Just as she had insisted that we bring no toilet paper, my little sister insisted that we begin our ascent at dawn. But at dawn, even in August, it was cold in the Colorado Rockies. I balked, but, as with the toilet paper, I lost.
So at first frigid light, I boiled water for Grape Nuts and instant coffee while my sister disassembled the tent, hauled down our bear bags, and reassembled our packs, putting the heavy things in hers and leaving me the lightweight. She knew what she was doing. And by all evidence she enjoyed it.
I was trying to enjoy it too, gritting out blisters and strange hunger and the half-sleep inherent to a nylon shelter, and waiting for the euphoria to wash over me like the deluges of hail that pummeled us as the afternoon storms got started. When my sister pronounced us ready to climb, I trailed after her, trying to contain the the whining to my head alone. I was supposed to get some sort of thrill out of reaching a summit of rock. Not a big one, just a token peak in a line of peaks.
As I panted after my sister—up and up and up—my body failed to register any possibility for pleasure while my mind regretted that between the two of us we had lacked a fake ID good enough to pack in a bottle of something to numb the pain of sleeping on rocks.
Recently released from the rites and passages of an Outward Bound summer, Steph’s authority in all things backcountry was not up for dispute, but I had no such credentials. As the shy sister to my sister’s dim self-image, I wasn’t sent into the woods for solitude and self-reflection. Instead, the antidote prescribed by our parents for my teenagedness (or preparation for my self-reliant womanhood) was summer schools in Spain and Italy. I had camped out in Madrid’s Atocha station and on a sidewalk in Nice, and I had hiked across Vienna and Paris and Rome without developing any sense of direction. And as for wildlife, I had kicked a man determined to put his hand up my shorts while I talked to my mother on a payphone; I had slipped out of a car at a red light and run against traffic; I had learned to dodge the sly arm thrust before me by passersby in attempts to pin me, the press and breath of a stranger, against old stone.
Gradually, I developed survival skills. I rebuffed strangers’ strange advances, covered my head from view, cast my eyes askew, applied knee and elbow, said no and no and no and no and no again. Even when I fell fleetingly in love, I was ready to run. I would not give myself freely, and I surely would not give of my freedom.
“You have to pace yourself,” Steph coached as we climbed. “Never rush a summit.”
The top—peak, summit, zenith!!!—was nothing much. The view back on flatlands and civilization-in-miniature was already hazy, and, opposite that, the rest of the Rockies, Long’s Peak chief among them for proximity so much as size, looked immense from atop our puny up-thrust. We propped our point-and-shoot on a rock, set the self-timer, and posed for a series of staged danger shots with which to harass our scared-of-heights mother. Then we clambered back down the mountain.
Our early start, intended to avoid being above tree level when the thunderstorms gathered after lunch, meant that we had descended and hiked all the way to our scheduled campsite by mid-afternoon. Hiking hadn’t been any sort of high, but doing nothing for a few hours was hugely appealing.
We set up Steph’s blue tent but lay our sleeping mats on the soft dust ground beside the boulder that sat like a great table at the center of our campsite. I liked this: lying on the earth gazing skyward, listening to the hum of insects and breathing air infused with Ponderosa.
Unfortunately, the sweet stillness of our hard-earned siesta was interrupted by a visitor. The park ranger who’d dropped by because he happened to be in the area made it his official business to give us a few pointers—trash disposal and bear bags and safe fires and such. Steph and I smiled and nodded and made all of the polite, oh-yes-sir gestures to signify that our compliance could be counted upon. Of course what we meant by this was that we were perfectly capable on our own, that we weren’t a couple of dimwit damsels distressed by the woods. After all, we had come into the backcountry by choice, and not to be told what to do by some grown-up boy scout in head-to-toe khaki. Steph was actually trained in this wilderness business and I was nothing if not adaptable. Maybe I didn’t thrill at hauling my blistered feet up a mountain for my own edification, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t up to the challenge. Bring on the snakes and the bear, bring on that dazzling Rocky Mountain lightning that had us doubled over atop our packs in the night to protect our hearts and brains from crackling ground currents. But leave the men and their need for validation, their double-edged promise of protection from that lurking threat to body and being that was none other than themselves and their kind. We didn’t need him, and that, after all, was the whole point.
When we didn’t get off for good behavior, we tried less subtle approaches. Steph stood up from her mat and I began to fuss with random gear. Still the ranger didn’t take the hint.
Rather than taking a hike, he took off his hat, scratched his brown hair, and sat down on our boulder. Maybe he was just lonely. Maybe he didn’t get a lot of young trekkers through (he wasn’t all that much older than we were). Or maybe—and I was beginning to catch a whiff of this being the case—he was one of those socially inept individuals who go off into the woods for a reason.
A monologue ensued. Steph wandered off. I gazed up at the trees, which were really impressive, tall and straight and monotonous, like a pattern I couldn’t quite parse but recognized as such all the same. But I couldn’t ignore him altogether. Steph didn’t care, but I couldn’t help trying to please. Without looking at the man who had penetrated the solitude of this backcountry experience my sister and I were attempting to shape for ourselves, I made little listening sounds, reflexive uh-huhs and hmmms and whatever blips of noise signal permission to go on. Feeling safe in all that open space, I didn’t see, but should have, the age-old equation for disaster taking shape: a tone-deaf man, and a young woman pitying his loneliness.
Fortunately, the ranger eventually ran himself out of talk.
“Well, I’d better get going,” he said, sighing to suggest he’d take any excuse to stay put.
Steph and I made no sounds or sudden movements.
“Good fucking riddance,” Steph said before his khaki back was out of view.
I shushed her and we stood frozen a few more moments, just in case. Then, when the ranger was out of sight, we snapped into action, assembling our dragonfly burner, pumping white gas, pouring water into a pan, selecting which freeze-dried dinner we’d dine upon that night. Cooking supper was my favorite part of being out in the woods with my sister. We were so close in age and experience that we didn’t need punch lines or topic segues or accusations or any of those other rhetorical frills that less familiar people need to communicate.
We ate perched upon our boulder as evening crept into the forest. While I washed our metal dishes and set them upside down to dry on the rock, Steph tromped off into the woods to hang our bear bags in the trees. When the light got dim, we lit our candle lantern and continued to sit out. Our afternoon rest meant that, for once, we weren’t zipping ourselves into our tent for the night in broad daylight. We could see a swathe of Milky Way above the clearing of our campsite. With a quick reminder of the elevation of the ridge we would cross over the next morning, Steph got in the tent to read her way to sleep. But I wasn’t ready to join her. I got out my journal and pen, rigged my flashlight into a headlamp by tying it to my head with a bandana, and sat down on the ground to write about solitude and silence.
I was starting to think I liked the wilderness, that there was an element of thrill to it, to this humming, empty night I sat in. The hiking, the ten-miles-a-day trudge, I could do without, but to be out like that, alone in the deepening night, was nice. It didn’t feel safe, exactly, not with fire precautions and bear bags and all the charred and twisted trees we’d seen, and especially not with the squeezing in of the night noises beyond the flimsy shelter of our nylon tent, the insects and snapping twigs and strange calls and, worst of all, the silences that made it seem as though trees, mountains, lake and sky were all holding their alpine breath. It didn’t feel safe, but it felt real. One could die in the woods, I thought, but almost by definition one could not die an unnatural death. And that was something.
Ensconced as I was communing with my journal, the movement in my peripheral vision did not register at first. But when it did, even though I did not raise my head and with it my light, my heart sent one wild thunderclap that spread white and cold from core to extremity. There were two blue-white lights moving in the forest.
Flashlights. Two flashlights. Bobbing in the distance.
Adrenaline lit up my blood. My ears and eyes refocused, became hyper-alert as my body registered danger ahead of my brain.
Then my brain surged ahead.
Fucker, it thought, pieces sliding instantaneously into place. Tone-deaf man, pitying woman. In daylight, the ranger hadn’t seemed dangerous, but here he was in the dark, back again, and he had brought a friend.
I tried to squelch this thought as quickly as it came. Maybe I was ahead of myself. Maybe these were just hikers behind schedule, looking for their campsite. Maybe they were camped in our same forest but were out for a night hike. It was a beautiful night, after all.
But I didn’t believe these stories I told myself. It had to be that ranger. And if it was, the situation was beyond unfair. In the wild, there are predators and prey. There is a food chain, a cycle of life, the fit trying—by wit and grit and will—to survive. But few species prey upon their own. There are rules, goddammit. But even in the backcountry, in the deep of night, we sisters would have to duck and dodge and talk down and maybe even run.
Furious at this realization, I raised my face—and with it my own flashlight beam—to look out into the broken night.
As I did, the blue lights turned round and white in uncanny unison. Slowly—or so that second seemed—my eyes began to see through my preemptive imaginings. The lights moving before me quivered, liquid. They weren’t flashlights, but the reflection of my own flashlight, two watery moons. My tunnel vision panned out a bit, let in the shape of the silhouette that contained those moons. Moons that were eyes in the head of the bear who sat three yards in front of me.
In the following moments, I would still my body. I would call—softly, so as not to startle either her or our visitor—to my sister in the tent.
“Bear,” I would say. “A big one. What do I do?”
I wasn’t one for playing dead, but this wilderness, and not that other one I’d thought I’d seen, was her area of expertise.
Steph wasn’t about to play this one by the books.
“Get in the tent!” my sister hissed.
I would leap then, in one strange levitating motion from where I sat through the opening tent flap. We would hold hands and laugh nervously and sleep badly all night long while our visitor jangled our metal cups and plates against the boulder, snuffling for any scrap.
But before the calling and hissing and diving and laughing, I would feel a deep relief.
A bear. Hallelujah. In that deep night, in those grand, starlit mountains, it was just a bear.
Photo by Gido Gerland