Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bear Country



Bear Country

He nearly missed the bus to Montgomery, because the summer final went long. Jesse was a third year student majoring in everything.

Finally, a break—two weeks out west, roughing it.

Forty-eight hours to get there—northwest Wyoming—and the final eight it was just him, the driver, and some guy chanting in the back of the bus.

At the bus station in Salt Lake City, the ticket agent had chattered on and on about the bear attacks and the rescue helicopters and tried to get Jesse to go to San Francisco instead.

He didn't. In a general store two blocks from the entrance to the park, he met a girl from the BSU. She had a summer job there. Jesse wasn't looking for anyone or anything familiar, so  he pretended to be in a big hurry. Besides he was embarrassed to be seen with that accent.

Back on the road, he hitched a ride with a family. The girl, a high schooler, had got her parents to pick him up. In her high-pitched, precocious tone, she explained it was because he was “so cute and interesting and hardly dangerous looking.” That made Jesse feel uncomfortable. He let on he needed to throw up, and they pulled over right away. He motioned for them to keep going.

After that unpleasantness, Jesse decided to take the next trail into the backcountry. It was  narrow and empty, probably because it was off to the south away from the big attractions.

About five miles in, the path split and to the right it was marked by a red-lettered sign that read, “Bear Activity.” Images from the graphic warnings flooded his head. He froze. All he had was this silly string of bear bells. Weapons weren't allowed. The clerk in the store swore that the bells worked. Jesse put them on and jingled along down the left track of the trail, still anxious but curious enough not to turn and run … yet.

The woods got closer and closer, and denser. He couldn't see more than 20 feet in. More and more it seemed like an ambush at every turn, and that feeling peaked when he found himself standing in a small grassy field full in the sun, ringed on all sides by dark forest. Out in the open, he was vulnerable, and he knew he was being watched.

Keeping calm, he walked backwards to blend into the woods. Bursting out of the silence behind him, a powerful embrace grabbed him and held him firmly. “Relax. Just relax. You're okay.” Jesse nearly fainted, but he did wilt and slip out of the embrace, landing hard on his tailbone. “Water?” After a few long, deep breaths, he took the canteen and drank greedily.

The man, Harry, was a tracker and guide from Las Vegas who said he was bushwhacking his way through the park from south to north. It was illegal to do that of course, but he was hunting bear not to kill, just to track. Harry was wearing a leather vest and a khaki fishing hat. No guns … no rifle for sure but that long scabbard … maybe a Bowie knife?

Harry didn't say much more but led the way back to the road, and Jesse was happy for the company and the direction. It didn't last long. Back at the fork with the bear warnings, Harry turned left and kept going. Jesse watched until he disappeared and then double timed it back to the road.

He got another lift. This one uneventful. He got out at a very popular trailhead. This was more like it. A wider trail and plenty of people around. Made it was easier to relax and enjoy hiking in the woods.

Jesse walked with purpose and an explorer's curiosity. He covered miles, judging by the time and his pace. By late afternoon, he'd outwalked everyone. When he finally realized how low the sun had sunk and how alone he was, he turned around and set off at a trot, jangling as he went.

Coming around a blind corner he almost tripped over someone kneeling down to take a picture. No harm done though. Turned out the man, Tony, was a chef from San Diego and a freelance photo journalist.

They joined up, and first thing, Tony insisted that Jesse take off the bells. He didn't want to Jesse to scare everything away. On the way back to the road they took a side trail that led to small waterfall where Tony hoped to photograph more plant life and, with a bit of luck, wildlife.

Across the rolling terrain scattered with thick underbrush, they marched. Out of the stillness, a thunderous crashing sound came from a small copse ahead. Jesse thought “BEAR!” Tony took his lens cap off and got ready to shoot. In a split second a bull moose was running right at them with his rack lowered. They dived—Jesse left, Tony right. The camera was crushed.

Jesse got to wear his bear bells after that. For supper, Tony made his special recipe for scrambled eggs with sunflower seeds and a dash of something that looked like oregano.  Whatever it was, it mellowed them out, so when the heavy rains came late in the evening, they didn't freak out but matter-of-factly crawled between a couple of fallen trees and pulled their ponchos over the top. Next morning Jesse headed back to the public areas, while Tony stayed in the woods compiling his notes.

After making the circuit and taking in the postcard sights, Jesse caught a ride up north. It was a red Cadillac convertible with four guys in beards, bandanas, and sunglasses who were smoking pot and blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd into the big blue sky. On the dash, a houndstoothed bobblehead bounced mesmerizingly with the curving mountain highway.

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Peter McMillan

The author, whose roots are in Alabama and Georgia, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers. He has published two anthologies of his reprinted stories: Flash! Fiction and Flash! Fiction 2.