The trouble is, nature does not come naturally to people in my world. It is not something we just do, like walk. It’s a thing we sign up for, train for, save for.
Before the bear came it was a grab bag of small miseries—the standard discomforts of a coastal person who basically spends his time inside. I wasn’t sure if I had gotten any sleep. My pack’s straps had abraded symmetric blisters on my collarbone. I had tweaked my back by lying on my side, and my legs by curling them up. I needed to go to the bathroom but kept deciding that it wasn’t worth the trouble. My body temperature had been oscillating wildly: I’d been getting cold, then putting on a layer or two, then sweating, then dropping into chills. And my stomach was churning—I hoped not from “beaver fever.”
But then, panic. A pounding, spiraling, helpless panic, the kind you might feel—that I once did feel—when bracing for impact on an airplane about to make an emergency landing.
Just outside our three-man tent I had heard the signatures of ursine curiosity: heavy footsteps, panting, and every so often a terrible silence in which the two of us, the thing and I, would freeze, and tighten, and turn the dials way up on all our senses and wonder what sort of mind was likewise poised on the other side of the thin fabric.
I had no useful equipment inside the tent and no plan and so I simply sat there and feared, and between the fearing hoped, this hope consisting in the image of dawn breaking, and the other guys waking up, and a swift hike through berry thickets back to our minivan, 5.2 miles away, where I’d find my way to the nearest town and get me some ostentatious comfort, something like a massage and an episode of Cheers. No, I thought, camping is not manful adventure, it’s misery—and the only tolerable risk of a bear attack is exactly zero.
This was a revolution in my thinking from even just a day before. That the western side of Glacier National Park was dense with bears was clear enough from the maps and signs, and clearer still from the dozen clumps of fresh scat along a nearby trail. My friend saw one just outside the campsite; so did that couple—they said it was massive. They said, too, that they heard another one poking around last night. In fact this place was so conspicuously teeming with bears that in the event of my tragic mauling my family and friends could very sensibly think to themselves, “He was asking for it.”
And of course I was.
NOT TOO LONG AGO I was in a Starbucks near New York University waiting to use the bathroom. A young guy about my age comes out. I see that he’s carrying an oversized colorful object, so I ask him, “Is that the bathroom key?” and he says, “Yeah, it is.” This is some kind of luck, because most times when a Starbucks bathroom requires a key, you don’t know it until you get to the door—and then you have to go ask someone at the register for it.
“Do you mind if I grab that from you?”