Last night at dinner my son asked me, “When were you most scared?”
“You mean, today?”
“In your whole life.”
We were eating pasta and greens at the table, some jazz playing in the background. A cold, rainy night outside.
“Well,” I said. “A few times come to mind. But I’d say probably the grizzly.”
“The one in Glacier National Park?”
“I’ve told that one, haven’t I.”
“I like that one.” He glanced at his mother across the table and smiled. “Tell it again.”
And so I told about how the lovely woman who would one day become my wife and I were hiking toward Grinnell Lake in the backcountry, we were in our late twenties, and there were no other people around. Warm summer day, light breeze, mile four of a seven-mile hike. We came upon some scat in the trail, an impressive specimen, and I wondered aloud if this was far enough. “What do you say?” I said. We had no bear spray, no weapons.
My girlfriend looked at me, sunlight in her hair, a smile playing on her mouth. “When will we be here again?”
And so we kept going. And I kept letting out yips and yups to alert any and all creatures that, yes, we were heading deeper into the wilderness, with just water and cheese sandwiches.
A bit over a mile farther on, we rounded a curve and came upon an immense blond grizzly. It was eating trailside berries maybe thirty feet ahead.
We stopped, the bear stopped, time stopped.
Back at the trailhead signpost, my girlfriend and I had quickly reviewed the rules of hiking in bear country. Make some noise as you go, carry bear spray if you’re smart, and if you happen to meet a bear, do not run. No running. A grizzly can outrun a racehorse for the first tenth of a mile, so friend, don’t even think about it. Just back up slowly, nice and easy, then when you’re well out of the bear’s sight you may turn and run like you’ve never before run.
The grizzly in the middle of the trail went on staring at us. I was in front. It raised its head, sniffed the air, and I began backing up. It made a guttural sound, but it didn’t charge. I kept on backing up, stomach in throat, and then glanced over my shoulder to make sure that I wouldn’t trip on my girlfriend.
She was gone.
“Defining moment in our relationship,” I said to my son, who let out a laugh. My wife smiling. “So now, here I am, apparently the hors d’oeuvre, while my girlfriend has fled down the trail.”
I looked back at the grizzly, who was still staring at me, not eating any more berries. After a few more steps I realized that the creature was actually getting smaller, and then it disappeared around a bend, and so I turned and began sprinting. Eventually, I saw far ahead on the trail my girlfriend racing along, arms pumping — I mean, the woman’s booking — and in glances over my shoulder I saw no grizzly chasing. I kept sprinting until I’d caught up with my girlfriend, we exchanged a few breathless profane observations, then kept on running all the way back to the trailhead.
“I remember it took us a few minutes to stop shaking,” my wife said to our son.
“And it never chased you,” my son said.
“Not that I saw,” I said. “But why its chase instinct didn’t get triggered … Hmm.”
At the trailhead after our pep talk about bear country, after we’d already set out toward Grinnell Lake, a ranger had posted a notice saying that a grizzly had been seen in the area, take caution.
“Take caution,” I said to my girlfriend when we were back at the signpost, as we stood there arm in arm under the sun, feeling each other tremble and breathe. We who had lived to tell the tale, who had faced the great bear.
We went on with our dinner, as the jazz went on playing, the house warm and the gusts of wind slapping rain against the windows.
“And so you’ve never been more scared than that?” my son said.
“A few other times … But there’s nothing like a bear story on a cold winter’s night.”
“But there were other times,” my son said.
“Not in the woods, you mean.”
“Scarier than the grizzly?”
“As scary. But maybe not quite as intense in the moment.”
My wife of nineteen years and I glanced at each other, calm, as the jazz went on in the background and the rain went on against the windows, our son looking at us and knowing we could say more, the world both beautiful and hard, we could tell a few other stories that could curl the toes. Sure.
But some moments call for a bear story. From a time when you were young and in the woods, ready to press onward toward a shimmering alpine lake, come what may. When all you had was wild love, passion for adventure, cheese sandwiches, and water.