I am a girl who grew up a short fifteen minute train ride from New York City in a small New Jersey suburb. As teenagers my friends and I would sneak off to the city, drink at the few bars we knew didn’t ask for identification, go to clubs and dance until dawn, and shop the street vendors for knock-off purses and costume jewelry. I learned quickly how to navigate the efficient subway system and how to maneuver in the overcrowded city by moving quickly, keeping my bag close to me, and never making eye contact.
So when I found myself in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming in the summer of 1998 at the beginning of a seven week cross country trip/Phish tour, I knew I was out of my element, yet felt strangely like I had come into it. Hiking for miles into mountains powerfully majestic and commanding, having a snowball fight on a glorious afternoon in July, I felt like I was the first person to ever see those mountains, those woods, and that splendor.
We were four friends about to go backpacking for a few days. It was my first backpacking experience, and the excitement of the physical exertion ahead was titillating. One of the friends I was with, who was a much more experienced backpacker, went through my backpack unpacking, discarding, and re-packing. Six miles into the afternoon I thanked him for making my pack as light and efficient as possible! We hiked eight miles in and began to set up camp. It was almost surreal. In the perfect peace of the woods, the absence of human noise left room for the symphony of nature: the rushing of the brook behind us, the whispering of the wind through the trees above us, the language of birds and insects all around us. The four of us silently went about our campsite duties listening to the orchestra of nature. I pitched our tent while my tent-mate gathered wood to make a fire. I learned how to pump water from the brook and filter it for drinking while my other companion chilled a bottle of Pinot Grigio in the water, attached to a bungee cord. The boys hung our food in a bear bag several yards away as we began to make this patch of forest our home for the night.
But our peace was short lived. Somewhere around 7am I was struck in the chest by something round and hard. It was Chad’s knee. He had yanked his foot back and woke me up with a jolt by pummeling my chest. Before I could even ask what happened, I heard a loud tearing noise coming from the bottom of our tent.
“Bear!” Chad whispered, and suddenly seconds seemed like hours and time unfolded like the stretching of silly putty as talons thick as tree branches and sharp as blades groped at our feet.
Chad fumbled with the back zipper of the tent as if to make a run for it. I grabbed his shirt- bears can run about fifty miles per hour, we didn’t stand a chance. So instead he threw me down, dove on top of me, and we waited. All I can remember thinking at that moment was ‘Well, this is it I guess. I’m from New Jersey and I’m gonna be taken out by a bear!’ (Only later was I able to be amused that my Jersey sarcasm prevailed even in the most dire of situations!) I still believe that the sound of the zipper closing the tent door is what caused the bear to retreat. Suddenly he was over at the other tent, batting it with his hand like a beach ball. Geri woke up to the sensation of the tent rocking and the image of a battering ram slamming next to her head. As the only feeble attempt we could make at saving ourselves, Chad and I began calling to Eric and Geri, making loud noises like we were instructed to do by forest rangers.
The whole disturbance took only a few minutes, but its effects lasted for days. The four of us finally worked up enough courage to emerge from our tents. The bear was nowhere in sight and we packed up that campsite at warp speed! The boys went to check on our food and again encountered the bear, who lucky for them was too engrossed in devouring our freeze-dried noodles and beef jerky to pay them any mind. They rushed back with terror in their eyes and informed us that it was a huge grizzly bear. We hiked out of the woods that morning in under an hour. We practically ran. That night in a designated campsite just off the road in Wyoming, safe from nature’s scary creatures and the imminent threat of death, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I trembled and cried all night at every small sound that invaded the heavy quiet.
After the initial fear wore off, I was able to look at the situation in a new light. And something very powerful happened. I realized that in that very moment when Chad pressed his body on top of mine for a small amount of protection and we both faced death, there was nothing but utter peace. There was no panic, no resistance to the situation at hand, and no fear. I hoped it wouldn’t hurt, but my mind was quiet and still. It was a very profound and spiritual event in my life, and never before had I felt so protected by a higher power or more connected to my fate. I knew I could face the unknown with confidence and strength and that I had just realized a deep spiritual truth.
That’s not to say that I ever want to meet a bear again in the early morning hours protected from his acuminate teeth and claws only by a sheaf of nylon as effective as tissue paper. That is also not to say that I want to throw myself in the path of life-threatening circumstances in order to affirm that life. But I did learn a few things from that experience: don’t sleep in the same clothes you cook in while camping, bears can smell a woman during her time of the month, and endings do not necessarily have to be scary; peace is all in your perspective. Oh, and that Jersey girls are as tough as a bear’s claws!
Click here to read about The Yellowstone National Park.