bear

Hurrying to Elsewhere

Leaving church, I drove out to the Oconaluftee River, found a rock to sit on, and stared at the moving water.  I prayed and waited for some echo, some after-shock to come, related to the watery blue entity I had seen flying through the sanctuary of the Baptist church.  What could that have been?  No angel I ever heard of looked like that—like a  bucket of pale blue water that was thrown, and kept on flying like it had a purpose.

Had it come and gone just for me?  What did it signal, or signify?

Was I supposed to be different now?  Changed by the sight of something that apparently no one else perceived?  Maybe I was hallucinating.

I felt justified in expecting something more, another theatrical event, but nothing happened.

Except watching the Oconaluftee go by, saying the words of the prayer—as usual—caused me to apprehend tiny details.  A vivid memory of the water remains, flowing with sunlight fast over the rocks.  That, and my eyes were full of tears.

I drove back to my cabin, got a backpack together, and went off in the woods  to ruminate.

That night I made camp in the hollow of a dry stream bed.  The ground was mossy where I put the tent.  I considered moving higher up the ridge, in case a thunder storm broke during the night and the stream bed flooded.  Higher up, I was not likely to find mossy ground.  Wanting to sleep soft, I decided to stay put.

After dark, starting to fall asleep, I heard something move in the woods.  My eyes came wide as a foul odor drifted into the tent.  I had never been close enough to wild bear to know what one smelled like, but that’s what it was.  I knew it for sure, nothing else smelled like that, even if you never smelled it before, you knew what it was.  Coming that close to anything wild that is bigger than you and has the equipment to eat you is a chance to see yourself naked: how much do you fear the tooth and claw of unfamiliar danger?  If you had never ridden in an automobile —70 miles an hour up a super highway surrounded by eighteen-wheel diesel transfer trucks —doing so for the first time, you might panic, hyperventilate, and pass out.  Your fear would be justified naturally.  But after a while, a super highway and high speed travel, once the danger is familiar, becomes boring, can even put you to sleep.

Being close enough to smell the sticky hair around a black bear’s asshole is another chance to get naked.  Suddenly, you’re running around inside your head, looking for courage like a misplaced pair of bluejeans.  If you’re trained, prepared, and experienced, good for you.  Whether the danger is extremely real, as in an automobile doing 70, or is only a curious bear being smelly around your campsite, which is a potential danger, but is mainly unfamiliar territory to enter into psychologically—if you’re lucky, you know the words to a prayer that delivers you from panic, keeps you from shooting yourself in the foot.

I never heard the bear move again.

I listened to the strange silence outside the tent.

The sharp smell gradually dissipated.

I fell asleep and rested well.

Built a fire at daylight, cooked breakfast, ate, and left the camp standing.

I climbed the rocky staircase of the stream bed, a few hundred feet up, and sat down by the trickle of water, wondering what to do, where to go to have children?  Who would I find to marry and make babies?

Staring at the rocky stream bed, I saw myself as a water bug riding down the mountainside, into the Tuckaseegee Gorge, through the rapids into the high lakes and slow rivers below, all the way to the ocean, to the beach, where I grew up, on level ground.  All the time I had been here, I’d developed no affection for the rocky, uneven terrain.

As suddenly as the impulse to have children had taken me over, I decided to leave the mountains.  Immediately.

An hour later I was breaking camp, rolling up the tent and the sleeping bag.  I would not be in these woods again.

Along the ridge I hiked, coming down the mountain, suddenly a gray fox not much bigger than a house cat, exploded out of the underbrush.  He fell directly in front of me, thudding onto the hard clay like a sack of corn meal.  He scrambled up in a panic and took off, a gray fox in a big hurry to be somewhere else, for no apparent reason.

I waited to see what was chasing him.  Nothing else came out of the woods.