I’ve been a week in the wilderness. I’ve not seen another human in that time, or let a sound escape my lips. I am deep in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness, a 150,000 acre tract between the 6 Rivers and Mendocino Nat’l Forests.
Southbound view from Dead Puppy Ridge
Water has been my biggest struggle this trip — despite record precipitation this year, in August the soil in most places is bone dry. The pines grow through jumbled stone and thin, thirsty dust, and where fire has not struck recently, huge sugar pines grow through the thick needle humus with a topping of crunchy twigs. Twice, I ran out of water an hour or more before finding the next spring even though I am carrying 5 liters at a time.
The fantastic, life-saving trickle known as Cherry Spring
Now, on the last day, I am cutting cross country to take a mile and a half off my route. I am again low on water, and got an early start in the morning without breakfast. I’m out of bars and everything else needs water to cook properly. I figure I will find my car before long, and will have all the water and Chef Boyardee I can handle.
The day goes on and on — I started early and by around 2pm I still have not see the road, or the trail I should intersect with. While my body complains, there is a place I can go to put one foot in front of the other despite the developing blisters, thirst, and hunger. Each 500 foot ridge-line has the promise to be the last, though it never seems to quite be the one.
You can imagine my exhaustion.
I find an unusually well-traveled game trail—more like a game highway—to follow westward alongside a steep ridge. I stop to listen. A pair of angry birds are tweeting a tirade up ahead in a pine tree next to the game trail I am following. Visibility is reliably 20 yards, fading to absolutely nothing at 40 through the thick brush. I hear breaking branches occasionally—something much larger than a bird is in the tree. Pausing to peer upward through the brush, I catch sight of brownish fur.
How exciting! While I cannot make out the entire animal, I can tell as it moves it has a fairly small frame. It can’t be more than 150 lbs. I take out my phone for a picture and creep closer, shooting video along the way.
I arrive 20 yards to the trunk, tree still obscured through the brush. At this point, the bear descends and I realize that it is more like 45-50 lbs. And he had a companion—another bear about the same size. Cubs. They take off northwards up the slope at a run. On video, I pause, remember that “I wonder where the mother bear is?” are famous last words, then lean over to put the phone down. What comes next is off video.
45-50 yards southwards, downslope from me, I hear the “Unh!” of a mother bear’s warning, followed by the oncoming thrashing of brush as she rushes upslope. Condition One. In an instant, I have thrown my phone, hit my pack release, and filled my hand with my only defense—a 14 inch machete—before the pack has hit the ground. I try to find balanced, defensive footing on the steep slope. 35 yards. I can make out her cinnamon brown fur through the trees. I let loose from my throat with what fills my belly. It’s a new, foreign emotion for me.
I’ve experienced intense fear for my life before—this isn’t fear. It’s not quite fatalism either—it is not hopeless. It is, partially, conviction. The conviction that whatever happens according to fate, I will acquit myself according to the highest ideal of what I am capable. It is a wordless promise to her that should our fundamental natures collide, there is no victory for her, no matter what happens to me.
It is also a primal desire for life, not the fear of its absence or pain.
To be honest, I wish I had the video still running at that point—I don’t actually know what it sounded like.
She turns at 15 yards or so down the slope to head westward parallel to the trail, then eventually turns south down the hill. Her warning grunt has turned to a sort of heartbreaking wail. I start talking with her, using words this time, the first words I have used all week. Sorry, mom, I’m not here for you or your kids. I load up again after about ten minutes, and continue my hike.
It turns out that was the last ridge line—I find the road 40 minutes later. I am about a half mile north of my car. When I arrive, I eat two cans of Chef Boyardee and drink more than a liter of water. A measure of Centenario Reposado and the last of my 2014 vintage Golden Slice are a special bonus, an unimaginable pleasure coming from the backcountry. I live to enjoy another day, with a new perspective on what living can mean.
I will plug into that power again in my everyday life. It is not fear. It is the essential power that is the end of fear. I also appreciate that, when taken liberally, this medicine has destroyed nations and men. Nonetheless, it is indispensable to those who want to achieve the impossible, and I am glad to add it to my toolkit.