Ah, the stillness of the black sky gleaming with dazzling stars slowly peaking from behind their curtain. The gentle hum of a breeze caressing the tall grasses and green leaves of lush late spring. The air is nearly romantic with its dry cool temperature, and a bat chirps briefly overhead, keeping the bugs at bay around your campsite.
And then of course, the comforting sound of black bears moaning and growling somewhere not too far off, perhaps just down the hill from where you are,
as you unroll your sleeping bag and nestle down for the night.
…Sweet dreams, you little happy camper, you…
I bet this is exactly the type of “yay nature” experience you were thinking of when you paid way too much for that adorable “Life is Good” TM bumper sticker from REI. Where is the Life is Good bumper sticker where Stick Figure Guy is flailing in the rush of adrenaline as a grizzly has already begun eating his intestines?
Where is the Life is Good bumper sticker with little stick man covered in a nest of seed ticks?
Where is the Life is Good bumper sticker that shows the family of Stick People waking to find their campsite ransacked by coons, because they failed to appropriately pack away their cooler and trash bag after dinner the night before? True stories, man. Wilderness school.
These are essential experiences when you are “getting away from civilization” in my opinion. Notice I did not say “essential experiences to avoid.” I think we are better for having to suffer them.
They humble you. They show you what nature is really like. They have a way of disciplining us and curbing our ego, and ultimately making us subconsciously more grateful for the truly important things in our lives.
It’s honestly kind of exciting when things turn a little unpredictable.
I’m not encouraging anyone to do anything downright stupid, let’s just be clear. But something important happens when we are left to our own devices, capability, and personal responsibility in natural settings, and things happen outside our expectations. You don’t get that by going to a zoo, unless you are one of the poor souls who happened to see one of those great jungle animals go ape-shit on a caretaker or arrogant visitor. Those poor animals start going crazy after too much solitary confinement and fuckery from the homo sapiens.
…Talk about sobering moments.
Too many of us have never had to learn to survive or respect nature. We’ve never had to adapt to the radical natural elements around us like variations in temperature, humidity, or elevation. We are raised to think that if we don’t like something we can buy a chemical to spray at it and get it out of the place where we’d like to reside. We’re completely unsettled the second there’s a bug within our proximity. We can’t feel okay unless we’ve got freshly clean clothes chemical washed in Tide and bleach, and fluffed out with toxic dryer sheets. …hey, that sounds like it could be a song.
It’s sad to say, but for most of us, we’ve gotten soft, Fam. Downy soft. You know what bears do to downy soft kind of people???
In the last two weeks that I’ve been on a road trip through Colorado, the amount of wildlife I’ve encountered has been staggering. I’ve been staying in my truck just about every night, barring one exception when I visited a friend in Denver. For as much time as I have spent in this state my whole life, I continue to run into new animals I’ve never seen or heard of. And I can guarantee you that these encounters would be greatly diminished if I were just going to the well maintained parks and staying in cabins or motels.
Just last night I was car-camping in what is technically a residential area, but still an area that is very open and less tampered with than a “clear-cut, copy, and paste” looking housing development. The scenario I described at the beginning of this blog was basically my night last night. I had my car door wide open as I brushed my teeth and got my bed ready, just enjoying myself, when all of a sudden I notice there is this sound coming from down the hill. I wanted to tell myself it was a cow, but I grew up in Arkansas… it would have had to been a weird ass cow to be making these sounds.
Coincidentally, just two days ago, a friend and I were on this beautiful trail out of Allenspark, CO, and a few miles before making it back to the car, I heard that same kind of hoarse raspy howl of a moan (I’m still not sure what to call this sound 😅 ), simultaneously with a snapping crash of a small branch, maybe a small dead tree even. Part of my brain wanted to write off what we heard as the weirdest raven that could possibly exist, but my gut knew better. My head whipped around as I made out what was undeniably a huge black bear’s body bumbling back and forth as it sauntered through the trees, literally right in our direction. He was maybe 50 ft away, 100 at most.
I’ve seen bears from behind and from the side before a number of times in Colorado, but never before face to face.
Can I tell you what kind of aliveness quickened into our bodies in that moment? All day I had felt so freaking tired that day that I could have just collapsed from hiking at any moment and fallen into a deep nap. My steps had been sloppy and my ass had been dragging.
No longer was such the case after seeing that bear’s face, his jowls awkwardly stretching and chewing as he stumbled down the hill.
The hike had been pristine, but it had only been nice until that point.
The bear had been frightening and awesome as fuck.
Guess what made the highlight reel for our hike that day?
The panoramic views of giant snow covered bowls in the mountain ranges across from ours?
The clear snowmelt lake at the crest of our hike?
The free bandana I scored, left behind by some less put together hiker before us?
Naw man, forget all that. It’s all about ole’ Big Bear.
(And kind of the bandana. I have quite a collection going.) But seriously.
Hearing these moany howls within range of where I slept last was a little unnerving at first… all sorts of questions you’ve never needed to consider and that probably aren’t even reasonable start running through your mind like,
“Can they break glass in one fell blow? Can he smell the food in here? Would he come up to my shoddy vehicle smelling the food and then realize there was a much larger bonus snack on the menu that he’d rather have? Hominid tartar?”
It’s a strange mix of emotions, because on one hand your biological body is running all the emergency messages, preparing for fight or flight. In this case it’s realistically only preparing for flight. But on the other hand, this other part of your awareness is simply in awe of the creature. That part of you wants to stay, to catch a glimpse if you can before it notices you.
It wants to experience the bear.
That part of us is usually naive as fuck about the Bear, too. 😂
Perhaps though, this can be our spiritual body’s awareness when it has learned to be present and not overcome with fear in a moment of intimidation or uncertainty. I found myself wanting to keep the door open, to listen closely, make out as much nuance in the creature’s (or creatures’, but I’ll never know for sure now) vocalizations to hear what they were up to, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt if it was what I thought it was…
And then I noticed that this weird thing has happened to me over the years… As terrifying and unsettling as it can be to know that a megafauna predator is right outside your door, I almost prefer living this way now. No, not with a constant threat in my life, but rather not so protected from the wildness of this planet that I can live in some illusion of disconnection from it- real reality. There’s a strange sense of peace that accompanies this experience of living in closer proximity to perceived danger that I don’t have a clue how to explain. It’s completely counterintuitive.
What does actually scare me and keeps me from sleeping well is worrying about people I might encounter who are not connected to empathy or their natural being. People that are trigger happy, fearfully defensive of intruders. And probably rightfully so. Or crazy rumored serial killers on the Appalachian trail… that shit is probably the most disturbing and deterring.
One of the other most hair-raising animal encounters I’ve had was when I visited Costa Rica in 2014, and hiked arguably *the* most unique mountain I’ve ever encountered in my life. Round trip the trail I did was about 24 miles or so from where I started, with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, so to complete the entire thing in one day, my weak ass needed to start around 1:30 AM. (#nosleeptilbrooklyn)
In the jungle. Completely. Fucking. Alone…
…or so I thought.
This part of central Costa Rica was crazy beautiful. Throughout this hike you ascended through 4 different biomes- starting out in the tropical rainforest, advancing into legit old growth forest zone after sunrise, and pushing through a windy arid high desert stretch before finishing in a cloud-soaked alpine tundra for the summit area.
I had no idea what I was in for on this day, except for pain and duress to some degree. I had hardly slept, maybe an hour, and set out on a trail I had never seen before. Some of it I wouldn’t end up seeing until that afternoon on the descent.
I didn’t have the best headlamp ever, so my range of sight more limited than normal, especially being in a thick rainforest. It was the kind of dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your face, much less 25 feet in front of you when you hear a massive animal pushing through all the foliage and tree fall.
Had I been on my home turf, my imagination could have configured with some probability that it might’ve been an unusually large deer. However this was completely unfamiliar territory, and that sound was no deer.
As silly as it might sound, the only “probable” creatures my panicked self could think of was a puma or a 20-foot anaconda. (Not logical, I know.)
You laugh now- hell, I laugh now- but you didn’t hear what I heard, where and when I heard it, man.😅
“The sound” happened just ahead of me on the trail, moving toward the trail, meaning one of us was going to cross the other’s path… first. I was frozen, but I did NOT want to stick around just to see death stare me in the face. Within seconds, adrenaline took over and without thinking I sprinted dead ahead as fast as I could. I was too far from the trailhead at this point for anyone to hear me scream, and I have never run so fast in my life.
And then maybe 20 minutes later, the sound happened AGAIN.
By this point my whole body is trembling because I have no way of knowing if I am distancing myself, if whatever it is is tracking me, or if this is a second animal altogether. My mantra for sanity became,
“In two hours, the sun will come up…
In two hours the sun will come up…
eventually the sun will be coming up…
eventually the sun will come up…”
It felt like being blind in a haunted house, except with a chance that the demons might actually kill you.
That evening I hobbled into my hostel looking like abused hell after nearly a marathon of steep trail that I hadn’t trained for (plus, I busted my knee open at only the halfway point after recovering from a little mild altitude sickness).
As I recounted my drama, someone kindly informed that the animals I had encountered early that morning were probably just Tapirs.
“Tapirs, goddammit. That’s it?”
“Yeah, they’re super common out here.”
I wasted all that adrenaline on harmless Tapirs. For those of you that don’t know, Tapirs are an overgrown less fierce cousins of rhinoceri, and horses, but without any equipment or attitude to make them intimidating- the kind of animals that are so ugly they end up being a pitiable type of cute.
Tuskless, fangless, clawless, shoeless vegetarians.
Had someone told me about tapirs in the middle of the night during my hike, I would have been relieved, but now my ego just wanted to believe it was some exotic anaconda (that didn’t actually exist in these parts) just to justify my drama.
Which comes back to my previously made point about letting nature scare you every once in a while, or regularly. Not only do those experiences switch on our whole being into feeling more alive and connected to our surroundings and ourselves, but it has the power to check our delusional pride, whichever way that pride is manifesting. The people that learn to live in harmony with these places are people that have shed layers of their ego that us city and suburb dwellers end up staying stuck with. I see it time and time again.
I’ve talked a good bit in my blogs cumulatively between this platform and my youtube about Adventure vs. Vacation. I’m not necessarily anti-vacation. It has a time and place. But when you are deciding to get away and experience some place new, I implore you to not always take the most comfortable options available, like pack mules up an epic hike or having a guide to lead you. Alternatively, you could learn what skills you need to do it on your own and responsibly care for the place you are wanting to experience and explore. It’s a rite of passage, in my opinion.
What I’d actually like you to do is intentionally simplify your agenda and put yourself in situations that will strip down your sense security, but I’ll let you interpret this how you will. 🙂
*** Bonus question: I still don’t know what to call the sounds that bears make. Wanna vote?
Something else entirely??
You Decide! Chip in in the comment section.