Travel journal: expectations and the unexpected, Part II

Now entering bear country

“You smell like a bowl of fruit,” the cashier said as she swiped granola bars, bug spray, and hand sanitizer over the scanner and made them beep. I raised my wrist to my nose and took a furtive sniff. Sweat, maybe a hint of the body spray I use, but not the banana, apple, pineapple melange suggested.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing to smell like a fruit bowl? I didn’t ask. She didn’t answer. But it stuck with me, this random judgment from the cashier at Target, on the day before vacation.

It’s funny what comes to mind in moments of stress and panic. Years ago, during an armed robbery at work, as I stared at the barrel of the gun, I felt sweat trickle down my sides. At that moment, I didn’t think of life and death. I remembered I forgot to use deodorant that morning. So, is it any surprise I thought of smelling like fruit salad as our little hiking party of two adults and a five-year-old child slipped into the shaded corridor of a pine forest in Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago? It would be the first of a growing list of things that felt wrong about this hike.

We decided we’d had enough of this tourist crap, maneuvering through crowds of bus and RV travelers, camera toting, and big ice cream cone eating tourists looking for the souvenir shops. On our fourth visit to this grand park, we wanted a genuine backcountry hike. The real thing. Like we used to do so many years before.

We picked an almost deserted place and found the trailhead. This is the land of grizzly and black bears, of the roving bison and reclusive moose. None of them friendly types. I scanned the grassy basin flanked by snow-capped mountains surrounding the forest. Seeing nothing large anywhere near or far, we entered the woods.

Almost immediately, I thought about my fruit-bowl aroma, wafting through the wilderness and perhaps right up the nose of a hungry bear. I thought about the canister of bear spray still sitting on the kitchen counter back at the cabin. I thought about the book I started reading in the cabin, the one about bear attacks in Yellowstone and Glacier National parks and the mistakes of both experienced hikers and  hunters as well as ignorant tourists.  I had this overwhelming feeling of being watched in a deserted place.

As a daily meditator, I know how hard it is to train yourself to stay still and silent for long periods of time. Know what’s even harder? Training yourself to make noise and be hyper-aware while on a walk through dreamy woods and fields.

As suggested by the experts, I broke the muffled silence with loud talking. I whooped and clapped my hands and urged Girl from the East to sing her kindergarten songs. We three, clad in hiking boots, shorts and T-shirts, each toting water bottles, were not really outfitted for this walk.

As I scanned the woods, the clearings, the bushes, and the wetlands for signs of wildlife, while trying to shake the feeling of dread that gripped me by the collar and threatened to strangle,  I spotted a large fresh print in a muddy runoff intersecting the trail. Although we are not sure, my husband and I were certain it was a bear, whether grizzly or black bear, we didn’t know. My husband seemed assured that nothing would happen, that I was overreacting. He had, after all, spent large chunks of his formative years in this very wilderness.

I wasn’t sure of anything.


Twelve years ago  I visited Montana for the first time. My first night, there was no room in the guest bunk house. I was handed a flashlight and directed toward a tent pitched in the woods near the edge of a rushing river. I was both frightened and exhilarated. A year later as newlyweds, my husband and I returned to the canyon bunk house, which we’d use as a base for our  14-mile round trip trek to a camp in national forest. We stayed for  several nights, lived from whatever fish we caught. We filtered water from a mountain spring, hung our food and other odorous supplies in a tree, slept far from where we cooked and ate.

One morning I awakened to heavy footsteps on the ground and a snuffling sound outside the tent. I froze in mortal fear, believing a bear was outside the tent. I was alone. I didn’t know here my husband had gone and was too afraid to call out. I counted to ten, 20, 30. I sat up and quietly unzipped the window cover. Relief. It was a trail guide’s horse tethered to a tree.


Warning bells rang in my head when I heard a yapping/yelping sound coming from the underbrush to my right.  I did not recognize that sound; had never heard it before. We had to turn around and get out.  Was it the book I’d been reading? Was it a mother’s intuition/a sixth sense? I didn’t care.

When we reached the car I felt small relief. Something spooked me in those woods and I’m not sure all of it was paranoia. It stayed with me on the short drive to Canyon Village, the next intersection. It stayed with me as I got out of the car and entered the gas station to buy water. In the women’s room, I found this taped to the mirror:

We were hiking less than three miles from where this happened 24 hours earlier. Granted, three miles separated by waterfalls and the grand canyon of Yellowstone, but we didn’t know this when we read the press release. We knew nothing when we paid our entry fee at the gate. It was not posted in any of the visitor centers I entered. It felt like a secret, although I know that’s ridiculous since it was all over the news. But we hadn’t watched any TV. Didn’t have Internet access or phone service.

I thought of the fresh track in the mud,  of the yapping sound in the bushes, of the forest closing in on me like a dark cloak. The next stop on the road was the site of the attack. All trails and roads were closed, with signs posted warning of bear danger. An area that is generally teeming with cars and tourists was almost empty. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Top arrow is where we were; bottom arrow is where the mauling happened

Even though I was spooked by the hike and the startling news, I didn’t want to leave the park. We stayed until the sunset. We did see a mother bear and her cubs ambling about on a grassy incline next to the road, but it was from the safety of our car.

I thought about my gut feeling. That sixth sense. I’ve read about it and I’ve been told to trust it, especially in situations with potential danger.

I’m glad I listened.

Today, this.

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Travel journal: the unexpected, Part I

Town of six buildings includes a coffee barn

To sum up my vacation: bears and bars.

The dichotomy of obsessing about grizzly bears and full Internet connection on the same trip is puzzling even to me.

Let me explain. I had in mind a somewhat outdoorsy trip. I wanted to do some challenging hiking and climbing, but I also knew that with a five-year-old in tow I was not going backcountry camping. So, I left the tent at home and instead hauled my laptop computer and digital camera along so that I could post daily. (I don’t know what made me think I’d post more while on vacation than I do at home.)

The plan died a quick death. Immediately outside Wisconsin, I began experiencing spotty service. When we arrived in southwest Montana, it became clear there would be no Internet unless I was willing to make an effort to find it. Phone service? Forget it. So much for the mighty Android on Verizon. No bars for this girl.

Feeling like a pouty baby who lost her binky, I wondered when connectivity became a vacation priority. For a while, I let my disappointment and frustration cloud the treasures laid out before me. I realized I’d once again become disconnected from nature. My online world threatened to dominate my life.  And damn is it hard to shake that monkey off your back. (Later into the vacation during a mountain climb, I almost lost my footing on algae-slicked log stretched across a rushing stream. I didn’t think about hypothermia or broken bones or a bruised ego that would follow a spill, I thought about my camera and phone tucked in my daypack and what would I do if they got wet.)

Here we were in this rugged canyon a few miles outside national forest north of Yellowstone National Park. While the cabin had modern amenities such as a dishwasher and a laundry room, only the log walls and metal roof separated us from true wilderness. Hike a small distance outside the door and find mountain lion tracks and animal bones. Signs and notices beg us to remember we are in grizzly country. On the kitchen counter, nestled with the salt and pepper and sugar, is a large canister of bear spray. (More on this in the next post.)

Here we are for a week in what we called a cabin; the proprietors market it as a retreat. After discovering a little wooden buddha carved from a log and perched amid the landscaping, I knew I had to honor the sentiment. I was on a retreat. I took my morning coffee alone on the wooden deck overlooking the valley.  I attempted to memorize the zigzag horizon carved by rock and pine. I inhaled the stiff breeze infused with sage, juniper, and ponderosa pine. I listened to the sighs and whistles of wind sliding past limbs and leaves, the mechanical whirr of the unseen humming birds, the roar and gush of the river below.  I sat in the perfect balance and harmony of the world.

I read two books.

I napped by the side of a snowmelt lake.

I scribbled in my paper journal.

I climbed scrubby, rocky mountain sides, my heart racing for signs of wildlife.

Unless we ventured into the valley, we saw no one else. When we did explore, rarely did I see anyone with their attention and energy directed toward a little screen. Folks were casting fly rods, paddling kayaks, hefting backpacks, pedaling mountain bikes, adjusting lenses on cameras, working with horses or cattle on their ranch, or just relaxing. They were living in the now.

I paid attention to that. I pondered this unnameable “thing” that draws me to this part of the country, that opens something inside me that is fused shut most of the time. My mind assembled a scrapbook of images: well-muscled bodies, beautifully weathered natural faces, an ethos of survival and practicality, a need to live on the edge, an understanding that nature is a powerful force, one that you cannot outwit or outrun.

Just when I felt this “thing” infuse every cell in my body, when I was truly a transformed person, we moved on to Wyoming and Colorado. I gained a strong, clear signal. The door to my online world opened, beckoning me to return. The more platforms I opened, the more I realized how one week can set you behind, how easy it is to slip into the endless stream of other people’s minutia. I felt the anxiety boiling inside. I closed the laptop, grabbed a blanket, and huddled outside under a dome of sparkling black. I counted shooting stars.

The Internet is as vast as the universe above. Why does one soothe while the other agitate?

Much of my anxiety stems from too much online and not enough outside. Oh, and then there’s the need for thrills and drama. What of that?

More in the next post.


Travel journal: An apology

Eleven states.

Forty-five hundred miles on the odometer.

Broke in my new hiking boots.

Read two and a half books.

Stitched together dreams large and small.

Scared the hell out of myself.

So little time to post.

Such weak or nonexistent Internet signals.

I lost count of all the stars in the sky.

Living almost off the grid is great for the soul.

It’s not so great for blogging.

I have a few posts simmering.

I need to get caught up on life. (Mine and all of yours, too.)