Saturday, June 4, 2011

My Summer Vacation

I might be a little scarce and sparse around here for the next couple of weeks.  My son and daughter-in-law are coming for a visit and, weather permitting, we hope to go camping in Yellowstone and/or Glacier National Parks.

Thinking about Montana's backcountry reminded me of an essay I wrote several years ago about one summer vacation.  I'm posting this here so if you don't hear from me again--if bits and parts of me are later found in piles of bear poop--then this will serve as my final legacy....

Ursus Arctos Horribilis
My wife has never been disemboweled by a bear.  Let's get that straight right from the start.  She's still alive (frowning slightly as she reads this) and breathing.

But there was a time when, in the wild spaces of her imagination, she felt a set of three-inch razor-sharp claws start at her navel and work their way up.  And the teeth.  Oh yes, the teeth, the thick saliva, the hot bear breath and the eggshell-crunch of her skull.

These are the things we both remember from that summer vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana.

We started planning for the three-day backpacking trip long before we left Atlanta.  The city was hot that summer and I grew dreamy just thinking about how my feet would spring-step along the trail deep in the park's maze of forests, the wind striking my face, cool as it swept over the huge sheets of ice on the mountains and down into the carved valleys.

On a piece of paper, I drew a cross-section of our car's trunk, planning how to pack the tent, the sleeping bags, the freeze-dried food, the paperback novels, the flashlight, the fuel cans, the canteens, and the extra clothing.  On another sheet of paper, I divided the gear between our two backpacks.

With a Park Service map of Glacier spread across the dining room table, I traced my fingertip along the trail from St. Mary Lake to Lake McDonald.  A forked rivulet of sweat trickled down my back in the mid-June humidity.  I read in the guidebook about how we would cross the Continental Divide midway through the trip at Gunsight Pass.  Perched on the spine of the park, we'd have hills blanketed with alpine wildflowers sloping away on either side.  Marmots would whistle among the talus deposits, mountain goats gambol on the cliffs and athletic trout sprint through the mint-blue lakes.  If I thought of bears at all, I placed them in the distance, harmlessly browsing the berry bushes upwind of where we'd be standing.

My voice rose in pitch when I told Jean what it would be like, just the two of us walking through the dewy forest, momentarily free of the children, insurance payments, our loud neighbors (we could set our clocks by the Friday night drinking sprees in the next-door apartment) and the trappings of society.

Jean nodded, smiled timorously and bit her lip frequently, but never disagreed with the overall Plan.

In her mind, the bears were much closer than the distant, hazy slopes.

*   *   *

I drove like a madman across the country from Atlanta to my parents' home in Wyoming where we dropped off our three children before heading north to Glacier National Park.

Along the way, Jean and I felt buoyant.  We sped through the rolling fields of southwestern Montana, passing tractors, flocks of wild geese, ranchers at their mailboxes.  Our car, packed to the windows with camping equipment, skipped along the highway like a loose tumbleweed.

Just south of Great Falls, I held my breath at the sight of a mule deer wading the breast-deep Missouri River.  It was early in the morning, less than two hours after dawn, and the deer's coat, neck and antlers were bathed in the kind of light normally reserved for cathedrals.  Surely this was a good omen, I thought and nearly drove off the road in happiness.

When we reached the park's west entrance, I propped the camera on the hood of the car, set the self-timer, then jumped back next to Jean in front of the chocolate-brown "Welcome to Glacier National Park" sign.  We held hands for the camera.

At our campsite a few miles inside the park, we set up the tent, held our noses and joked about the bitter mildew smell, then unrolled our sleeping bags.

I gathered wood and chopped it.  Jean took pictures of me with the axe in my hand.  My shirt was off and if you look at the snapshot today, I'm proud to say you'll see a trace of muscle rippling under the skin on my back and shoulders.

I was ready for anything.

My Bear Protection Plan included acid-washed jeans & an olive-green puffy parka. A wardrobe designed to frighten away man & beast.

*   *   *

Things broke down for my wife when she entered the visitor center gift shop and—past the shelves of logo-stamped ashtrays, pennants, shot glasses, tote bags, pencils and back-scratchers—saw the book with the bear on the cover.  The grizzly's paw was raised in mid-swipe, mouth open and nose alert as if sniffing the title printed in red an inch above its head: Bear Attacks.

From across the gift shop, I watched as Jean opened the book and looked into Pandora's box.
....The bear started biting me on the back of the head, which felt like a pick-axe scraping along my skull bones.  In defense I turned over to kick and push the bear off but then she bit my face.  I recall a deep bite which crushed the bones under my left eye.
....A grizzly can charge at a speed of at least thirty miles per hour, or forty-four feet per second.
....The bear took a few more bites, ripping three ribs loose from the spine and opening up the chest cavity.
....The bear grabbed Al's left forearm in his jaws and by standing up, pulled Al out of his sleeping bag, tossing him through the air...Like a flash the animal was over him...His teeth raked along Al's skull and managed to grip the scalp...With Al dangling by his scalp, the bear stood straight up shaking his head violently as a cat with a mouse.  Al's feet never touched the ground.
....When found, (the young biologist) had no flesh on her left arm for about five inches between her shoulder and elbow.
And then, this last sentence was all Jean needed:
Glacier Park, Montana, has had more grizzly bear-inflicted deaths than any other park.
She snapped the book shut, the pages whispering like ripped cloth.  Then Jean turned to me and said, "We are not going on an overnight hike."


"I just don't think it would be a smart thing to go tramping off in the woods by ourselves."

"Why not?"

"All of a sudden, I don't feel very safe."  I had never seen her eyes move like this—coursing wildly from side to side behind her half-closed lids.  She was frightening me.  I'd fallen in love with her seven years ago because she'd seemed like such a no-nonsense, take-charge woman with the emotional strength of three people.  You could see it in her posture, the way she tossed her hair, the depth of her granite-blue eyes.

"There's absolutely nothing to worry about," I said, all the while worrying about the ninety dollars' worth of freeze-dried dinners we'd bought specifically for the backcountry trip.

"If what I just read is true, there's plenty to worry about," Jean said.  "No way am I going out there among the bears."

I snuck a glance at the bear on the cover.  His flared nostrils were pointed straight at me.  "Listen," I said, "these are probably isolated incidents.  I'm not saying that something like that will never happen to us, but I'll bet the chances are awfully slim."

That's when she opened the book again and read to me about the female biologist who watched the bear eat the flesh between her elbow and her shoulder.

We spent a restless night in our tent, kept awake not by the sour mildew of the canvas, but by the hump-shouldered shadows our imaginations projected against the moonlit walls.

*   *   *

Ask Jean for her most frightening memory and she'll probably tell you about the night her parents went bowling and left her in the care of her brother—the one with the hyena laugh, the one who thought nothing of putting rubber vomit on teachers' chairs or spiking the homecoming dance punch.  The one who cried wolf then laughed and laughed and laughed.

That night, when the front door shut and their parents' car backed down the driveway, this brother turned to Jean and said, "I'm going out to a movie and if you tell Mom and Dad, I swear I'll kill you."  He handed her a butcher knife for protection and left the house.

Jean was eleven years old at the time and though the house was brightly lit, she huddled on the sofa in the middle of the living room, her heart pounding beneath her thin nightdress.  She clutched the handle of the long-bladed knife between both hands.

When she heard a loud rustling noise outside the living room window, her teeth began to rattle as if she was sitting on a snowbank.

When there was a sound like dull knives scraping across the sliding glass door in the dining room, she gave a short, startled scream.

And when, minutes later, her brother snuck up behind the sofa and jumped out with a barking laugh, she very nearly stabbed him in the neck.

*   *   *

The grizzly bear is a lovely animal.  As it runs across a valley floor at forty-four feet per second, kinetic strength ripples in the muscles under the earth-brown coat.  The display of force is as breathtaking as tornadoes, floods and Army tanks.  When the grizzly charges up a mountain, the ground squirrels flick back into their burrows with a short, high scream at the passing thunder.

There is a tender side to the grizzly as well: the sow flat on her back, paws limp as her cub dines on milk; a family in hibernation, filling the den with breath that smells sweetly of rotted meat and fermented berries; a Herculean male, wife and two kids back home, stalking and bringing down with a single sweep of his claws a Dall sheep, and doing this not because he wants to but because he must.

There is a famous photograph showing a trio of grizzlies standing tall as circus animals in the middle of Yellowstone's Hayden Valley.  It is late evening and the sun is behind them, caught in the blond fur around their necks and heads.  Study the photo long enough and you will believe these are three haloed visitors from heaven staring at the camera, briefly distracted from their divine errand.

Bears once carpeted the land east of the Missouri River, as far north as the Arctic Ocean and as far south as Mexico.  At one time, more than 10,000 grizzlies roamed through California; but the last recorded sighting of ursus arctos horribilis there was in 1924.  Today, the grizzly is only an image on the state flag.

Squeezed out of its natural habitat by roads, farmlands and shopping malls, the grizzly has retreated to two islands of safety in the contiguous United States: areas surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.  Here, until the 1970s, the bears supplemented their normal diets of rodents, insects and berries, with food found in park dumps: canned spaghetti, suntan lotion, used tampons, dirty diapers.  Though some park officials sanctioned "bear shows" (true dinner theater) for visitors, garbage-habituated bears soon became "problem" bears when they crossed paths with human tourists.  "Problem" bears were routinely relocated after being shot with a tranquilizer--frequently Sernylan, a drug also known as "angel dust."  Gradually, some bears needed larger and larger doses of angel dust in order to be brought down.

In the inner city ghettos, teenage junkies hooked on angel dust jump from window ledges with visions of demons dancing in their heads.

*   *   *

The sun shone every day of that week we spent in Glacier National Park.  The bellies of the clouds—white as glaciers themselves—split as they crossed the jagged mountains then seamlessly mended as they sailed out above the lakes.  Wildflowers bobbed in the soft evening breezes.  It was perfect weather for a backcountry hike.

Jean and I stayed close to our tent at Lake McDonald's crowded campground.  We took all the precautions: stored our food inside the car, went to sleep in fresh, odor-free clothes, stopped using deodorant and perfumed makeup.  At night, we were comforted by the sound of other campers' voices echoing between the lodgepole pines.

We toured the park during the day and at each gift shop, Jean gravitated toward the bookshelf and picked up The Book almost against her will, magnetized by the lurid accounts of maulings.  I hung back, unable to explain why I felt differently about camping among the grizzlies.  Though the passages in Bear Attacks made my mouth go dry, I wanted to believe our backcountry experience would be the rule, not the exception.  I wanted to believe all of nature would be as serene as the deer breasting the Missouri River at daybreak.

But even serenity is logically balanced by violence.

*   *   *

As we stood on the wooden deck five feet above the frothed water of McDonald Creek several miles north of our campsite, I remembered two things from my childhood.

I grew up watching a commercial on TV that began with a middle-aged man walking alone down a dark street at night.  He hears footsteps behind him.  We see two pairs of loud, clicking shoes.  The man quickens his pace, pulls out a handkerchief and mops his brow.  A trash can overturns, an alley cat yowls.  The footsteps come closer and closer.  We can hear the man's heartbeat.  He is just about to break into a dead run when he passes under a street lamp, looks over his shoulder and sees two Boy Scouts emerge from the shadows behind him.

The second memory is more persistent.  I've been to Glacier before; in fact, I stood on this very spot 18 years ago.  I was holding a book, Night of the Grizzlies by Jack Olsen.  I'd been reading it in the back seat as my parents drove from Pennsylvania to Montana for our summer camping trip.

Night of the Grizzlies describes what happened on August 13, 1967—the night two bears killed two women in two different locations of Glacier.  Lightning storms, sonic booms, freshly caught fish, perfumes and cosmetics were all suggested as possible motives for the attacks.  But park rangers were ultimately baffled by the maulings.  I was nine years old at the time I read Night of the Grizzlies and I accepted it as a truth far stranger than fiction.

After all, lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Carrots are good for your eyes.

Presidents do not authorize break-ins.

Those aren't really Boy Scouts behind you.

*   *   *

Our hands knotted in a tangle of fingers, standing there on the slick overlook above McDonald Creek.  The water surged from right to left, glacial blue and hissing with foam.

Eight years ago, I slipped and fell into a creek like this high in the mountains of Wyoming and was swept downstream, bouncing like a pinball between boulders.  When I went over the crest of the waterfall, I choked on my own scream.

Jean, however, is not frightened by the water in McDonald Creek.  She leans over the railing, catches the mist on her face and a smile curls across her mouth.  The only way the current can harm her is if she allows it to have that power by setting her foot on a slippery rock as I did eight years ago.

At the moment, Jean is more concerned about the unpredictable grizzly—the beast that one day bolts at the sight of hikers and the next attacks a young biologist and eats her arm.

The image of that shredded arm, stripped to the bare bone by those slavering teeth, haunted us and, in my mind, the biologist's arm became many arms, like a trunkful of mannequins—all chewed mercilessly by something beyond our control.

Slowly, I began to understand the heart of Jean's fear.  This was not just a rogue grizzly bear we were talking about.  It was something much larger, more universal: a distrust of nature programmed into the strands of our DNA months before we're even born.

Early man banked the fires higher to stave off the blinking yellow eyes.

Little Red Riding Hood stayed on the path, but eventually she ran into the wolf.

These days you can't go swimming off Martha's Vineyard without seeing a dorsal fin in every breaker.

I think everyone has this unease toward nature, packed around in our spleens, bred into us as far back as Eden.  We try to dampen the dread we feel toward natural ferocity with concrete, with roads, with non-profit organizations.  Mountain climbers, kayakers, safari porters, rodeo cowboys—all try to gloss over what they know is there in the pit of their stomachs.  We have overcome, but not subdued, the feral threat hidden by the branch, the leaf, the crag.

When I finally conceded to Jean that yes, perhaps wisdom was the better part of valor and that we should live among other members of our own species—protected by the blue glow of Coleman stoves, lulled by the sound of Winnebago engines—I knew I'd surrendered more than my pride over the cancelled camping trip. I'd also acknowledged my fear of the wild.

*   *   *

The next day, we came upon a crowd clotting the side of the road which curves around Swiftcurrent Lake several miles from the east entrance of Glacier.  Cars were parked half on the road, half on the shoulder.  It looked like the scene of an accident and I expected to see blood, brain, bone smeared across the narrow road.  People in bright clothes rushed by, armed with cameras and binoculars.  They shaded their eyes and pointed up the slope below Grinnell Point.  There was something in the heather and berry bushes.

Jean said, "What do you think it is?"

But as we walked along the road to join the gathering crowd, both of us with jelly-weak legs, I didn't need to answer.  We knew what we'd see on the hillside.

At last, at last, this was the moment of encounter.

There is a bear in this photo.

*   *   *

When I slip the snapshot from the photo album, I can hold the bear in the palm of my hand.  He is small as a fleck of chocolate among the berry bushes in the picture.  In fact, if you didn't know what you were looking at, you'd probably think there was a fleck of chocolate on the picture and you'd try to scrape it off with your fingernail.

We waited nearly fifteen minutes that day to see the grizzly dash from the bushes where he'd been foraging to a stand of spruce trees a quarter-mile upslope of us.  I was using a telephoto lens on my camera but the bear still looked no bigger than a fleck of you-know-what.

After the grizzly bolted, muscles visible under his coat, he disappeared into the vegetation.

A groan went up.  The sideshow was over.  The tourists dispersed and Jean and I walked back to our car.  She squeezed my hand and we quickened our pace.

Something in the way my wife pulled me along made my blood curdle, made me think about an unpredictable explosion of fur and fang.  I looked over my shoulder at the shoulder-high berry bushes that ran in a continuous line from the spruce trees to the road where we stood.  Vegetation can hide many things.  I wished I had a handkerchief to mop my brow.

When we were in the car, doors slammed shut, locks pressed down, we began to breathe.

We drove to the Many Glacier Hotel along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake.  We could still see the heather-covered slope from the pay phone outside the hotel.  We called my parents and Jean talked to the kids.

"Guess what Mommy just saw?  Can you guess?  A real live grizzly bear!...Yes!...I'm completely serious.  In fact, we can still see where it was on the side of the mountain."  She cupped her hand over the mouthpiece.  "Has it come out yet, David?"

I looked through the telephoto lens.  A tour bus rolled through the hotel parking lot, stirring up dust, and it was impossible to see anything through the haze.  "Nope," I said.  "I don't think it's come out of the trees yet."

"Daddy says he can't see it right now, but it's there in the forest...What?...Well, of course we were scared."

*   *   *

Next to the photo of the chocolate smudge is a picture of Jean with her arm in the mouth of a bear.

I took the snapshot when we stopped in Hungry Horse, a small town just outside the park.  Along the side of the road there is a woodworker's shop with several sculptures, all carved by chainsaws. There is a cigar-store Indian, there is an eagle, there is the head of Abraham Lincoln (big as a log cabin), and there is a bear.  One ear broke off years ago and was glued back on.  The brown paint of the bear's hide is flaking off.  Still, there is a defiant expression chainsawed into his face.  His mouth is open and his paw is raised.

"Put your arm in there," I said.

"Oh, sure," Jean said, shuddering.

"C'mon, just for the picture."

She sighed, put her purse and coat on the ground and walked up to the bear.  She slipped her forearm between the teeth, gave a squeamish shudder and said, "Hurry up!"

I clicked the shutter on the "u" of "up!" and now when we look through the photo album, we always stop at this picture and laugh.  Jean is bent at the waist, as if doubled in pain.  The broken-eared bear has her by the soft fleshy part of her arm.  Jean's mouth is rounded in a vowel-shaped cry.

This is what we will always remember from that week among the bears: the wild fear we will never tame.

This essay originally appeared in The Anchorage Daily News.

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