His apathy to her predicament was obvious.

So Ashley peed on herself.

The puddle widened at her feet while she stood as stoically as she could. “Vat exactly are you doing?” the Agent asked.

“I told you I had to go,” she said.

“But zat is crazy, to just, how you say, go on your pants like zat?” As he spoke, I sat down on the ground. I was laughing uncontrollably. He smacked his glove again as he walked over to me. “Is it you? Are you on zee drugs? Is zat vie you are laughing like zat?”

I was dying. I gasped for air as I tried to find words. “She… I mean, I. No… you. Pee. Everywhere. Stop. I can’t… breathe.” I cackled like a maniac as I rolled over onto my back.

“It’s mine,” Von said suddenly, possibly because his girlfriend was soaking wet. “They didn’t know anything about it.” It was a respectable move, and the truth was that no one did know he had carried his stash with him this whole time. I assumed he had finished it long ago, and even if he hadn’t that he would have ditched it before we got to a border check station.

“Vell,” said the Agent, “Vee vill have to put you in, how you say, zee holding cell until vee get zee sheriff on zee phone. Zee rest of you, come vith me.”

We were escorted into the station and held while they went through the car. Von sat in a cell in another room while Ashley, now in a fresh pair of clothes, continued to complain. “This is the problem, man. Stupid fucking laws like this. That’s why I don’t want to live here anymore. See?”

“I totally agree with you,” I said. “This is a stupid law. You know what else is stupid? Bringing drugs through a Border Patrol station. And guess what? The minute they let us go, I’m leaving him here.”

“It was pretty dumb,” Emery said, cutting his eyes at her. “And you peed on yourself. Don’t forget about that. That was awesome.”

We sat there for five hours until Von was taken to jail by the Sheriff and we were released. With no cell phone service, we pulled into the city of Marathon, Texas, proud population of 600. There was only one business open and it was a bar. Walt and Allison were sitting inside as we walked in. Apparently they had befriended the bar owner who had offered them dinner and arranged for them to stay at the bed and breakfast across the street.

“I think I might just stay here for good,” said Allison. “They have an organic garden in town where I can grow things and there is a hostel where I can live.”

“You’re just going to move here after five hours?” I asked.

“I think so. Where’s Von?”

Emery answered her. “We can’t get him out until morning, so I guess we’re just going to stay here until then.”

I, however, was not. “I’m driving, Walt. Give me the keys.”

“Shouldn’t we –“

“Walt?”

“I know. I’ll shut up.”

It was almost midnight when I pulled the trailer full of canoes away from the curb. Walt was asleep in the passenger seat, drunk and snoring, and as the lone light in Marathon faded behind us, I couldn’t help but smile a little bit. It really was like we were never there.

Emery made it back with Ashley and Von a day later, and aside from dropping off a gypsy girl to live in West Texas, we left no trace that we had even passed through the area at all.


It was borderline impossible to pry myself out of bed.  I sleep in a ridiculous pile of blankets and pillows spread across an illegally comfortable mattress.  The prospects of coffee and accomplishment normally get me up and moving somewhere before noon on a regular day, but today was tough.  Today it was cold.

Don’t misunderstand; I prefer to sleep in the cold.  I’m that guy.  I keep my AC at home set on sixty-seven year round and I crank the hotel thermostat down when I’m on the road.  I cannot bear to sleep when it’s hot.  Some people can, and I don’t understand them.  Only rarely do I find myself in the charge of these mysterious Heat People; a random friend or relative whose home I’m crashing for the night, a person who lives blissfully in an incubator.  I’m never ungrateful for their hospitality no matter how miserably I get through the night.  I will simply toss and turn in silence, dripping sweat and lying on top of the blankets until morning comes and I can walk outside to cool off under the sweltering Texas summer sun.

Who lives like that?  Maybe these people grew up on a cul-de-sac in southern Hell and maybe their parents made them take naps in the oven as toddlers, but my body chemistry can’t function in that environment.  There should be some sort of compromise so that everyone is comfortable.  For instance, I’ll set the temperature to 70 degrees in your house, and then you can go sleep in the clothes dryer.

Despite my usual love for the cold though, even I have my limits.  I can only handle it as long I have an out.  Mornings are fine because I can crawl out from underneath the covers, turn the heater on, jump in a hot shower, and walk out to a warm room.  When I am put into the constant cold though, I whine like a little girl.  I spent one rebellious January night a decade or so ago camping with a friend of mine in temperatures that dipped down somewhere around Taylor Swift’s age.  It was a horrible night compounded by the realization that the morning wouldn’t bring any respite.  I was one big frozen complaint.  That knowledge has prompted me to buy a zero degree rated sleeping bag in the off chance I’m ever faced with a similar situation.

Last night I pulled that bag out again.  I came home from a gig in Oklahoma to find that the heater in my house had committed suicide.  Not that the winter’s here are insufferable by any means, but the past week has consistently hovered in the forties and the massive windows in my bedroom do very little to help with insulation.  I fell asleep under a mountain of blankets and awoke to see my breath escaping, cloud-like, from my mouth.  I buried myself beneath the covers to combat my fear that I would freeze instantly, like a combination lock sprayed with liquid nitrogen.  Hopefully, I thought to myself, that sort of thing only happens in the movies.

Eventually I talked myself into facing the icy air.  There were certainly solutions waiting for me out there in that frozen, waking world.  I had things to do and I needed to figure out a way to raise the temperature.  I called Home Depot to see if they had a space heater but they informed me that those were “seasonal” down here.  This is Texas and apparently winter already happened here on January 8th.   I missed it.

So now I’m up.  I’m huddled at my desk wearing three t-shirts and a brown hooded sweatshirt that makes me look like a shivering little Jedi or a really tall Jawa.  Feel free to choose whichever Star Wars metaphor makes you feel the happiest.  I am confronted with the ugly reality that I wouldn’t have survived in a pre-technological society.

The American frontier would probably have pushed me somewhere closer to Mexico, where I would have happily fought for independence from Spain in exchange for the promise of more comfortable temperatures.  My ability to get through the day should not ride on whether or not some piece of climate controlling equipment decided to commit seppuku.  If 2012 thrusts us into a post-apocalyptic landscape, I can only hope that I’m truly enough of a forward thinker to have booked myself for a show in Hawaii on December 20.

The trip was my roommate Jason’s idea. Six days and five nights hiking around the John Muir wilderness reserve of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his old high school friend Jared, making camp at a different lake every evening. The summer was winding down like a Victorian clock, and with only two weeks left until school started up again I’d yet to do anything remarkable other than fill my bottom desk drawer with increasingly mediocre short story drafts. I was between girlfriends, out of ideas, and bored. So I said sure.

I hadn’t been camping in years, but all the gear from my days as a Boy Scout was still in serviceable shape, so within two days we were cruising north on the 395, the three of us and our packs wedged into Jason’s tiny Geo Metro. The drive took hours, and as we climbed from the southern chaparral into the alpine slopes we passed through towns with names like Lone Pine and Independence, their welcome signs advertising populations measuring in the hundreds and the last cold Coca-Cola for X amount of miles.

It was early evening by the time we arrived, so we slept at a campsite near the trail head. In the morning Jason and I went over to the closest ranger station to check in his car and give them our itinerary. The ranger handed us a copy of the various camping rules, then asked if we wanted to rent a bear canister. “We recommend it for everyone this time of year,” she said. “The bears are going to be hibernating soon, so they’re getting pretty aggressive about food, and they don’t have a problem going into your tent to get it.” She pointed to a corkboard on the wall festooned with photographs of just such damage: shredded tents, torn-open backpacks and cars that had been ripped into. Jason and I took one look and agreed without argument to paying a week’s rental fee on a canister.

*****

Our first two days were calm and quiet. After an initial bit of effort we found our mountain legs and settled in to a light, easy pace. We chatted a bit from time to time, but were mostly content to hike in silence, stopping every now and then for a snack or a photograph or to pass water behind a tree. There had been some pre-seasonal snow earlier in the week, and small patches of it were visible on the peaks and hills around us as we followed the trail through thickets of lodgepole pine forest and small subalpine meadows. In the evenings we made camp next to lakes like sheets of glass; I would assemble the fire while Jason and Jared erected the tent, and we’d cook our dinners and make small talk.

Once the sun went down it was so cold we could feel it even through the double layers of long johns and flannel under our jackets, so we kept the fire burning as long as we could. I’d brought a copy of Call of the Wild with me to read and a notebook to jot down any observations and story ideas in. Jason had a harmonica, but he didn’t play much; though no one ever openly said it, we wanted to be able to hear if anything came upon us out of the night.

While the California grizzly is sadly extinct, there are still plenty of American Black Bears calling the mountainous areas of the state home. Despite being smaller than the grizzly, the black bear is still strong enough to kill a full-grown elk with a single paw swipe, though people I knew who’d grown up around them described them as shy trash can-raiding nuisances that generally avoided direct contact with people. I’d never seen a bear in the wild, and unlike my cohorts, I desperately wanted to.

City-boy Jared, less experienced with the wilderness than Jason or myself, listened with a certain quiet dread as Jason and I went over the common wisdom for dealing with a bear encounter. Don’t run, because they’ll think you’re prey and chase you. Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample. Don’t try to climb a tree, because the smaller bears are pretty good climbers in their own right, and the bigger ones might just push the whole tree over—assuming you managed to climb out of paw reach to begin with. In the light of the campfire there was a peculiar gray shade to Jared’s face. “I’m sure as shit not going to just stand there,” he said.

“I heard that you’re supposed to throw rocks,” Jason told him. “Wave your hands in the air, jump up and down, scream and shout. Makes you seem bigger and more dangerous.”

“You made that up.”

“No, he’s right,” I said. “They taught us that in Scouts.”

Jared looked back and forth between the two of us. “Tell you what,” he said, “while you two distract the bear by jumping around like a couple of crazy people, I’m going to run. No hard feelings however it turns out, all right?”

Fortunately for Jared there were no bears to be seen, but there was plenty of bear sign, mostly in the form of claw marks scratched into trees around our campsites. None of them looked fresh, but we weren’t taking any chances in getting raided. After dinner we’d seal all of the food into the bear canister, then suspend it as high as possible in a tree a good thirty feet or so from camp; to get it down, one of us had to be hoisted up on the shoulders of the other two. One morning we found an adventurous raccoon perched on it, trying his damndest to get inside. When Jared stuck his head out of the tent and shouted “Hey!” it shimmied up the rope like a chubby trapeze artist and disappeared into the branches. There were dirty little paw prints on our packs where he’d tried to get into them, too.

There were plenty of other animals about as well, always floating around the edges of the environment like a shadow in the corner of your eye: deer grazing at the far end of a small meadow; golden eagles soaring high overhead, diving occasionally to snatch up some unseen rabbit or pika; brave fat-cheeked squirrels that ran right up to us during our meal breaks, hoping to score a nibble of trail mix. While crossing through a rocky pass between two peaks one afternoon a large male Bighorn Sheep wandered out into the trail in front of us, his horns full and curved and his coat already showing signs of winter shagginess. He eyed us with wary curiosity for a moment before scampering up the granite-encrusted hillside.

****

Day three was the roughest of the trip. A mountain stood between us and the location of our next campsite, and to get there we had to climb it. At 10, 800 feet above sea level it was both the highest point charted out on our expedition, and the halfway point of our course. For two days we’d been heading southwest, and the plan was to make camp after descending the far side and then take another path northeast, forming a circuit back to our original trail head.

Even with a sunrise start it took us about seven hours to make the ascent, following a hardscrabble trail of gravel and dust up an unending series of switchbacks. It was earth that had never felt the touch of machine, only hoof, paw, and boot. Our path was so narrow we had no choice but to hike in a single-file line, and we were forced to off it onto the rocks when a rider with a mule train rounded the corner higher up on the trail.  He could’ve ridden right out of my Jack London book, with his sun-weathered face and the gear strapped to the backs of his pack animals. As he passed he gave us a tip of his hat and a “Much obliged.”

We were exhausted and blistered by the time we reached the pass near the summit, but is was worth it. The view from the top remains simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, all the valleys and forests painted out on the mountains below. The lake we’d spent the previous night at, so large and deep and cool, looked like a pond.

We took our time enjoying it, eating lunch and tending to our sore feet before heading back down the southern slope on legs made of rubber. Fortunately, our descent was nowhere near as steep or as long, and we made camp well before nightfall.

We were all pretty beat at that point, and after some time consulting the map we arrived at a conclusion: instead of pressing on the next morning we would stay in camp for the day so to rest and recover, maybe explore the woods a bit. At a decent pace we could still keep to our original schedule, and if not, we had enough food between the three of us and could stand to be out in the wild for an extra day or so.

It was windy and cold in that little gully between the mountains, and we didn’t have the energy to gather enough wood to keep the fire burning beyond our dinner needs, so it was barely past sundown before we were zipped up in our sleeping bags, watching our breath curlicue about the air inside the tent.

The wind only got worse in the night, and I woke up several times to the rustle of tarp and tent fabric. The trees creaked and groaned, and the occasional wayward pine cone dive-bombed onto the tent’s roof. I woke up at one point in pitch darkness, vaguely certain in my semi-fugue state that something was moving through the camp. Probably just the damn raccoons again, I remember thinking. I rolled back over, trying to get back to sleep.

There was a noise from just outside the tent, mere inches from my head, clear enough even to be heard over the bustling wind: chuff-SNORT

And again: chuff-chuff-SNORT

I was suddenly wide awake. There was a viewing flap sewn into the wall of the tent above me, but I did not want to move enough to look out. I did not want to move at all.

Next to me I felt Jason stir in his bag. “Is that–” he started to say, and I cut him off with a “shhhh!” hissed out between clenched teeth. My mind was jackrabbiting, trying to think if there was a pouch of jerky or an apple or some other bit of food inside the tent we’d forgotten to seal in the canister, something that might be attracting animal attention. We hadn’t bathed or really bothered with much personal hygiene for three days; maybe we smelled like prey.

I wanted to see a wild bear, but not while it was ripping its way into my tent.

For what seemed like hours I listened to whatever was outside shuffling around our camp. As a child I’d once seen a huge stuffed black bear large enough to rival a grizzly in a museum, mounted in a standing position, snout perpetually pulled back in the bloody rictus of a snarl. In my mind it was this animal knocking around our packs and cooking gear, looking for leftovers. I was rigid with tension, ready to bolt the moment claw or fang penetrated nylon.

I considered my few options if it did discover us, and came up with a plan: my knife, compass, and matches were in pouches on my belt, and my belt was coiled in one of the boots placed at the foot of my sleeping bag. Our camp was maybe thirty feet from the water’s edge. If the bear came into the tent, I would grab my boots and dash for the lake. A bear might be able to outrun me on land, but I’ve been in and around large bodies of water since I was an infant, and was willing to bet it couldn’t outswim me. Even in their depreciated state my wilderness survival skills could probably keep me alive until I could make my way to a ranger station along the trail. Also, a potential death by hypothermia seemed favorable to being eaten. While it would have sucked to abandon the guys, as Jared said, no hard feelings, however it turns out.

Next to me, Jason was wide awake, his body held too still to be asleep–though Jared, it turned out, slept blissfully through the entire night.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I did—though I don’t think “sleep” is really the accurate term; more likely my body could no longer stand the constant adrenaline stimulus and just shut down. It was daylight, well into morning, and both Jason and Jared were snoring. All I could see out of our tent flap was our bear canister, still dangling from the branches. But I didn’t get up and leave the tent until the others were awake.

Because of the wind there were no discernable paw prints around our campsite. Our packs had been knocked around a little bit but were otherwise unmolested. The same with the canteens left hanging on a tree branch and the mess kits fireside. I mentioned my plan to Jason. “Funny,” he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

We started to wonder if maybe it hadn’t been raccoons after all, or perhaps even the result of the wind. It wasn’t until we went to retrieve our food that we saw the three claw marks gouged head-level into the tree where we’d hung it.

They hadn’t been there the previous day.

Without any discussion we decided to break camp after breakfast and push on up the trail.

*****

Quick note: Aside from the image of the bear (courtesy of the Internet) all photographs were taken by myself and my traveling companions. I would also finally see a live bear years later in the swamps of Louisiana.

I always left the keys in the ignition overnight.One dawn, I made a futile attempt of starting the engine gently, to allow the others to keep snoring in the back and in the cabin over my head.The coast and shimmy of our home would lull them long enough to let me feel like a chance clueless steward of daybreak assigned to this return side of the continental divide.I had a little moment.The wilderness had little me.

With light yet to burst over the distant ridge, white fog hung in the forest we were emerging from, like ghosts had passed out only an hour ago and half-dissolved among the pines.Whatever else had happened, the wilds had taken over during the night all around us.