My Son and the Bear

How do you teach a boy to love the wilderness when you’re terrified of what might happen out there? Hiking with his ten-year-old son, William Broyles confronts his memories of Vietnam–and one very large grizzly. (And three other great essays on fatherhood, from Jack Hitt, W. Hodding Carter, and Anthony Doerr.)

Vietnam bear sons father's day outdoors

Broyles (right) in Vietnam, 1969     Photo: Courtesy of William Broyles

James Broyles, age nine, in the Absarokas, Wyoming

It was just coming light on an early spring morning when my ten-year-old son James and I set out to find Butch Cassidy’s cabin up the East Fork of the Wind River in Wyoming. When Butch owned a ranch in nearby Dubois, he built the hideout in Alkali Basin, a high valley in the mountains above our own cabin. Butch knew about hideouts, and this was a good one. Almost no one ever went up to Alkali Basin. You could be alone in a way you couldn’t be in most places in America.

When I was young, I spent months humping a pack and an M-16 up and down the Annamite Cordillera in Vietnam. It took me years to want to go out in the mountains again, but now nature was my friend, a consoling, calming presence I wanted to share with my son. I could take the time to look at the wildflowers and wonder if that was—yes, it had to be—fringed gentian, there with the lupine and sticky geranium, and wild irises in the damp ground, and columbine, their delicate petals trailing their fragile tails.

Still, in the high mountains of Wyoming, you didn’t just stroll in the woods. On casual walks and horseback rides we’d find wolf tracks the size of my son’s hand. At night we’d lie awake, listening to the howling of the Washakie pack as our dogs cowered under the beds. The wolves had killed an elk just outside our fence, and as James and I set out on our climb we stopped to examine the bones, which had been pulled apart by coyotes, picked clean by ravens, and bleached white by the sun. I cut the ivories out of the lower jaw with my Leatherman and put them in my pocket. They made good bandanna slides, and I always thought that something of the spirit of the elk would protect my kids.

James took the elk’s hip girdle, turned it upside down, and held it to his face, like a primitive mask. He made spooky noises and we laughed. He found one of the femurs and swung it like Reggie Jackson brandishing a bat.

“Pitch to me?”

It was early in the hike to be playing bone ball, but when you came across a skeleton, you made use of it. I found some dried cow patties and pitched one to him.

“Strike one.”

And again.

“Strike two.”

On the third pitch, James swung with all his might. The pattie exploded in a cloud of dusty dung.

“Home run!”

James smiled, thrilled with himself. Already the hike was worth it.

When I picked my pack back up, I realized I’d forgotten the bear spray. There were grizzlies up in the high country. A big male could be twice the size of a lion, weigh up to a third of a ton, and reach nine feet tall when it stood up. It could kill you and then eat you. You weren’t at the top of the food chain and you could feel it, the way when you went surfing in Ventura you could feel that sizzle in your spine that meant a shark was nearby, and you got out of the water even if the waves were good.

I always took bear spray, and usually I took my pistol, too, an old Colt M1911A1 .45 like the one I’d carried in the war. The .45 was basically useless against a grizzly, but I liked carrying it. Bear spray was far better. It could make the fiercest grizzly turn and run, but only if you could get the canister out of the holster, pull back the safety, depress the trigger, and spray it in the bear’s face, all in a split second. I knew how fear could paralyze a man when he wasn’t hardened by daily contact with it. I hadn’t been that man in a long time—the man who could respond with skill to a sudden onset of fear—so I wasn’t sure that if a grizzly suddenly appeared I would be able to do any of those things. I’d started feeling like the mountains belonged to me. I’d gotten soft and lazy like civilians do.

“We’ve got to go back,” I said. “I forgot the bear spray.”

“Aw, Dad, we’re already on the way.”

For a moment I thought about just heading on up. It was a ways back to the cabin, and we had about 3,000 feet of vertical to cover. If I’d been alone I might have let it go, but I had my son along. We headed back.

I grabbed the bear spray from another pack hanging by our cabin door, attached a canister to each of our belts, and quickly reminded James how to use it.

“See, this is the safety. Pull it back, then squeeze down the trigger. Got it?”

“Sure.”

He didn’t look that confident. For a moment I thought of having him practice, but by now the sun was up, so we climbed back over our fence.

THERE WAS NOTHING between us and Yellowstone but a million acres of national forest. We were in the southern Absarokas, near the big Wind River Indian Reservation. Unlike the Wind River Range, which is hard granite carved smooth and clean like Yosemite, the Absarokas are volcanic in origin and sculpted rough and rangy, more like a Gaudí than a Michelangelo.

The land we were climbing was rocky with flint, the meadows were dotted with sage, and in the meadows were worn-down clearings where sage grouse did their mating rituals, throbbing like tom-toms. Every now and then you’d surprise a covey of the big birds. They’d burst up at your feet with a shocking percussive explosion that chilled your spine.

Bare eruptions of sun-dried bentonite lay hidden among the grasses. Some of them were sinkholes that had swallowed up cattle, elk, and moose. Where a creek had carved out the side of one of the sinkholes, we’d found a buffalo skull. The surface looked like solid ground, but if you took a fence rail and poked it, the dried bentonite would jiggle. Poke harder and a gray, thick liquid would pour out like the earth was bleeding. Let go of the fence post and it would sink and disappear.

We made it past the sinkholes and climbed across a narrow bentonite saddle that spanned a deep ravine. You had to be careful on bentonite ridges. If they got any moisture, they would be so slick you could stand still and slide off. Sometimes in the bentonite cliffs we’d find the petrified teeth of ancient crocodiles. They gave off a spooky kind of aura when you held them in your hand.

We followed a narrow game trail around rock outcroppings. Up ahead were yellow fields of arrowleaf balsamroot tucked into the aspen where the sage brush gave out and the grass was green and rich. We surprised an antelope calf that bounded away on spindly legs, whistling for its mother. The mother circled around and bleated at us. I moved between her and my son. You never knew what an animal might do if it thought you were threatening its young.

In the war, I’d walked all day up and down the mountains, carrying a 100-pound pack with only a couple of C-ration crackers and some peanut butter in me. No Gu or Clif Bars or electrolytes, just running on fear—fear and the quiet force of the others. You wanted to quit; it made no sense to walk into the mountains where men waited to kill you. You wanted to hide in the safety of your foxhole. But you didn’t; you went into the mountains because the others were doing it, and you couldn’t be the first to quit. So we all kept going, and most of us came back.

We’d been climbing a couple of hours when I realized we hadn’t seen any black bears this spring. Usually, if the black bears were here, the grizzlies weren’t. But if the grizzlies moved in, they would often kill the black bears or chase them away. Predators don’t want other predators around. The silence up on the mountain felt different now.

I’d started coming to the cabin when my older son, James’s brother, David, went off to Iraq. He’d enlisted after 9/11 and became an Air Force pararescueman, a special operations medic. Each time he went to Iraq or Afghanistan, I couldn’t watch the news, I couldn’t answer the phone at night, I was racked with nightmares. I was helpless to protect him. I knew no one with a son in the war. All the people I knew went on with their lives as if on another part of the planet men and women weren’t dying and killing every day.

My parents had been through the same thing when I was in Vietnam, and I imagine my father’s parents also had in World War II, and my grandfather’s parents in World War I, going back through the Spanish­-American War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and all the wars my family’s men had gone off to, mostly for reasons long since forgotten. My parents built their own cabin on a remote East Texas lake and retreated there, with no phone or newspapers, just as I had to my cabin up the East Fork.

At any hour of the day, anyplace, the nightmare visions come to me: my children kidnapped by serial killers, swept off the sides of mountains by avalanches, bucked off my horses, hit by a cab on the streets of New York. Their parachutes don’t open, their blood doesn’t clot, the ambulance doesn’t arrive in time. And always, I can’t do anything about it. When that fear came upon me I wanted to hold my children close, keep them in my sight. I wanted to get away from everything that reminded me how far away my son David was, how little anyone else even knew or cared.

I could still see the tiny dot that was our cabin far down the valley. It looked safe.

“Let’s go down,” I said.

“No, Dad, please. I want to see Butch’s cabin.”

“It doesn’t feel right. I’m tired.”

I didn’t want to tell him I was afraid I couldn’t protect him.

“Please, Dad. We’re almost there. I’ll carry your pack.”

That made me smile. I thought about what I was doing. Because I was afraid for one son, I was about to treat the other son like a fearful child and not the confident young man I wanted him to be.

“OK, let’s head up.”

THE WOODS THE TRAIL went through seemed to shimmer. I didn’t want to go into them. I turned and led us off-trail.

“We can bushwhack a while.”

I was looking for a shorter way to get to the high ridge, where the trees weren’t so thick, but we had to go through thick deadfall to get there. The pine beetle had invaded the high forests. Not only the limber pines but also the big old Douglas firs were dead. When the beetles killed a tree, the needles turned red, then gray, then fell to the ground. The dead needles were dry and crisp under our boots. It was like walking through a graveyard. A mule deer stared at us in a small clearing, then bounded away.

In the shadows I lost my bearings. There’s nothing like the feeling of being lost in the woods, especially when people are depending on you to know where you are, and even more when you are scared. In the war, I’d once been so lost that when I called in a spotting round of white phosphorous, I scanned the hostile mountains for miles and couldn’t see a thing. I was in charge of 50 men, and every single one of them knew I didn’t have a clue where we were. I couldn’t call in artillery, I couldn’t call in a medevac, I couldn’t get us rescued. I was lucky I didn’t get us all killed.

A few minutes later, James and I reached the top of the ridge and worked our way down toward Alkali Basin. The woods were quiet, the deadfall had thinned out, and on the trail we could move smoothly and let our thoughts wander. But I was still scanning, looking for the pattern that didn’t belong. In Vietnam you learned to stare into the jungle, looking for that patch of color, that sharp angle, that nature never made. A friend of mine was ambushed in a clearing wreathed in the most beautiful flowers he’d ever seen, so beautiful he didn’t look past them. It took him a split second longer than it should have to register the sound of the AK-47’s.

We came out in the Basin, a high green meadow with a spring that became a creek winding lazily through banks of wildflowers. The ground was soft and mushy from the snowmelt. Our feet were wet, but we didn’t care. The basin was a vision of an iconic, unspoiled western Eden. Marlboro Man commercials were filmed here back in the 1960s.

Butch had set his cabin far enough back in the woods so you couldn’t see it from the basin. There was a trick to finding it. You had to look just off the meadow for the ruins of an old wickiup in a stand of limber pine. The Shoshone had made it out of tree trunks. A few poles were still left, leaning into the crook of another tree. Every year there were fewer poles, and it was harder and harder to find.

“Here it is!” James called out.

“Excellent.”

“How many steps north, Dad?”

“Forty-two.”

James began to step them off, taking giant strides, the size he imagined mine were.

I followed him, relaxed now, and happy. It wasn’t long before we turned into the woods. The shadows were dense, and it was cold out of the sun. At first we couldn’t find the cabin, then James spotted the ruins of the old corral. We pushed deeper into the woods, and there the cabin was. The logs had been crudely cut and laid together at the joint. The chinking was long gone, if there’d been any, and the roof was fallen in. But you could stand in the cabin and look out through the door and have a good firing position in case anyone came too close. There was something safe about it.

We sat down on a sunny log in front of the cabin and ate our lunch in pleasant silence. The log was damp and soaked our trousers, but we didn’t care. After a while, James looked over at me.

“So, Dad, did Butch really die down there in Bolivia? Like in the movie?”

“They say so.”

“Do you say so?”

“Well, a lot of people say they saw Butch and Etta Place years later, that they’d come back and started a store over in the Oregon badlands. Minded their own business.”

James thought a little.

“I hope so.”

“Me, too. But it doesn’t make as good a story. You really couldn’t end the movie with Butch giving change to kids for candy canes.”

“I’d like that ending better.”

“You’d like the candy canes.”

James smiled. “So they died of old age, then.”

I smiled back and stared off into the woods. That had been my own prayer, back in Vietnam. Dear Lord, let me die of old age. And let me die before my children do. Amen.

WE PACKED UP our trash and headed over to the saddle that led down to our cabin. I was feeling safe and content, so I decided we’d go back down the main trail. We jumped the rivulets of snowmelt, keeping our eyes on the ground to avoid the wettest patches.

Suddenly something moved in front of us. Something big, followed by two smaller movements.

It took a moment to realize what they were, the same way it takes just an instant to realize that you are being ambushed, or your car is fishtailing on ice, or you’re having a heart attack. This isn’t happening to me, that’s always the first reaction. And then comes the cold fear.

Yes. It is.

The big movement was a grizzly sow, and the two smaller movements were her cubs. I pushed James behind me, ripped my bear spray out of its holster, and pulled back the safety.

The bear spray was like the CS gas we’d used in the war. When they trained you with it, they filled a container with gas and sent you in with a gas mask on. Right away your crotch and your armpits started to sting, and then they pulled your gas mask off and told you to sing the Marine Corps hymn, and before you could get out “From the Halls of Montezuma” you gagged, and your lungs and eyes were on fire, and there was nothing human left in you: no intelligence, no poetry, no music, no love. You just wanted to get out of there. That was what I was counting on.

I spoke to James without taking my eye off the grizzly.

“Get your bear spray.”

James fumbled to pull it out of the holster.

The bear turned and saw us. It was upwind, which was why it hadn’t caught our scent. The sow stood up on her hind legs. She was enormous, magnificent, terrifying. The cubs circled around her legs, watching their mother. I had my son. She had her cubs.

I thought of charging the bear, running at it with the bear spray, yelling and pulling the trigger, hoping I’d startle her and she’d run. But she’d never retreat without her cubs. And besides, I’d only run into the spray myself, choke, and be helpless.

I glanced down at James. He had the bear spray pointed back in his own face. Damn that I hadn’t made him practice! I’d assumed that today would be a normal day, that we really wouldn’t need the bear spray, like we’d never needed it before. The bear scanned its head side to side but didn’t take its eyes off us. I thought of telling James to run, but the grizzly could run down a deer. I stood still. And the bear stood still. The cubs huddled at her feet.

She’s going to charge, I thought, and this thought like the others was nothing rational like I write it here, not the methodical sorting of options, just a cloud of flashing synapses, fragmentary hesitations, and each moment I stood still took the choices away. I cursed myself for coming here, for going back to the mountains, for putting my son in danger.

I wanted my pistol. I reached with my other hand for the .45, but the holster strap wouldn’t come loose. I’d have to put down the bear spray and lift it off with my other hand, but I couldn’t abandon the bear spray to do that. I’d have to chamber a round and it could jam and it would be too easy to miss or to wound the bear and make it madder.

The bear dropped to all fours and took a step toward us. It could be a false charge, to scare us away, but I didn’t think so. She had those new cubs, and she was still hungry and mad from the winter, and we were a threat. I kneeled down to make myself smaller, and pulled James down beside me.

The breeze picked up and blew in our faces. The bear spray would be useless. All I could do was pray that the bear would pull up right in front of us. But I knew that was unlikely, and once it had tasted our blood it would maul us both. If it didn’t kill us, there was no way we’d get back down if we were hurt. We were off the grid, the way I’d wanted it. There was no way to contact anyone for help. It was just me, my son, and the bear.

Mountain climbers call this an objective hazard, something out of your control, like an avalanche or a storm, or a hold on the rock that breaks. In the war, you could walk over a booby-trapped 105 round, and the next man walked over it, too, and the next, and then the fourth man stepped on it. Why him—why not me? There were no answers. Somewhere in the brain of this beast, a decision was being made. Would we live or die?

The next few moments exist for me out of time. My memories are fragmented, my recollections perhaps altered by imagination and nightmares. I do remember holding my son and turning away from the bear, and knowing that my part in this was over. The bear had center stage, but I didn’t see its star turn. I heard something crashing across the brush, I felt a beastly power rolling toward me, I smelled a foul rank mist, and then I remember—nothing.

Once, when we were ambushed in the mountains west of Da Nang, I could see twigs and leaves flying off branches, I could see big pocks ripped out of the nearby mud, I could feel vibrations in the air, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The intensity of the experience had turned off one of my senses. The bear’s charge wasn’t exactly that, but it was close. I chose not to look. I wanted only to feel my son’s body against mine.

“Dad?”

I heard James’s voice. If he was talking he was still alive, and if I heard him so was I.

I looked down at him, just then realizing how tightly I was holding him.

“I think it’s gone,” James said.

I turned and looked and saw the grizzly lead her cubs into the woods. For a long moment I sat on the ground with my son. Neither of us wanted to move. Finally, we stood up.

“Thank you,” I muttered, barely able to speak. I hadn’t realized I’d been shaking so hard.

I gently took James’s bear spray and turned it around.

“You aim it like this.”

Next time we came to the mountains we’d be ready, not that it would make any difference. We hadn’t earned a next time. The bear had given it to us. Grace came as a gift from unexpected givers. And if you weren’t grateful, if you didn’t thank God or nature or the Great Spirit for your life, your children, for being granted the moment to walk on the earth, then a bear might as well eat you and shit you out as a green puddle.

You could get a big house and an expensive car, send your kids to the right schools and give parties for people like yourself, but there would always be that booby trap on the path, the ambush from the flowers, the grizzly in the woods, waiting for you.

We made a wide circle away from where the grizzly and her cubs had gone into the woods, crossed the saddle, and headed down the mountain, walking fast. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin.

We’d be safe there.

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